Wednesday, November 30, 2016

This Day in Film History (Natalie Wood in Drowning Death)

Nov. 30, 1981— After a frantic search, the body of actress Natalie Wood was found early in the morning, near Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, hours after a night of drinking and quarreling with husband Robert Wagner aboard his yacht.

That much is known and admitted, not only by Wagner but by the subject of his quarrel with his wife, Christopher Walken, her co-star in Brainstorm. A subsequent investigation determined that, after the fight, she had attempted to board the boat’s dinghy. 

What has become a bone of contention in the years since is how and why Wood came to be there when she had a lifelong fear of deep water.

Coroner Thomas Noguchi issued a report labeling Wood’s death an accident, with Wagner not held responsible. Three years ago, however, after recent news reports raised questions about how much the couple had fought and the nature of Wood’s injuries, the cause of death was changed to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” citing bruises that occurred before Wood entered the water.

Why has this tragedy continued to resonate over the years? It’s not just the elements of scandal—the rumored infidelity and murder—that cling to the event. Nor is it because of a promising career gone before it had barely begun, as with James Dean, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger.

I think Wood continues to fascinate people because she represented touchstones for people’s lives. Millions had watched her as a little girl in Miracle on 34th Street. They had seen her as a teen in Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass, sharing the struggles of adolescence with the boy she loved. They had witnessed her negotiate the terms of lifelong commitment to another human being in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice

In short, they had watched her grow up, passing through the stages of life as they had done.

What they didn’t realize was that, like many of them, she was passing through another stage of life as well: being regarded as obsolescent—old—by the industry for which she worked. 

From all appearances, Wood remained as vibrant and glamorous as ever, as attested to by the photo accompanying this post, a still from Brainstorm. But Hollywood, even more back then than now, was cruel to aging actresses.

The last significant role Wood had played—adulterous soldier’s wife Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity—had been two years before. As Nancy Collins noted in a Newsweek article five years ago, Wood had turned 43 in the same month that she had lost a role she desperately desired: the lead in Sophie’s Choice. It could not have escaped her notice that the actress who won the coveted (and ultimately Oscar-winning) part, Meryl Streep, was a full decade younger.

Wood, then, was at her most vulnerable when she began to act with Walken, caught up in the excitement of interacting with a Method-trained actor. 

Wagner admitted in his memoir Pieces of My Heart to suspicions that his wife might be carrying on “an emotional affair.” He was hardly delighted, then, when Wood invited the younger Walken aboard their boat. 

While Walken prudently walked away to avoid becoming caught up in the couple's fight, Wood and Wagner continued to argue until just before midnight, when she was reported to have gone up to the captain's cabin to sleep. Wagner reported her missing about an hour and a half later.

Last weekend, I saw Wagner appear on TCM with stepdaughter Natasha in a daylong tribute to Wood. He talked easily and happily about his wife's pride in making Inside Daisy Clover and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Then he mentioned the film that would conclude the tribute: Brainstorm.

With Brainstorm on well after midnight, I wasn’t able to see how Wagner dealt with this awkward topic

Beyond mentioning that it was her last film, how could he have freely discussed why she had died during filming? 

How could he say that her death caused such a mess, involving the studio and the insurance company, that it would be two years before it was released? 

How could he tell viewers that the fight that occurred during filming had left young Natasha without her mother?

The name of the couple's luxury yacht, Splendour, referred, of course, to one of Wood's signature roles. But given the circumstances surrounding her death and how much it has haunted those who knew her, it might more aptly have been called the Misery.

Quote of the Day (Penelope Fitzgerald, on ‘Wishing for What Can’t Be’)

“Time given for wishing for what can’t be is not only spent, but wasted, and for all that waste we shall be accountable.” —British novelist Penelope Fitzgerald (1916-2000), The Blue Flower (1997)

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Quote of the Day (Arthur Miller, on Memory)

''Memory keeps folding in upon itself like geologic layers of rock, the deeper strata sometimes appearing on top before they slope downward into the depths again.''—Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life (1987)

Photograph of the American playwright Arthur Miller (1915-2005) from the U.S. State Department.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Quote of the Day (Ogden Nash, on a Door and a Dog)

“A door is what a dog is perpetually on the wrong side of.”— American poet Ogden Nash (1902–1971), "A Dog's Best Friend Is His Illiteracy," in The Private Dining Room (1953)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

This Day in Film History (‘Network,’ Pitch-Black Prophecy of TV News, Debuts)

Nov. 27, 1976—Network, a Swiftian satire on the degradation of broadcast news, debuted to a critical reception that hailed its ensemble cast and savage screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky. Many in the news business, however, including on-air personalities like Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Edwin Newman, complained that the movie was exaggerated and far-fetched. 

In the end, while much of the creative talent associated with Network came away with Oscars, Hollywood bestowed Best Picture honors several months later on the Capraesque fairy tale of a Philadelphia palooka who ends up with a thousand-to-one shot in a heavyweight title bout, Rocky.

Even as I typed this last sentence, however, I realized how reductive, oversimplified and even condescending it was—not unlike Network itself at its worst. For most people, the term “Capraesque”—or, worse, “Capracorn”—evokes films by director Frank Capra filled with ultimate optimism about human beings and faith in American democracy, such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” But there is another entry in Capra’s filmography that could be a cousin of Network: Meet John Doe (1941).

In both movies, a threat to commit suicide (in one case, actual; the other, a hoax) becomes an unexpected media sensation, courtesy of an ambitious, ethics-challenged woman. Before long, a corporate magnate grasps this unfolding story as an opportunity for profits and power—then, when he sees the protagonist’s usefulness eroding, makes him expendable. 

Above all, the two films put under their uncomfortable glare an all-too-credulous American public that can quickly morph into a mob—and, according to a post by Lara G. Fowler on the classic-film blog “Backlots,” offer pointed “reminders of the power of journalism to influence and brainwash.”

Three years ago, on what would have been Chayefsky’s 90th birthday, I wrote a post on Network’s similarities to his earlier Oscar-winning satire of an institution, The Hospital. I thought of simply re-posting this to Facebook. But I watched portions of Network again a few weeks ago—enough to make me realize that I hadn’t even come close to capturing how much it has gained in prophetic witness through the years, even if at points he seems to be using his characters as none-too-subtle mouthpieces for his own views

Ryan Bort of Newsweek, for instance, has described nine Network motifs that figured into the astonishing campaign of Donald Trump (#s 1 and 2:“The latent rage of the American people” and “The allure of anti-establishment rhetoric”). All true enough. 

But at a more basic level, Chayefsky sensed how the ground was shifting under journalism, in ways that grandees such as Cronkite and Chancellor—not to mention once-prominent network execs such as Richard Salant and Richard Wald—were in no real position to appreciate, and that has only gathered momentum with the years:

*Corporate parents’ obsession with news division ratings and favorable demographics: The trigger for the plot of Network is news exec’s Max Schumacher’s reluctance disclosure to his old friend, anchor Howard Beale, that he is being sacked because of plunging viewership, particularly with the young. Now, the days when news divisions were not expected to be profit centers have long since passed, but one thing remains the same: advertisers still look to a desirable demographic segment among  a newscast’s viewership (except that now it is not the baby boomers but the millennials).

*The creation of a fourth news network, given over to sensationalism: Chayefsky may have invented a fourth network as a fictive device to get around questions of whether his nightmare scenario could really occur at CBS, NBC or ABC. But within four years, CNN had come to compete with them for viewers, and 20 years after Network’s premiere, Fox began to specialize in reality programming and, in its news programs, Beale-like shouting news personalities intent on inciting rage among listeners.

*Network vulnerability to a hostile takeover: The behind-the-scenes drama of Network is heightened by the prospect of a corporate acquisition. A decade later, Laurence Tisch’s takeover of CBS marked the point when nightmare became reality, inaugurating an era of mass layoffs, asset sales, and declining moral in the news division. And CBS was soon joined in the griddle with the rest of the "Big Three," with GE's Jack Welch and Bob Wright overseeing NBC and Capital Cities' Tim Murphy and Dan Burke exerting similar tight-fisted control at ABC.

*Exploitation of prime time by terrorists: Chayefsky was horrified by the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich. On September 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists pulled off an even more astonishing example of mass murder, also played out before the TV cameras. 

I couldn’t end this post without highlighting the importance of William Holden in holding the film together. None of the three actors who won Oscars for the movie—Faye Dunaway, Peter Finch, and Beatrice Straight—shared scenes with each other. But Holden interacted with all of them in his role as Schumacher, the troubled, complicated heart who dealt with, in order, their power plays, insanity, and marital rage.

David Lean, who directed him in Bridge on the River Kwai, praised his fearlessness, and there are few more sterling examples than his work here as Schumacher. 

Robert Mitchum, Walter Matthau, Glenn Ford and Gene Hackman were all considered at one point for the part, but it is difficult to imagine any of them improving on Holden’s embodiment of the character. Blogger Sheila O'Malley, in a characteristically perceptive post on the actor’s career, takes note of the “deep crags, blazing blue eyes, and the seriousness behind the straight-up all-American handsomeness” that was all too obvious at this point in his career. But even that only conveys a portion of how much he inhabited the character. 

One of the most bankable leading men of the Fifties, Holden had not taken care of himself—and, two decades later, it showed. But in this last significant role, the bags under the eyes and a whiskey baritone somewhat coarsened by cigarettes only underscored a character who had seen all too much. It was easy to imagine the actor, once the “Golden Boy” of the screen, playing someone who could have been among the golden youths once recruited by Edward R. Murrow, now grimly trying to navigate the shoals of a profession no longer guided by any sense of public spirit. 
Chayefsky was famously insistent on having his script filmed exactly to his specifications. But I wish that director Sidney Lumet could have urged him to tone down Schumacher’s haunted confession to Faye Dunaway’s pitiless younger lover, Diane Christiansen:

“I feel lousy about the pain that I've caused my wife and kids. I feel guilty and conscience-stricken, and all of those things you think sentimental, but which my generation calls simple human decency. And I miss my home, because I'm beginning to get scared shitless, because all of a sudden it's closer to the end than the beginning, and death is suddenly a perceptible thing to me, with definable features.”

Lumet could have argued convincingly that everything in that passage after “scared shitless” could have been left out, as the sight of Holden’s careworn face said far more about Schumacher’s fear of aging and mortality than Chayefsky’s script ever could.