Thursday, June 03, 2010

Actress Files: Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood, Splendor in the Grass
★ ★ ★ ★
(lost the 1961 Best Actress Oscar to Sophia Loren for Two Women)

Why I Waited: Nat²: i.e., Natalie herself, because everything she's ever done has left me somewhere on the spectrum between indifferent and annoyed; and Nathaniel, who has been my dearly valued friend and primary co-conspirator in actress idolatry for seven years and counting. He loves Natalie. I love Nathaniel. By the transitive property, I was hoping I, too, could love Natalie. And people had suggested I could fairly expect a career-best turn...

The Performance: ...and I got one! Granted, I am not ready to call Natalie a great actress, and not just because her ratio of hits to misses is still so lopsided in my book. There is a stiffness in her physical and vocal carriage and a strained look on her face in too many moments of even her strongest turns. Closely in spirit to an earlier performer like Jennifer Jones or Elizabeth Taylor, or more contemporary stars like Naomi Watts, Uma Thurman, or Jennifer Connelly, Natalie always strikes me as having scored a lot of her breaks based on her extraordinary beauty, in ways that both pleased and irked her, and that she therefore devoted herself aggressively to building up credentials on different grounds. It's not just that her talents needed time to catch up with the breathless pace set by her looks and her early precocity, but that her notion of acting took shape rather too strictly as a desire to prove that she is capable of—perhaps even unduly focused on—the kinds of anguish and "emotional depth" that the culture has a hard time associating with such an eye-catching exterior. As with Thurman or Connelly, I often detect an inward, sympathetic connection with the layers of the women she plays, but an unnerving sense that she's trying to broadcast all of them through a disproportionate reliance on knowing smirks, stunned or self-consciously frozen expressions, and hammering gazes. The whole performance may well be roiling in the back of her head or choked on the tip of her tongue, but she's having a hell of time getting it across her features, into her body, or past her teeth, except in the moments when she rather unreservedly shakes it all out.

The ironic thing for me about her triumph in Splendor in the Grass is that her performance initially feels archetypal of all of my usual reservations, and in some ways never fully detaches from them. Nonetheless, gradually but thrillingly, Wood's take on Deanie Loomis reveals itself as a high-wire essay on this very push-pull between beauty and depth, yearning and externalization, expressing an almost dizzying amount of motion but thinking, worrying, constantly, about just what's being expressed, and why. The film starts with a vociferous make-out session between Wood's Deanie and Warren Beatty's Bud Stamper, parked by the side of a waterfall, as much the creation of human engineering as of nature's laws. Director Elia Kazan keeps cutting to these foaming jets of water as head-slappingly literal equivalents for these teenagers' surging hormones, though the image of the dam also resonates. Deanie is stopping Bud from going all the way, less because she wants to than because of a man-made prohibition against being a "loose" girl, the kind that is electrically but too hyperbolically embodied through the first hour of Splendor in the Grass by Kazan's wife, Barbara Loden (whom you'd imagine would have been catnip to Supporting Actress nominators, but no). Beatty is sunk in that "pained" and mush-mouthed narcissism that ruins nearly all his performances until Bonnie and Clyde. Wood lies back in the seat, pushing at him and at us with a strong, uncomplicated expression of yearning and apology. The character and the actress look a bit clogged, inarticulate precisely in their fervent, inchoate desire to be more articulate. The script is by William Inge, a major midcentury playwright who never met an old standby of American small-town living that he couldn't reframe as a hamhanded symbol or distend into a broad cliché.

Kazan clearly has his work cut out for him, and for a long while he seems to be losing. Scene after scene of Splendor in the Grass's opening half tells us exactly the same things about the same characters, the repetition even more aggravating because there's so little subtlety involved in the scenes where we first identify, say, the paternalistic pressures on Beatty's squirmy quarterback-hero, or the steep social climb that Wood's Deanie will have to undertake to hold onto him, or the resentment that her prematurely spinsterish English teacher (Martine Bartlett) feels toward these infatuated lovebirds. The scenes at home with angsty Beatty, wildcat Loden, their tremblingly overbearing oil-tycoon father (Pat Hingle), and their profoundly recessive mother (confusingly not played by Mildred Dunnock) feel like Written on the Wind remade in the logy, pedestrian key of Peyton Place. Across town, Wood achieves a looser, livelier rapport with Audrey Christie, doing superb but self-effacing character work as her mother. They have an early, haunting conversation about how sex, or "coming near to someone," is little but a necessary imposition in the life of a young woman. "Woman" here translates to "future babymaker." Natalie has clearly been listening to Kazan's injunctions about realist acting and improvisation, conspiring with Christie to keep the pitch and cadences of their exchange unpredictable, and fondling some props with a slightly over-deliberate randomness. All those Method actors, hunting for years for another milk bottle, another one of Eva Marie Saint's gloves. Anyway, as ever, Wood's giving the good college try, but for a solid 45 minutes, I felt like I was forced to watch as she murmured the name "Bud..." (or sometimes "Bud...?") in various stages of adoration and whiny pique; as she coped with awkward, rehearsal-level experiments like the scene where Bud comes close to strangling Deanie; and watching passively as Loden's fireworks and Beatty's smug stab at fragility walked off with the movie. It still wasn't feeling like much to walk off with.

But then.

There's a special thrill in seeing a movie and a performance not only seize themselves back from the slow drain of banal inertia but do so in unexpected ways, going so far as to recuperate much of what previously felt unsatisfying. Not quite halfway into Splendor in the Grass, the Stamper family, engorged by their own affluence, holds a Happy New Year 1929 party, which seems all but guaranteed to doom Inge's script to hokey, Cavalcade-style historical literalism. You know Loden will party too hard and probably embarrass everyone, but I wasn't expecting Kazan to hit us with the movie's first pair of truly unnerving spectacles, first as she steals a quick, insolent glance straight at the audience on her way into the men's room, and then as she's carted away by a whole gaggle of young men in tuxedos, agitating rather overtly for an impending gang rape. Bud intercedes just in time (or maybe not? we can't tell...), and there's Deanie behind him again, screaming from the sidelines: "Bud....!" But the ensuing brawl—lit almost entirely by headlights, and thereby comparable to a scene in Kazan's directly preceding Wild River—actually snaps Splendor in the Grass awake, pouring some palpable, bloody stakes into its rhetorical notions about stifled youth, irrepressible libidos, acting according to rules vs. acting out of urges. The scene sends Loden out of the picture, which turns out to be a huge boon to Natalie Wood: she's no longer playing the intimidated foil to a grandiloquent emblem of female sexuality refusing to police itself. Neither, mercifully, is she goaded into filling Loden's shoes. Instead, she inherits the plum assignment of sending Deanie into a barely contained frenzy, unsure of whether to mirror Ginny Stamper and get brutalized for her wantonness or whether to stay put as Deanie Loomis and feel asphyxiated, unhappy, and sexually parsimonious. Even, however, if the character starts thinking in these stark binaries, the actress will quickly demonstrate that she and Kazan have better plans in mind. Meanwhile, it's clearer than ever that Splendor in the Grass is ready to take risks, heightening its spookily quiet but otherwise humdrum soap-operatic aesthetic into a nervier plane, a merging of the bold, confrontational colorism of Some Came Running and the odd, teasing, arrhythmic grammars of Kazan's most daring films, like Baby Doll and Wild River.

Does this mean that Wood gets to finally let loose and show us how she can throw herself into wailing and suffering? No. May I repeat that? No. Deanie gets to embody a more complicated case than the discontentedly repressed good girl who turns into a harlot on fire. To the extent that, during a long sequence surrounding a school dance, Wood does have to convey completely unhindered eroticism—just imagine how strongly you'd have to come on to scare off Warren Beatty—it's only one of several guises that Deanie Loomis adopts, while she's in a kind of identitarian free-fall. I need to describe this with some care, too, because Wood and Kazan concertedly avoid a Three Faces of Eve demonstration of kaleidoscopic personas. They seem intent on showing a Deanie in profound distress, but not a Deanie who is "crazy"; they also seem more interested in capturing a flailing character than in showing you that, Boy!, Natalie Wood can sure snap in a moment from full-on Jezebel to weeping novitiate to shell-shocked patient. Instead, all of these guises and more get excitingly blended into one another, even in those intervals when one of them becomes floridly primary. In Wood's first brilliant scene, she gets called on by that disgusted teacher while she sits in her desk, drifting in a fugue state, stunned at having pushed Bud away, and shocked at what, according to a wildfire of hearsay, she has pushed him into. On top of everything we're already tracking about Deanie as she walks into this classroom, Wood shows us things she hasn't disclosed thus far. For example, Deanie wants her teacher to like her, and has no wish to flout her rules; she does feel that poetry might be speaking to her, though today it's throwing back unwittingly painful reflections of herself; she hates everyone's prying eyes, not because of what it means they know, but because she herself has no idea how she'll react to all of this surveillance, and as her feelings well up, she's terrified of their incoherence. I'll add, too, that the signals Wood gives us here of Deanie being a flawed but at least an intentionally conscientious student only deepens the impression of how uncharacteristically obsessed with Bud she must have been to dawdle and drift so openly in the prior scenes. She's not some budding nympho. She was wild about him.

The good girl, the truant, the rejected lover, the unraveling mind, the school kid who actually cares what adults think about her, the student who cares but doesn't precisely grasp what Wordsworth is saying to her: it's all there. Did they film Splendor in the Grass in sequence? Almost certainly not, but how else to account for the fact that Wood seemed so flatly bottled up before, and so nimble, complicated, and fruitfully pushed onto scary promontories for the entire rest of the movie? Even when she's guilty of being fetishistic or a bit of an exhibitionist about the character's fraying moods, she's much more precise and potent than I've seen her before or since: raving in the bathtub, dunking herself in the reservoir. (Poor, hydrophobic Natalie, beating away at the water.) But this isn't Frances: we aren't swinging on a pendulum between Snake Pit mad scenes and sad, self-righteous lucidities. When Deanie is indeed sent for a while to an institution, Wood doesn't just forget everything that was smart, self-aware, or appealing about this girl before her heart got smashed—before she got simultaneously lanced by everyone she cares about her, for wanting to have sex and for refusing to have it. Deanie quite clearly charms her doctor, and not by coming on all cutesy-poo as the fetching pixie who isn't crazy, just "creative." She looks like she's thinking about herself—not just about Bud, or about her predicament, but about who she is. Wood disconcerts her parents, and she disconcerted me, with a mad, swooping sprint across the hospital grounds to come see them in the visitor's center; not everything about her feels immediately on balance, even in quick impressions like this run. But during the actual scene, she's thoughtful, permeable, and attentive. She sees, all of a sudden, that there's more to her father than she thought, and that her mother is much more seduced by the hormonal dramas of high school than she had understood. Usually these kinds of scenes turn into full-throttle takedowns of the parents, for being autocratic, passive, or both, but Wood manages to seem a bit at sea and a little disturbed while also intrigued at these new insights into her mother and father.

Wood, bless her, does not think that beneath every dutiful student and well-raised grocer's daughter there's a howling hysteric waiting to be unleashed. When she is hysterical, she and Kazan have filled the performance with so many specific choices and environmental triggers that we see what's pushing her, as well as enough linking threads to the "healthier" Deanie that she doesn't feel as though she has erupted into some different, undisciplined imago of herself. She's arresting when she needs to dial it up, gorging her mouth with invisible food while she screams at her mother from that steaming bath, but arresting, too, when she's distant or restrained. The final note in those hospital sequences, where she has otherwise seemed so unexpectedly plucky and restabilized, is a haunting long shot in which she confides her enduring feelings about Bud to a trusted doctor, gripping the door frame and dropping to a verbal and physical hush, while still sustaining this unexpected choice of a angle, anchored clear across the room.

Without giving away too many of Splendor's secrets, and without invoking too august a comparison, the final scenes of Deanie's homecoming and her subsequent, complicated visit to see her former flame offer the only moments in a movie about young love that has ever put me in mind of those devastating hours after Gena Rowlands returns home in A Woman Under the Influence, trying to be herself but also not herself—wanting to release something, but being terrified to, and feeling desperate not to hurt anyone, or bring more hurt on herself. Obviously, Wood is not Rowlands, but who even imagined we'd be able to see Rowlands from here? Deanie gets a final close-up where she either has absorbed Wordsworth's wisdom or else has learned to sedate herself with a homiletic, defanged, anaesthetizing version of that wisdom, to keep her from being bereft at the way sexual puritanism, whether parental or American, finally costs us too much. Especially as applied to the young and passionate, even with good, protective intentions, it can so easily stunt our culture and our individual happiness in bigger, broader ways than the occasional, ostentatious production of a dangerous rebel-livewire like Ginny Stamper. Wood, like Inge, is surprisingly and inspiringly willing not to over-sell some prim, condensed moral, not even the one I've just paraphrased. She holds to the character, not to some dubious, extreme version of the "truth" that she can refract through the character. I don't leave Splendor in the Grass thinking everything she does is flawless, and frankly, I'll probably walk into my next Natalie Wood vehicle with lots of the earlier reservations. But here, she is ambitious, careful, magnetic, touching, and memorable. Just this once, I get the fuss.

The Best Actress Project: 1 More Down, 6 to Go

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Blogger Matt said...

I'm not much of a Natalie Wood fan, either, but I, too, admired this performance; she's my favorite among the 1961 nominees (though I haven't yet seen Sophia Loren in "Two Women.") It's thrilling watching a performer that you'd always thought of as amateurish surprise you with a dynamite performance. (i.e., Parker Posey in "Best in Show.")

1:15 AM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger Andrew K. said...

Even though you precede the essay with all the reasons this may or may not be a fluke, I'll take it. I do love Kazan and Wood (to a slightly lesser degree) and this is a favourite film of mine. I saw this first when I was very young and true no Natalie performance has impressed me as much, but I do love it so...and that final closeup.

2:17 AM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger NATHANIEL R said...

It's not actually MY birthday today but reading this felt like it. It's a birthday gift three days early. So I'll read it again in a few days ;)

My enormous love of Natalie (and the rest of the top 20 or so of my all time fav movie stars) does not put full blinders on. I understand the reservations people have about her work. I have them occassionally too. But usually even in the weaker performances there's a scene or two where I feel she has absolutely nailed the character or the scene or the moment and I'm willing to forgive her her admittedly uneven work in general or within particular performances.

but i love this performance wholeheartedly (as well as Rebel's and Bob & Carol) . And I wish she'd have won the Oscar for it.

I haven't seen the movie in a long time so thanks for being so vivid in the telling.

9:07 AM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger TB said...

I actually shared your feelings about Natalie Wood's performances usually falling on the stiff side, however, I wonder if you've ever seen her turn in Love with a Proper Stranger from 1963? Outstanding work, in my opinion even better than her work in this film. She's actually brilliantly understated and charming. Between seeing that and this, I became a fan, and I have been ever since.

2:50 PM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger CCW said...

Great review, Nick. I grew up worshipping Wood and particularly her work in this film, so reading this brought back fond memories.
It's interesting that you brought up Eva Marie Saint because she actually played Audrey Christie's role in a 1981 made-for-TV adaptation starring Melissa Gilbert as Deanie. I've never seen it so I can't say how good it is, but the supporting cast is certainly interesting (including Michelle Pfeiffer as Ginny, Ned Beatty as Mr. Stamper and Ally Sheedy as Hazel).
In Gilbert's memoir, Prairie Tale, she describes in great detail the complexities of playing Deanie and how she worked closely with acting coach Jeff Corey to help develop the character. It's interesting to see the strong professional parallels between Gilbert and Wood, and I'm really curious to see what Gilbert's Deanie is like.

4:40 PM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

@Matt: Suddenly, I'm preoccupied with the possibility of Posey playing Natalie Wood. Might have worked a few years ago. I should go back and look at Two Women again and I quite like what Piper Laurie brings to The Hustler, but Natalie now feels like a clear choice for the '61 award.

@A:EE: Your list of personal favorites is always so interesting, especially since I never know when I'm hitting one. Between Katharine and Natalie, you've managed to combine Nathaniel's formative experiences with mine. Which, speaking of...

@N: If I had played this correctly, I suppose I would have published this one on 6/6. But I'm glad you liked it, and I know you already know I was thinking of you the whole time.

@Teo: Welcome to the site! I actually don't like her at all in Love with the Proper Stranger, where she seems to me too flat and too literal, without making the character all that appealing. I had more time for McQueen in it. It'd be interesting to revisit it now, though, with Splendor in mind and see how the performance plays.

@CCW: I haven't seen that version, either, though I had heard about it. Pfeiffer as Ginny is intriguing, especially since that's so early in her career, and she has often seemed ambivalent about putting sexuality front and center in her performances. Nice to hear from you!

11:52 PM, June 03, 2010  
Blogger Unknown said...

Melodrama it is, absolutely. Camp quite possibly. But that quiet last scene is one of the most devastating ever on film. I still bawl embarrassingly at it

10:12 PM, July 15, 2017  

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