Her splendor: Gavin Lambert’s page-turner of a biography captures the magic of Hollywood legend Natalie Wood
Natalie Wood: A Life * Gavin Lambert * Knopf * $25.95
“I first met her in the fall of 1956, when I was working as Nick Ray’s personal assistant and living with him in his Chateau Marmont bungalow,” Gavin Lambert notes matter-of-factly on page 220 of Natalie Wood: A Life. “After she left, Nick described in his laconic way how they were quickly attracted to each other when he interviewed her for the part in Rebel Without a Cause: and he seemed offhandedly proud of having taken her virginity.”
That’s fairly shocking in and of itself. But then on page 221 Lambert tops it, relating a meeting he had with Wood in the 1960s when she was preparing to star in his adaptation of his great Hollywood novel Inside Daisy Clover. “I recalled our first meeting at the Chateau Marmont, and the gleam of curiosity in her eyes. ‘I was wondering exactly what was going on with you and Nick Ray,’ Natalie said. ‘What was going on.’ I said, ‘was exactly what you wondered.'”
That the brilliant bisexual filmmaker Nicholas Ray was the one degree of separation between a noted novelist, screenwriter, and film historian and one of the most iconic stars the motion picture industry has ever produced may sound pretty damn sensational. But as Lambert relates it in this scrupulously written and highly insightful book it was just an ironic twist of fate. Even if he hadn’t met her through Ray or come to work with her years later on Inside Daisy Clover, Lambert would have wanted to write a biography of Natalie Wood. Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, and Splendor in the grass will enthrall audiences as long as celluloid or video copies of these films exist. Central to their success is the startling beauty and sadly underrated talent of Wood. And Lambert, whose nonfiction works include Norma Shearer, On Cukor, Nazimova, and Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, is the ideal writer to illuminate it.
One of the very few child stars to make the transition to adult roles, Wood arrived as the studio system was on the wane. Yet unlike so many others, she managed to prove herself adaptable to the shifting demands of Hollywood over three tumultuous decades in which she married, divorced, and remarried actor Robert Wagner–with a marriage to agent Richard Gregson and a host of affairs in between.
And this in turn brings up the gay angle, for besides Nicholas Ray, Natalie Wood was the “Grace” to an army of Hollywood “Wills,” including James Dean, Tab Hunter, Nick Adams, Scott Marlowe, and Raymond Burr. The brilliant but utterly self-loathing Jerome Robbins even asked her to marry him. No fool, she politely declined, preferring to do her part for gay history by supporting Mart Crowley in a manner that made it possible for him to write his seminal The Boys in the Band. He had planned to do something for her by adapting Dorothy Baker’s novel about twin sisters. Cassandra at the Wedding, for the screen. But Hollywood wasn’t ready for twin Natalie Woods–one of whom would have been a lesbian.
Lord knows it would be just the ticket for today. But we’ll have to content ourselves with the movies she did manage to leave behind and be grateful that Gavin Lambert was given the opportunity to illuminate her life so well.
Ehrenstein is the author of Open Secret: Gay Hollywood. 1928-2000.
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