...Ethereal "The Birthday of a Swan"
You know how some people like to open a new novel and read the last page first? I’m like that with Old Hollywood movie stars. Now, it’s not so much that I like to see their “final movie” first. It’s more that I insist on seeing it period. I’d feel gypped without it – cheated of the supremely important “final curtain call,” perhaps quite literally. Sometime, somehow, I’m finding that last movie – and I’m rollin’ tape.
To me, every person has a story. That includes myself. Likewise, every actress or actor has a story. They are their own character, outside of the on-screen characters that they play. And, like their characters, there is an arc to both their life and their career. There is the “debut” – “A chubby baby born in 1905 Illinois grows up to grace the silver screen as debonair ‘So And So’ in their first film, Academy Award-winning film ‘ABC’.” Then there is the “prime” period – usually lasts about ten years, in which the artist can do no wrong. Sure, they might be “box office poison” for a few films, but they usually bounce back – in requisite spectacular, glamorous fashion. They are known and adored by the world.
Finally, there is a “goodbye.” The actress or actor might abruptly leave Hollywood to focus on parenthood, or perhaps their movies merely taper off – just as Old Westerns lost their audience, or the grand production sets and big-time period pieces of the 1960s died off to make room for the realistic grit of 1970s cinema. They who had their niche has now “faded into the sunset,” again, perhaps quite literally.
You then sometimes hear about the actress or actor’s “death.” After all, Old Hollywood is “old” for a reason. You think about the amazing characters that they had inhabited, masterfully bestowed unto the world. And what about their real life? Did they enjoy being an artist? Did they realize what they were part of, or was the seduction more money and fame? Finally, did they scorn their old age and how, just like their characters and career, they knew that they, too, would one day die? No amount of comedy or tragedy, career high or low, can save them from their own inevitable swan-song. Like their career, their life has that one “final film.”
For me, the sweetest swan-song of Old Hollywood is Natalie Wood. I can’t think of one more unexpected, sad, poetic, and touching. Of course, there is the irony that she was only forty-three years “old” when she tragically drowned. She left behind two small, beautiful daughters. Then there is the legend that a fortune-teller years earlier had predicted she would die by drowning – quite chilling, unstoppable fate a la a Hollywood movie. She was enjoying a break from filming “Brainstorm” with Christopher Walken and Louise Fletcher when she mysteriously drowned, at night, off her boat near Catalina Island, California. It was 1981.
When I think of Natalie Wood, I of course think of her first big hit, considered her “debut” – 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street.” She was just a small, incredibly sweet child. Even then, her acting felt strong, pitch perfect. But, more often, I think of her from the 1960s in “Splendor in the Grass” and then “Inside Daisy Clover” and “This Property Is Condemned.” I loved her ability to convey complexities, vulnerabilities. She was willing to “go deep” with her characters, emotionally and physically. She was one of the first actresses, or even possibly the first, to show full “back” nudity in a major film – the bathtub scene with her mother in “Splendor in the Grass.” It was a big thing for cinema at the time.
I also loved her beautiful femininity. Her dark hair and big doe eyes were ravishing on-screen. Yet, she epitomized glamour in such a sweet way. She was curvy, but petite – seductive, but still somehow wholesome. She seemed to be a “girl’s girl” both on and off-screen. And, like so many of her on-screen characters, she was rumored to have had extremely rocky times with the men in her life. There was a bittersweetness to many of her characters that seemed to play out in her own life. To me, she was so often a friend, sister, mom who you simply wanted to hug.
In “Brainstorm,” Natalie Wood plays the estranged wife of Christopher Walken’s character, a scientist. She herself is part of a scientific team that has invented a device which looks a lot like today’s Google Glass. The device, when worn, allows a person to experience the sensations of another person’s brain which have been tape recorded. The device is huge and clunky at first, more like a gigantic complicated helmet than a streamlined Google Glass apparatus. It’s a lot like my impressions of a 1981 sci-fi movie – clunky and cumbersome in comparison to today’s.
Then, seeing Natalie Wood with ‘80s permed hair, dark blue designer jeans, and a fuller, clearly older-looking face than her '60s heyday films – my heart softened. Immediately, I felt an aching for this woman who I knew wouldn’t survive to finish making this film. Cinematically, she was evolving and growing. She was playing a role which clearly defied her former ingénue roles of the ‘60s. Not only did she look older and still beautiful, but she was playing older and beautiful – now also sci-fi modern. She was moving with the times. Yet, she wouldn’t survive. My heart sank. My eyes wanted to take in every last ounce of this actress who I'd like to believe had a good soul – and undoubtedly left behind a beautiful cinematic legacy for the world to enjoy. These were her last moments, on film and in life.
Curiously enough, I didn’t even watch all of “Brainstorm.” It was a weeknight and my body is like clockwork. I dozed off on the couch – trying to force my eyelids open with imaginary toothpicks. The toothpicks faded from my imagination as did Natalie Wood, Christopher Walken, and Louise Fletcher in their trippy sci-fi flick made all the more perfectly trippy by the director’s use of Super Panavision 70 – what was used to film 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
Where would Natalie Wood be if she were still alive today? Today, July 20th, is actually her birthday. She would be turning only seventy-eight. She’d be one year younger than Jane Fonda. She very well could’ve lasted to see today’s massive Hollywood action blockbusters and sci-fi movies filled with CGI special effects. Would she have continued on that "sci-fi route" with her acting? My guess is no – as most of her would’ve-been contemporaries aren't doing sci-fi. But, it’s something to imagine.
What would she look like? Would she be happy? I wonder if, wherever she is, her heart aches for the two daughters she left behind. I am sad that Natalie Wood is no longer alive. But, more so, I am incredibly appreciative to have discovered her work and have had the opportunity to enjoy it with family and friends. Her talent was undeniable. Her beauty was enchanting. Her life off-screen was intriguing and ultimately fragile. To me, she will always be that lovely white swan drifting across the surface of the water – that delicate, millimeter place where an artist and real person blur in an ethereal and precious dream.
“A sweet baby girl was born on July 20th, 1938, in San Francisco, California. She would star in some of the most beloved movies of all time. She would be nominated for three Academy Awards. She was Natalie Wood.”