…In relentless pursuit of all performances nominated and won!
June’s Star of the Month on Turner Classic Movies is the beautiful and talented Miss Natalie Wood. Three times a bridesmaid and never a bride with Oscar, Wood nonetheless remains a striking icon in American film. Her sweetness and naivete, balanced by dark yet graceful good looks, struck many a good note with moviegoers in her heyday – and she surely continues to dazzle even today. In this ‘double-feature’ blog, I look at both of her Best Actress nominated roles – Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). Both roles – different in character in many ways – truly highlight Wood’s versatility as an actress.
First case in point for Wood’s versatility: in the very same year she appeared as Maria in the popular West Side Story, Wood made a daring breakthrough with Splendor in the Grass. Written by playwright William Inge and directed by the great Elia Kazan, Splendor showcases Wood and Warren Beatty in earnest and capable performances as teenage lovers enduring sexual repression in 1920s Kansas. Indeed, Wood’s character, Deanie, loves Beatty’s clean-cut, athletic hero Bud so passionately that it drives her to the point of an extreme nervous breakdown when pressures from his father lead him into the arms of another woman (and classmate of Deanie’s) willing to give him more of what he wants. It strikes me inherently that Splendor in the Grass argues a solid case that children inevitably become the product of their parents’ (often unrealistic) expectations as they teeter on the brink of adulthood. Ironically, these teenagers are consistently warned against “going too far” by the very same adults who turn around and indulge in their own bawdy, careless, and excessive behavior. This was the Roaring ’20s, bear in mind, and prohibition was in force, so bootlegging and wild partying was all the rage. One wonders if this was an intentional paradox, especially when a strong counterpoint is provided through a knock-out performance by Barbara Loden as Ginny, Bud’s rebellious flapper sister (it’s a wonder she was not given a Supporting nod). Wood turns in a sweet-voiced, dreamy portrayal as Deanie for the first half of the movie, and I was beginning to find her a tad bit bland. Enter the second hour or so of the film, however (when Deanie endures her breakdown), and Wood switches it out and becomes a powerhouse. She is amazing to watch. By the end of the film, you thoroughly believe that Deanie has, through her personal hardship, learned the lessons she has needed to learn and forced herself to face the past in order to move on with her future (as cliche as it sounds, it is very true). In the pairing with Beatty, Wood provides an apt feminine portrait of yearning against his raging hormonal male urges. In his younger days, Beatty was a very attractive young man and despite some slight hamming it up at the start of the film he, too, was also appropriate for his role. In this, his film debut, he was easily swoon-worthy, and this makes Deanie’s breakdown – due to in large part to Wood’s talent – even more convincing.
The moral proposed by Splendor is rather tragic. It is almost as if the denial of passion and demands of parents with high expectations contributed to the ultimate degradation of two very promising young people. In the end, giving in to their desires may have been pushed them into growing up too fast – yet even by abstaining, they faced trying, desperate circumstances that still forced them to mature way too early. It certainly poses some interesting questions and debate. I have yet to see the Best Actress win from that year (which was Sophia Loren in Two Women), but at this point, I would probably argue that Natalie Wood was, indeed, robbed of a very deserving Oscar with this multi-faceted role. (Side note: look for future Supporting Actress winner Sandy Dennis in a minor role.)
Love with the Proper Stranger, made just 2 years later, presented yet another role with solid chutzpah for Natalie Wood. This time around, she plays an Italian American woman, Angela, who finds herself “in trouble” from a one-night stand with an independent, devil-may-care jazz musician named Rocky (Steve McQueen). When Angela tracks Rocky down and asks him for financial help to obtain an abortion, he sadly does not remember her, and at first brushes her casually aside – as he apparently seems to do with many of the women in his life (see the wonderful Edie Adams in a small role as one of them). Eventually, he agrees to help her out of obligation, but comes to care for her as he discovers the harsh risks she is dangerously undertaking, seemingly on her own.
With lush orchestrations and a Jack Jones-sung title song, one would think this film might surge into sappy romanticism, but given the subject matter at the heart of it, it is surprisingly gritty, even for its two lead stars. Like The Divorcee from 1930 (which I reviewed in my last blog), the director of this film – Robert Mulligan of To Kill a Mockingbird fame – infuses moments between Wood and McQueen with pregnant (oops, forgive the pun), meaningful silences. They’re awkward with one another, but it is in their silences that they draw closer. Both come from extremely loving families – McQueen makes an interesting observation at one point that “it’s worse when they love you so much”; the irony is that they individually wish to escape the familial ties which make them, indeed, who they are. Undeniably, the central question Love with the Proper Stranger poses is whether one could truly base a great, and genuine love upon pure spontaneity. It’s an interesting premise, and a decent script (its only fault being is that it is a little inconsistent and scattered at times) and suitable performances prevent the plot from becoming too corny. There is even a touch of humor towards the end. As with Splendor, do not be fooled by Wood’s pert vivacity and girlish, sweet looks – this is another strongly nuanced and mature portrayal. I enjoyed the spunk Wood put into Angela; she betrays a no-nonsense air that is fitting for the role, and sets her up beautifully for the lessons Angela inevitably needs to learn, and the barriers she needs to break down, throughout the course of the movie. While I don’t consider him an exceptionally strong actor, McQueen plays the reluctant-to-commit card well, and it is easy to see how he is powerless against Angela’s subtle charms. Wood lost the 1963 Oscar to Patricia Neal in Hud.
I’m so happy that with this blog I was able to finally enjoy two of Natalie Wood’s stronger performances. Honestly, I do not think I would have given them much thought otherwise. It is easy to see why she garnered her nominations. Keeping Wood within the spectrum of the precocious little girl who didn’t believe in Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street or the Marni Nixon-dubbed, ethereal Maria of West Side Story – though both great performances – would be a great underestimation of this fabulous actress’s career. Sadly, it was far too short-lived. Her tragic drowning death in 1981 has been the stuff of legendary mystery ever since. It’s simply very sad that we were not able to see more from this very talented woman. No doubt her career would have continued to soar, but we can be thankful she left the film legacy she did.