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

Angel Face (1952)

Angel Face

I only ask questions and I love to dance. When wealthy Beverly Hills denizen Mrs. Catherine Tremayne (Barbara O’Neill) is mysteriously poisoned with gas, ambulance driver Frank Jessup (Robert Mitchum) meets her refined but sensuous stepdaughter Diane (Jean Simmons), who quickly pursues and infatuates him, taking him away from his hospital receptionist girlfriend Mary (Mona Freeman) who expects to marry him. Diane’s father Charles Tremayne (Herbert Marshall) is a formerly successful novelist who hasn’t written a word in a year and indulges his daughter. Diane persuades Frank to work as her family’s chauffeur and asks her stepmother to give him money to fund the former racing driver’s plan for a garage of his own. Despite fearing that Diane’s hatred of her mother could lead her to kill her, Frank goes along with her plan to run away but then both her stepmother and father have an accident and he finds himself embroiled in a court case … One acquires bad habits so early. Producer/director Otto Preminger spins a deeply subversive noir melodrama out of Frank Nugent and Oscar Millard’s screenplay (from a story by Chester Erskine) with uncredited contributions from Ben Hecht, almost removing the drama so that when the violence occurs – twice – it comes as more of a surprise than it would in a conventionally mounted suspenser. Mitchum is great as the sap who says he won’t be caught as the innocent bystander, while Simmons unleashes her inner demon to great effect. In their smaller roles, Marshall plays a typical Englishman albeit one whose charm has run out for his wealthy wife due to his spendthrift ways; while Mona Freeman is fine as the girlfriend who knows only too well she can’t outcompete Simmons. Leon Ames and Jim Backus have fun in the courtroom face-off. There’s a a lyrically misleading score from Dimitri Tiomkin and it’s beautifully shot by Harry Stradling. Quietly brilliant. All I want is you. I can’t let you go – I won’t

The Party’s Just Beginning (2018)

The Partys Just Beginning

Fuck you for leaving me. Liusaidh (pronounced Lucy) (Karen Gillan) is a 24-year-old woman from Inverness in Scotland. Stuck in a dead-end job selling cheese at a supermarket, she spends her evenings binge drinking and having sex in the alley with strangers. She is coping with the suicide of her best friend, Alistair (Matthew Beard) who died by jumping off a bridge in front of a train almost a year earlier after struggling with his homosexuality and decision to transition to female due to his unrequited love for door to door evangelist Ben (Jamie Quinn). Liusaidh keeps flashing back to the previous year with Alistair. She meets a stranger (Lee Pace) at a bar and has sex with him in his hotel room. He tracks her down and the two have a few more sexual encounters before he informs her that he is returning home and takes a call from his young daughter who lives with his ex-wife. Walking home at night after another night out, Liusaidh passes the bridge where Alistair committed suicide. She is surprised to see the stranger there, apparently about to kill himself, and she manages to talk him down. The two spend time together and though Liusaidh asks him to stay, he decides to leave, this time for real. Before he does Liusaidh tells him her name, and he tells her that his name is Dale. She is fired from her job after she misses several days of work, and spirals further out of control. On Christmas, the anniversary of Alistair’s death, she blacks out and is gang raped by three men after she’s blacked out following a boozy night. She goes home to see her mother (Siobhan Redmond) still socializing with her friends (including Daniela Nardini – so good to see her again). On the phone she talks to the unnamed old man she has been talking to throughout the film, who abandoned his children after his wife died. She opens up about what happened and cries. Her estranged father overhears the conversation, and when she tries to leave for the night he tries to talk to her but she is suicidal … You are literally changing your gender to be with this guy. This occasionally ugly ode to self-harm has echoes of the French New Wave and its focus on the female protagonist specifically reminds one of Agnès Varda’s work but it has a lot of flaws in tone and the lack of plot clarity and spatial distinction reinforces this (I misunderstood the concluding twist which has to do with the house phone being supposedly mistaken as a help line – I think).  Actor Karen Gillan is making her writing and directing debut and she is a fearless performer whose Scottish origins call to mind that great contemporary author Alan Warner who has similarly dealt inventively with bereavement and hedonism in the story of a Scottish shop assistant in Morvern Callar, filmed with Samantha Morton. Gillan is matched by the wonderful Pace as Dale and there are some interesting scenes with Redmond and some ‘amusing’ ones with Liusaidh’s friend Donna who is a truly atrocious stepmother. The pitch from drama to black comedy doesn’t work, but the comedy works better than the drama. However overall it’s let down by a terrible sound mix which is an affliction shared by many recent low budget productions and makes it tough to endure beyond the confused treatment of the subject matter and Alastair’s tragic gay character with Pepijn Caudron’s score blasting us all over the shop and into kingdom come, millennial style.  It’s time to wake up now

 

Another Woman (1988)

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She can’t allow herself to feel. The second wife of professor Ken (Ian Holm) with whom she had an adulterous affair while his wife Kathy (Betty Buckley) was suffering from ovarian cancer, when fiftysomething philosophy professor Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) rents an apartment to work on a new book, she soon realises that she can hear what’s going on in a neighbouring apartment, which houses a psychiatrist’s office. She becomes captivated by the sessions of a pregnant patient named Hope (Mia Farrow) whom she follows and eventually encounters in an antiques store. As Hope talks about her emotional issues over a long lunch, not only does Marion begin to reevaluate her life and recall the bullying her estranged brother Paul (Harris Yulin) was subjected to by their late father (David Ogden Stiers), she sees her husband lunching with their mutual friend Lydia (Blythe Danner) with whom he is clearly having an intimate relationship. She comes to realise that her coldness has shut her off from friends and family, and she has missed a chance for true love with writer Larry Lewis (Gene Hackman) who apparently made her the subject of his novel after she turned him down for Ken If someone had asked me when I reached my fifties to assess my life, I would have said that I had achieved a decent measure of fulfillment, both personally and professionally. Beyond that, I would say I don’t choose to delve. A remarkably perceptive work from Woody Allen on mid-life femininity and the things women have to do to protect themselves and their sense of self while also making men feel good about themselves. Fully belonging to that part of his oeuvre labelled Bergmanesque and not just because it’s shot by Sven Nykvist, this is sharp, funny, acidly realistic and gimlet-eyed when it comes to the inequality between the sexes:  while a husband plays at adultery (repeatedly), a woman tries to justify her very existence; a man celebrates his fifty years while a woman wonders what she has done with her life; an ex-wife shows up at the house with the detritus of their marriage to find herself socially condemned because she expresses her distress at betrayal. How Rowlands learns about her foibles through other people’s observations is psychologically devastating. The narrative is fearless and pointed in its target – structural misogyny. The peerless Rowlands is great in one of the best women’s roles of the Eighties and Farrow is no less good in a minor key, providing an oppositional image of possibility, with an ensemble of men having it all. I just don’t want to look up when I’m her age and find my life is empty

Deep Impact (1998)

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This is not a videogame, son. One year after teenage astronomer Leo Biederman (Elijah Wood) spots a comet the size of Mount Everest heading for Earth, journalist Jenny Lerner (Téa Leoni) mistakes the scoop of a lifetime for a story about the mistress of the US President Beck (Morgan Freeman). Once she’s allowed into the loop of the Extinction Level Event with the rest of the press pack she finds that with one year to go before it could hit the planet there’s a plan to build a system of caves while a joint US/Russian spacecraft nicknamed Messiah being led by veteran astronaut Captain Sturgeon Tanner (Robert Duvall) is going to try to intercept its path with nuclear weapons … People know you. They trust you. A disaster movie par excellence, this mixes up men on a mission and race against time tropes with ideas about God, friendship, family and the all-pervasive sense of doom that settles upon people learning of an entire planet’s imminent destruction and how they deal with it. Leoni doesn’t quite have the expressivity to offer a mature performance although her particular role is buttressed by the subplot of her unhappiness at her father Jason’s (Maximilian Schell) new marriage while her beloved mother Robin (Vanessa Redgrave) suffers. However the entire drama is well structured and tautly managed. Written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin (as a vague remake of When Worlds Collide, 1951) and expertly handled by Mimi Leder, better known for TV’s ER, some of whose alumni feature here. Let’s go home

Noose for a Lady (1953)

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We’re all of us a little delicate these days. Margaret Hallam (Pamela Alan) is sentenced to death for murdering her manipulative husband and her cousin Simon Gale (Dennis Price) arrives from Uganda determined to prove her innocence with only seven days to clear her name. He works with her stepdaughter Jill (Rona Anderson) to investigate all lines of enquiry including everyone in Margaret’s immediate circle of family, friends and neighbours.  He encounters a situation that could implicate any one of their number because the victim knew each of their past indiscretions and was practising extortion. Meanwhile the clock is ticking and the hangman’s noose awaits but as Simon closes in on the real culprit they start tying up loose ends …  Let’s stop theorizing. A decent B-movie whodunnit, Price sleuthing Poirot-style with the theatrical touch that he gathers all possible suspects at the beginning so that we then follow each plot thread with a little foreknowledge until the twist ending. The revealing of a slew of personal secrets gives a melodramatic spin to things, making it logical that each character has skin in the killing game – except of course more lives are at stake. There’s a shifty housekeeper (Doris Yorke), a man with a sleeping pill habit (Charles Lloyd-Pack), a woman with an illegitimate child (Alison Leggatt), a nasty old gossip (Esma Cannon) and so forth. To heighten tension, the policeman (George Merritt) is given a spot of insight that you’d think would be attributed to Price, whose usual villainous edge is toned down to permit him to play decent and enjoy a spot of romance with Vanessa Lane (Melissa Stribling). The gang is assembled again at the climax, Christie-style and even if you see the outcome telegraphed in advance, it plays very well and there are some good exchanges. Adapted from Gerald Verner’s novel The Whispering Woman by Rex Rienits and stylishly directed by the prolific writer Wolf Rilla in his debut:  this was the first of four features he made in 1953 alone. Shot at Merton Park. So much for Chesterton. This is a miracle that isn’t going to happen

Lizzie (2018)

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Your face is familiar – perhaps it’s the scent that’s throwing me off.  In 1892 Lizzie Borden (Chloë Sevigny) lives a quiet life in Massachusetts under the strict rules established by her father, unscrupulous businessman Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) who has remarried to Abby (Fiona Shaw). Lizzie finds a kindred spirit in the new live-in Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), called ‘Maggie’ by everyone else since her real identity is immaterial, and friendship soon blossoms into a secret romance. Tension mounts in the Borden household, with Mr Borden raping Bridget with his wife’s knowledge, Lizzie’s maternal uncle town constable John Morse (Denis O’Hare) attempting to rape her, and all over the inheritance which will one day be hers and her sister Emma’s (Kim Dickens) but which Lizzie discovers is now intended for Abby. All the while, Andrew is receiving written threats to do with his acquisition of local land … This attachment you’ve formed is unhealthy, and it must end. We all know the rhyme even if we don’t quite know its origins:  Lizzie Borden took an axe, And gave her mother forty whacks; When she saw what she had done, She gave her father forty-one.  How fascinating that one-time It Girl Sevigny shepherded this production and teamed up opposite current It Girl and European art house darling Stewart, who nailed her millennial credentials long ago but took a leftward swerve into seriously good auteur territory. This is almost Bergmanesque in its studied still centre, so that the final sequences revealing in flashbacks the violent axe-murders as they happened, give a virtually orgasmic climax to pent up anger: well if someone brutally killed your pets and served them up for dinner, wouldn’t you? How not to be a parent 101. This refusal of emotionality and virtually flat, undemonstrative performances, until the unleashing, almost deprives us of empathy – but not quite. The stars are terrific in this low-key presentation of a lurid story.  Written by Bryce Kass and impressively directed by Craig William Macneill.  And at last, we are on equal footing, father 

 

 

Harper (1966)

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Why so fast, Harper? You trying to impress me? Struggling private eye Lew Harper (Paul Newman) takes a simple missing-person case that quickly spirals into something much more complex. Elaine Sampson (Lauren Bacall), recently paralysed in a horse-riding accident, wants Harper to find her missing oil baron husband Ralph, but her tempestuous teenage stepdaughter Miranda (Pamela Tiffin) thinks Mrs. Sampson knows more than she’s letting on… The bottom is loaded with nice people, Albert. Only cream and bastards rise. Brilliantly adapted by William Goldman from Ross Macdonald’s 1949 mystery The Moving Target featuring private eye Archer, renamed here because Newman believed the letter ‘H’ to be lucky following Hud and The Hustler. With that team you know it’s filled with zingers, like, Kinky is British for weird. Macdonald’s roots in the post-war noir world are called up in the casting of Bacall, who reminds us that it was The Big Sleep, among other films based on books by the great Raymond Chandler, that brought this style into being. Of course Macdonald’s own interpretation is consciously more mythical than the prototypical Chandler’s, with allusions to Greek tragedy in its familial iterations but it continues in that vein of a ferociously stylish, ironic, delightfully cool appraisal of California’s upper class denizens and their intractable problems. Newman is perfectly cast as a kind of wandering conscience with problems of his own, while Janet Leigh as his ex-wife, Robert Wagner as a playboy, Julie Harris as a junkie musician, Shelley Winters as a faded movie star, Robert Webber as her criminal husband and Albert Hill as a lovelorn lawyer, all add wonderful details to this portrait of a social clique. A flavoursome, perfectly pitched entertainment with lovely widescreen cinematography by Conrad Hall and oh so wittily and precisely staged by director Jack Smight, underscored by the smooth Sixties jazz orchestrations of Johnny Mandel with an original song by Dory and Andre Previn. I used to be a sheriff ’til I passed my literacy test

Labyrinth (1986)

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You remind me of the babe.  Bratty 16-year old Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) must find her young brother Toby (Toby Froud) whose crying is driving her crazy and whom she has wished away to the Jareth the Goblin King (David Bowie), a character in the play she’s rehearsing. To find him she has to enter a maze and has just 13 hours to do so or have her baby brother transformed into a goblin at midnight. With the help of a two-faced dwarf called Hoggle she negotiates all the tests and obstacles including a talking worm, creatures called Fireys who try to remove her head, and a goblin army on the march…  I ask for so little. Just fear me, love me, do as I say and I will be your slave. Nutty enchantment in a musical fantasy collaboration between puppetmaster Jim Henson and illustrator Brian Froud with Monty Python’s Terry Jones providing the screenplay (although other writers were involved:  George Lucas, Laura Phillips, Dennis Lee, Elaine May… and it owes a deal to both Lewis Carroll and Maurice Sendak) which got a roasting upon release but has proven its credentials with the passing of time and is now a determined cult and kids’ classic. Beautifully imagined and executed with a wicked stepmother, a baby in peril and toys that come to magical life in an ancient labyrinth and wicked creatures in the woods, this is just a perfect film fairytale, a story enabling a child to do battle with the grown ups in her life, a darkly romantic and dangerous outside world never far from her door. Bowie’s performance is of course something of legend, while Connelly and the puppets are the mainstay of the ensemble. Do you dare to eat the peach in this phallic kingdom of the subconscious?! Puppetry:  puberty. Discuss. Quite wonderful. You have no power over me!

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

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Villainy wears many masks, none so dangerous as the mask of virtue. in 1799 New York Ichabod Crane (Johnny Depp) is an annoyingly methodical policeman sent to Sleepy Hollow to investigate the decapitations of three people, with the culprit being the legendary apparition, The Headless Horseman. He finds himself completely out of his depth in the New England town where the supernatural competes with real-life wickedness as Baltus Van Tassel (Michael Gambon) tries to divert the earnest interloper’s scientific approach elsewhere yet his daughter Katrina (Christina Ricci) takes a fancy to Ichabod and tries to interest him in spells … It is truth, but truth is not always appearance. Depp makes for a wonderfully squeamish Crane as he bumbles through an assortment of seedy pantomime characters (Richard Griffiths, Ian McDiarmid, Jeffrey Jones and a one-eyed Michael Gough) decorating Andrew Kevin Walker’s adaptation of the Washington Irving classic.  Director Tim Burton has a whale of a time in this dank Gothic landscape devising more ways to behead the victims. Not scary at all! Will you take nothing from Sleepy Hollow that was worth the coming here?