Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (2020) (TVM)

What Remains Behind

People knew she was smart and exceptionally well organised, says Mia Farrow of her late friend, Natalie Wood. Wood’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner has produced this personal tribute to her mother, assembling film clips, home movies, photographs and interviews with friends, co-stars and her younger sister Courtney Wagner (who says her famous mother is difficult to access), as well as Robert Wagner, to whom Wood was married for the second time at the time of her death in November 1981. Wagner celebrated her 18th birthday with her after she had admired him aged 10 and their subsequent relationship and marriage played out on the covers of magazine, love’s young dream. They co-starred in All the Fine Young Cannibals and fellow cast member George Hamilton says, She made you feel important, not her. Her career ascended to new heights on Splendor in the Grass where she met Elia Kazan’s production assistant, Mart Crowley, extensively interviewed here, who became fast friends with Wood (and subsequently worked on Wagner’s smash hit 80s TV series Hart to Hart.) Contrary to popular belief he and Wagner both deny Warren Beatty broke up the marriage – it was already in trouble. Wagner puts it down to the pressures on her as she went straight to work on West Side Story without the rest of the cast’s rehearsal time. His career was experiencing a lull. They split, he moved to Rome and remained there for 3 years, and had daughter Katie with his next wife, Marion Marshall, Stanley Donen’s ex, becoming stepfather to her sons, (the late) Peter and Joshua Donen. Natasha reads from a letter she found written by her mother, an essay that was intended for publication in Ladies Home Journal but wasn’t released. She describes the two-year affair with Beatty as a collision from start to finish. She was involved with (among others) Frank Sinatra, Henry Jaglom, David Niven Jr and Michael Caine, as well as getting engaged to Arthur Loew Jr and Ladislav Blatnik the shoe king of Venezuela as someone amusingly recalls. She married British writer/producer Richard Gregson and had Natasha but was so besotted with her newborn that Gregson slept with Wood’s secretary and that was that. She and Wagner met at a party, sparks flew, they both cried afterwards and they remarried in July 1972, creating a large happy home on Canon Drive, Beverly Hills where they had a new baby together, daughter Courtney, hired beloved nanny Willy Mae, and had a very busy guest house with his stepsons, her stepchildren and various friends visiting. Josh Donen even moved in at Wood’s invitation, with movie stars and family attending their fabulous parties. It seemed to me that they should be together, says Josh. Friend Richard Benjamin says, It made you feel good to be there. Wood took her foot off the gas in terms of her career rearing her daughters even if Courtney sadly remembers that Wood was Natasha’s mother, while she relied on Willy Mae. She was totally happy. There’s a rewind to Wood’s own childhood, second daughter to a pushy Russian mother who got her noticed during the location shoot for a film in Santa Rosa which led to the family moving to Los Angeles and Orson Welles says in a TV interview, I was her first leading man, referring to Tomorrow Is Forever, when little Natalie Wood as Natasha Gurdin became, was line perfect while he kept fluffing his. Critic Julia Salamon says of her performance in Miracle on 34th Street, there’s no artificeshe was very sure-seeming in who she was. She injured her wrist on a set and covered it up forever after with a big bangle. Her mother constantly told her that a gypsy foretold that her second daughter would be world famous but beware of dark water, inculcating total fear in Wood. She was the sole breadwinner from 12 when her father Nick got injured and at the same time she entered regular school but had no airs or graces as her schoolfriend recalls. Daughter Natasha says, Being the daughter of a narcissistic controlling mother …. that’s played out in so many of her films, on the subject of the hysterical, dramatic, superstitious mother Maria who ran her life, living vicariously through her beautiful and successful child, pushing her on until Wood herself chose to do Rebel Without a Cause, the film which made her finally realise she could act and on the set she had an affair with director Nick Ray, decades her senior. Robert Redford admits she was responsible for his screen career beginning, insisting after she saw him on Broadway that the theatre actor be cast opposite her in Inside Daisy Clover and she just carried me along to This Property Is Condemned. Before that she had discovered on the set of comedy The Great Race that both Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis were paid more and she insisted on parity. But she was in trouble, attending a psychiatrist five days a week, a practice she continued for 8 years, and ODd on pills one weekend during the shoot going to Mart Crowley’s room in her house calling for assistance. She went to hospital and returned to work the next Monday morning. Scenes on the psychiatrist’s couch from Splendour and Penelope are played, as if to state that without Method training Wood was sublimating her problems in the roles she chose. She was brave too. She was the emotional engine behind Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, as Elliott Gould says, Natalie brought what the film needed. She had points in the film, which was very successful and she could afford to pick and choose her projects thereafter. She took a break of almost 5 years to rear her daughters and then made headlines with her return in the big TV movie event, The Cracker Factory. She reinvented herself in terms of cosmetics and styling with Michael Childers, the photographer who made her look as beautiful as she deserved entering her forties, never a good age for an actress. She appeared in From Here to Eternity, a water-cooler mini-series remake of the famous film. She shot The Last Married Couple in America with George Segal and he comments, She was very wise about how she dispensed herself. She was going to be making her first stage appearance in Anastasia. She went to North Carolina to shoot Brainstorm with director Douglas Trumbull. On the subject of their rumored affair, he says with no fuss, There was no physical charisma between her and Christopher Walken. [We can infer what we will given the obvious and forgivable lacunae in the telling of this life]. There is TV coverage of her disappearance off Catalina. Natasha’s face to face chat with Wagner, which dominates the interviews, gets to the point of what happened that fateful night after Thanksgiving 1981 when both stars were home from location shoots, Wood on Brainstorm, Wagner on Hawaii with Hart to Hart. The weather was terrible, stormy and rainy. Walken was a house guest and the arguments between him and Wagner were apparently so awful that people were embarrassed and her friend Delphine Mann wouldn’t go on the boat to Catalina which she now regrets. Josh Donen encouraged Wood to go, which he says he wish he never had. There are tears streaming down Natasha’s face as she listens to the man she calls Daddy Wagner recount what he believes might have happened. It’s a highly uncomfortable sequence as though they’re playing out a therapy session. I was a little high at the time.  It’s devastating. The scene at the house afterwards was surreal, with news crews maintaining a vigil and Elizabeth Taylor and Shirley MacLaine showing up with a crystal ball.  It doesn’t explain anything, certainly not in terms of his being described as a Person of Interest by the LAPD in the reopened case. The family appear to have come to terms with Wood’s loss, although Courtney resorted to drink and drugs as a coping mechanism in the aftermath: she was just seven years old when Wood died. The party was over, she says ruefully. She wound up in rehab. Wagner followed his therapist’s advice following the funeral. They went to Switzerland and celebrated Christmas with his friend David Niven. They went to England and had New Year’s Eve with Natasha’s father Richard Gregson and his wife and children. It was the return to school that was tough.  Nobody handled Wagner dating Jill St John particularly well. St John says she had experience of loss herself – her husband died in a helicopter crash. She says of Wood, Natalie was a life well-lived. For fans of Wood like myself nobody other than Mia Farrow attempts to get to what it was that Wood communicates in her extraordinarily emotive performing style:  Natalie was unique. She doesn’t have a false moment in her movies. The family dismiss the ongoing speculation and are particularly harsh about Wood’s younger sister Lana who clearly believes Wagner knows more than he’s letting on as she restates in interview after interview. Natasha claims that whenever Lana visited she had no interest in her or her sister, just Wood. Perhaps this film is a salve. Natasha is 50 years old this year with a memoir of Wood published and she says she takes comfort in her daughter, Clover, the most healing thing for me. The last image is of Natasha, Clover and Courtney watching clips of Wood onscreen. It doesn’t tell us anything new except to explore Wood’s family’s pain which is searing and affecting and a little raw, 39 years on. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Everything went upside down

The Sea Wolves (1980)

The Sea Wolves

It’s insane and you know it. Put together a plan! During WW2 German submarines are sinking British merchant ships and Intelligence Services believe the information is being radioed from a transmitter on a German ship interned in Goa, Portuguese ie neutral territory so any attack has to be done unconventionally. The Special Operations Executive approach the Territorial Unit of British expatriates – the Calcutta Light Horse – who are all military veterans mostly deployed in civilian life. They are led by Col. Lewis Henry Owain Pugh (Gregory Peck), Col. W.H. Grice (David Niven) and Captain Gavin Stewart (Roger Moore) and they recruit a number of their former colleagues who require a brief training course to reacquaint them with combat before they can hijack and down the ship in question. Jack Cartwright (Trevor Howard) is in no condition to join them but he persuades them and he’s the first to realise that Stewart’s romantic interest ‘Mrs Cromwell’ (Barbara Kellerman) is not who she claims to be. The men’s quarry is the German known as ‘Trompeta’ (Wolf Kahler) and to get to him requires infiltrating diplomatic circles and avoiding being murdered before finally launching a raiding party from a decrepit barge … He was about to kill me – or you. That’s the sort of thing that tends to make me impulsive. What appears to be the first geriaction movie long before the term came into popular usage is actually a true story. This adaptation of James Leasor’s faction book Boarding Party by Reginald Rose takes some liberties and conjures some fictions but it’s all in the name of entertainment. It might seem like the boys from Navarone have been reassembled but eventually it’s Moore who comes to the fore and it’s only a matter of time before he dons a tuxedo and reverts to Bondian type doing a fine job of espionage while romancing the attractive German agent out to kill him (a character created for the film). There’s a gallery of familiar faces, many of whom appeared with Moore in The Wild Geese, from Patrick Macnee and Michael Medwin to Glyn Houston and Terence Longdon, with Faith Brook having a nice bit as Niven’s wife. After the initial setup it’s a rollicking actioner and a fascinating portrait of the colonial life during a war taking place on other territories and is wonderfully shot by Tony Imi on location. The score by Roy Budd has fun with military motifs while the theme song is an arrangement of The Warsaw Concerto by John Addinsell with lyrics by Leslie Bricusse and it’s performed by the redoubtable Matt Monro. Incredibly this was made with the assistance of German survivors of the sunken ship! Dedicated to Lord Louis Mountbatten. Directed by reliable action helmer Andrew V. McLaglen. It starts off like an Hungarian omelette

The Lady Says No (1951)

The Lady Says No.jpg

Everything that’s printed in a book isn’t necessarily so. Globetrotting photographer Bill Shelby (David Niven) is hired by Life magazine to do a photostory on controversial author Dorinda Hatch (Joan Caulfield) whose titular book has triggered a phoney sex war. It turns out she’s a beautiful young woman rather than the battleaxe he expected and she insists on countering his interpretation of his work. Her aunt Alice’s (Frances Bavier) errant husband Matthew (James Robertson Justice, with a wandering Oirish accent!) returns to the family home and Dorinda sets out to prove to Bill that she can seduce men in a local bar and attracts the ire of Goldie (Lenore Lonergan) after winning the affections of her soldier husband Potsy (Henry Jones)… This went out with silent pictures! A film tailor-made for model turned actress Caulfield by her producer/director husband Frank Ross, this is a fluffy battle of the sexes comedy that occasionally contrives to be bright and amusing despite the sometimes strained setups and playing although it quickly runs out of steam. It’s all in the title, really, as Hatch repeatedly refuses to co-operate with Shelby and humiliates him and the chase is gradually reversed, while the mirroring relationships between Aunt Alice and Matthew and Potsy and Goldie reflect the escalating central romance. Peggy Maley does best as a soda jerk in the PX at the military base. I watched a very poor print but this was photographed by the legendary James Wong Howe in sunny coastal California – Pebble Beach, Monterey and Carmel, as well as Fort Ord. Written by Robert W. Russell. Once a woman, always a woman

Bonjour Tristesse (1958)

Bonjour Tristesse Saul Bass poster.jpg

It’s getting out of control. I just wish I were a lot older or a lot younger. Designer Anne (Deborah Kerr) travels to the French Riviera to visit her old lover Raymond (David Niven), the wealthy playboy husband of her recently deceased friend. His pampered seventeen-year old daughter, Cecile (Jean Seberg), afraid that the rather prim Anne’s presence may alter their hedonistic lifestyle, attempts to drive a wedge between the woman and her father, with the help of his latest French mistress Elsa (Mylène Demongeot) when Raymond proposes marriage to Anne.  Little do they know that Anne’s proper attitude hides a fragility that could lead to tragic consequences and when they set their plot in motion everything begins to come undone ... She’s prim, and prissy, and a prude. And a know it all. And I hate her! This adaptation of Françoise Sagan’s slim but shocking bestseller by Arthur Laurents has lost none of its power. The father-daughter double act beautifully played by Niven and Seberg has the sense of perversion and decadence that twists the material’s bittersweet threads into something that still raises eyebrows:  incest, perhaps? Producer/director Svengali Otto Preminger once again subjects his famous young Saint Joan protegée to a kind of trial of inquiry – this time for her libertinism – in a flavoursome morality tale that delineates corruption with admirable precision as the pieces are moved into place.  Stunningly imagined in widescreen, in both monochrome and colour, by cinematographer Georges Périnal, with a classic score by Georges Auric and that legendary title song, performed by Juliette Gréco. The poster is of course the work of Saul Bass. Beautiful, scandalous and compelling, this is where the Nouvelle Vague begins. Anne had made me look at myself for the first time in my life. And that turned me against her – dead against her

Separate Tables (1958)

Separate Tables.jpg

The trouble about being on the side of right, as one sees it, is that one often finds oneself in the company of such very questionable allies. During the off-season at the Beauregard Hotel by the English seaside, the secrets of some guests are exposed. Lovely but vulnerable Ann Shankland (Rita Hayworth) travels to the hotel in hopes of starting over with her ex-husband, John (Burt Lancaster) unaware that that he is secretly engaged to Pat Cooper (Wendy Hiller), the manageress of the hotel. Meanwhile, Mrs. Railton-Bell (Gladys Cooper) and her shy and bullied daughter Sibyl (Deborah Kerr) discover the hidden truth about resident guest, the debonair war hero Major Pollack (David Niven)… When you’re together, you slash each other to pieces. When you’re alone, you slash yourselves to pieces.Terence Rattigan isn’t fashionable now although there was a revival of sorts in the West End a few years ago but in the Fifties he was quite the name to drop:  an exponent of what we might term drawing room drama with a deep emotional core, delving into the hypocrisies of the middle classes and the everyday deceptions practised to make the day pass without incident. This is derived from two of his one-act plays. Niven won the Academy Award for Best Actor even though his role is of the supporting variety:  it’s a virtuoso display of fraudulence, disappointment and delusion and his relationship with Kerr is terribly touching. Together they are horribly lonely in this study of morality and behaviour. The array of relationships and how they intersect and resound dramatically is expertly explored by screenwriter John Gay and an uncredited John Michael Hayes who always had a wonderful way with words – double-talk being his speciality. Hayworth’s impact as the elegant lonely lady is something to behold:  stardom in action, overcoming an underwritten role. She was married to co-producer James Hill (part of the production company with Lancaster and Harold Hecht). Kerr essays a combination of timidity and hysteria – quite a balancing act – in the shadow of her harridan mother Cooper, who is terrifying. Wendy Hiller won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress as the dignified proprietor facing emotional loss. Cathleen Nesbitt has a lovely role as the compassionate Lady Matheson. This is a world in which the mass of folk are misfits who lead lives of quiet desperation constrained by the mores of their time. Ain’t that the truth! Directed with sustained tension by Delbert Mann with a sympathetic score by David Raksin and some marvellous editing by Marjorie Fowler.  Why have you told so many awful lies? 

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

The Bishops Wife.jpg

Sometimes angels rush in where fools fear to tread. Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven) is struggling to raise funds to build a cathedral and beseeches heaven for guidance.  He is visited immediately by Dudley (Cary Grant), who claims to be an angel. Henry is septical, then gets annoyed when Dudley ingratiates himself into the household as his assistant – and worse, wins the attentions of Henry’s kind wife Julia (Loretta Young). When Dudley continues to intervene in Henry’s struggles, the bishop decides to challenge heaven as he now has to repair his marriage too … I was praying for a cathedral./ No, Henry. You were praying for guidance. Adapted by Leonardo Bercovici and Robert E. Sherwood (with uncredited additions by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder) from Robert Nathan’s 1928 novel, this is an irresistible seasonal fantasy. It’s about faith and love and the blend of stars is unexpectedly successful – a surfeit of charm and wit combine to lend weight and wit to the more spiritual aspects. This, after all is about how to become more human. To quote Loretta Young in the trailer, It’s quite the most unusual film Sam Goldwyn has ever made. A beautiful film for a special time of year. And if that’s not enough, it’s got Monty Woolley as Professor Wutheridge with Gladys Cooper, Elsa Lanchester and Regis Toomey bringing up the rear. Did I mention that it’s beautifully shot by Gregg Toland? This is classic Christmas charm. Enough said. Directed by Henry Koster.  Let us ask ourselves what he would wish for most… and then let each put in his share. Loving kindness, warm hearts and the stretched out hand of tolerance. All the shining gifts that make peace on earth.

I Was Monty’s Double (1958)

I Was Montys Double.jpg

That was bloody close.  Before the planned D-Day landings the British Government is spreading disinformation to distract German attention from the Normandy beaches.  Two intelligence officers, Colonel Logan (Cecil Parker) and Major Harvey (John Mills) are running the operation but they are initially unable to devise such a plan.  One night at the theatre in London Harvey sees an actor do a convincing impression of General Bernard Montgomery. He is M.E. Clifton James, in the army Pay Corps stationed in Leicester and the officers hire him to act as a decoy – playing Montgomery doing a tour of North Africa. After studying him and meeting him, he is dispatched to Gibraltar where the British anticipate that a known German agent Karl Nielson (Marius Goring) posing as a businessman will encounter him and hopefully inform Berlin. ‘Monty’ is accompanied by Harvey who is promoted to Brigadier to act as his aide de camp. When the British learn that the Germans are moving their panzer divisions away from Normandy this ‘Monty’ is sequestered in a North African house until it is safe to return him to his original job but the Germans have other ideas …  Adapted from the autobiography of M.E. Clifton James by Bryan Forbes (who plays a crucial role in the penultimate sequence) this is a spry and suspenseful account of Operation Copperhead.  Told efficiently, with James playing himself – and Monty! – it moves quickly and two scenes in particular are handled very well by director John Guillermin:  when Nielson meets Monty it transpires it’s for the second time – a shocker;  and the inevitable kidnapping.  With a brisk score by John Addison and a good turn by Mills, one of the many in the Fifties that encapsulates his particular brand of British masculinity, this is an entertaining account of yet another Believe It Or Not from WW2: the gift that just keeps on giving, especially when you realise that the man who actually recruited Clifton James was none other than … David Niven! There are good supporting roles for Michael Hordern, Leslie Phillips with James Hayter, Sid James and Sam Kydd down the ensemble.

Raffles (1939)

Raffles 1939.jpg

This isn’t the first time I’ve set a thief to catch a thief.  Famous cricketer A.J. Raffles (David Niven) is a man about town welcomed in high society which he uses to his advantage in his secret career as ‘The Amateur Cracksman’, a master burglar and safecracker who is always one step ahead of Scotland Yard teasing homeowners and returning their possessions intact. His old school friend Bunny Manders (Douglas Walton) reintroduces Raffles to his sister Gwen (Olivia de Havilland) with whom Raffles had been infatuated a decade ago. Raffles falls in love with her. When Bunny confides a crushing gambling debt of £1,000 over which he is considering suicide, Raffles assures him the money can be obtained. He accepts a weekend invitation to the country house of Lord and Lady Melrose (Lionel Pape and Dame May Whitty) – Lady Melrose’s famous jewellery can solve Bunny’s problem. But another guest is Inspector MacKenzie of the Yard (Douglas Digges) passing incognito, who clearly suspects Raffles of being the Cracksman. Raffles plots to frame a petty criminal with the jewel theft and keep the jewellery until the policeman seems to get one up on him and Gwen begins to suspect his motivations … E.W. Hornung’s short story collection about the gentleman cat burglar had already been adapted, including nine years earlier by Sidney Howard who gets a posthumous credit here, along with John van Druten (with suspected uncredited work by F. Scott Fitzgerald). It’s a typical classical Hollywood view of upper class Britishness with beautiful production design, pacy direction by Sam Wood (with uncredited work by William Wyler) and lovely characterisation by the leads.  Crisp entertainment from Sam Goldwyn’s company.

Casino Royale (1967)

Casino Royale 1967.jpg

You are joke shop spies, gentlemen.  The original James Bond (David Niven) is the debonair spy, now retired and living a peaceful existence. He is reluctantly called back into duty when the mysterious organization SMERSH begins assassinating British secret agents (through the medium of sex) and he is impersonated by six impostors and his return to service includes taking on the villainous Le Chiffre (Orson Welles) and baccarat expert Evelyn Tremble (Peter Sellers) who is hired by Vesper Lynd (Ursula Andress, the greatest Bond girl of all!) to be yet another iteration of the great spy as she plays both ends against the middle.  Then there’s Bond’s bumbling nephew, Jimmy Bond (Woody Allen)… Producer Charles Feldman acquired the rights to Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel in 1960 but despite protracted negotiations with Eon could never agree terms so decided to send it up – everyone else was making Bond spoofs, so why shouldn’t he?  Wolf Mankowitz, John Law and Michael Sayers play fast and loose with the source and it’s directed variously by Ken Hughes, John Huston (who gets blown up early on in the film as M/McTarry), Joseph McGrath, Robert Parrish and an uncredited Richard Talmadge. Niven has fun in the film’s early sequence overlong though it is stretching credibility at its occasionally joyless spoofing. However there are compensations – Ursula and Peter’s sidelong romance;  motormouth comic Allen becoming silenced in the presence of his famous uncle;  Welles doing a magic trick. And what about Bond finding his illegitimate daughter Mata Bond (Joanna Pettet) by Mata Hari?! Meta is the word. And I love seeing Charles Boyer and George Raft (as himself!), Deborah Kerr sending up her Oirish accent from Black Narcissus playing the nun-wannabe widow of Huston, French spy spoofer Jean-Paul Belmondo, TV stars Ronnie Corbett and Derek Nimmo (and Catweazle plays Q!) with starlets Jacky (Jacqueline) Bisset and Alexandra Bastedo. Mad and quite bad it might be – there’s a flying saucer! And cowboys! – but heck it’s also a lot of fun, dated as it is. The cinematography by Jack Hildyard, Nicolas Roeg and John Wilcox is decadence itself. And then there’s the Burt Bacharach soundtrack and that song:  the desert island classic…