Sunday, 6 January 2013

And Soon The Darkness: "A Little Ride In Sunny France"

  As a fan of classic horror (including that of the 70s part of the genre) as well as a fan of Pamela Franklin, I had been wanting to see this film for several years and finally got a DVD copy. Robert Fuest, who directed another favorite of mine, "Wuthering Heights" (1970), did a masterful job at conveying the quiet menace and isolated feeling of dread. Two young British nurses, Jane (Franklin), and Cathy (Michele Dotrice, daughter of Roy, sister of Karen), are on a bicycling holiday in rural France, where, unbeknownst to them, a murder of young woman tourist took place a few years before. The assailant was never caught. They are blissfully ignorant of this fact, and a mysterious young man, Paul (Hungarian actor Sandor Eles) catches Cathy's eye when the girls make a stop at a small cafe. Of course, it becomes apparent to the viewers that Paul knows more about the murder than he lets on. He shadows the girls for a while, even visits the cemetery where the unfortunate victim is buried. As to whether or not this is a deliberate red herring or not is revealed as the story progresses.
Jane and Cathy make another stop on the side of the road several miles down from the cafe and rest for a while on the edge of some pretty thick woods. They get into an argument and Jane leaves in a huff, while Cathy finds herself vulnerable to possibly the perpetrator of the aforementioned crime, in a frightening scene that lets one imagine the terror. After a little time has passed, Jane begins to grow concerned for her friend and regrets leaving Cathy alone. However, she is nowhere to be found. The locals seem to know something but as they don't seem to speak English and Jane knows very little French, her confusion and apprehension becomes that of the audience as well. The local British schoolteacher (Clare Kelly) believes that the killer was also a tourist. Paul claims to have worked on the case and offers to help Jane, but her suspicions and his sketchy behavior cause our young heroine to flee from him and try to get assistance elsewhere. The title of the movie is actually very appropriate, despite the fact that the story takes place in broad daylight. The fact that the later the day grows, the darker it will eventually get, signalling doom and possible death. There is also no violence or blood until the climax. Who is the murderer? Paul? One of the townspeople? The local police officer (John Nettleton)? Or has Cathy simply decided to play a joke on her friend? This movie will keep you guessing. Very nice cinematography as well, and the music is quite good, with the exception of the opening and ending credit tune, a bit bizarre considering the tone of the film.

Pamela Franklin never really got the credit she deserved as an actress: she was so convincing in everything I saw her in. Here she is believable as a young nurse caught in a terrifying trap in an unfamiliar country. Dressed simply but nicely throughout, she has a doe-like quality here which makes her seem all the more vulnerable. Michele Dotrice is lovely as well (wish she could have been seen more in films). The late Sandor Eles was unknown to me at the time, but quite good. While not overly menacing or devastatingly handsome, he did possess an interesting charisma. All of the actors cast helped add to the aura of atmospheric suspense. 
"And Soon The Darkness" was recently remade, and no doubt, the Hollywood version will most likely make everything more graphic and obvious. It seems they are running out of ideas. I probably don't have to tell you that I don't think much of remakes in general.

The DVD: The film's theatrical trailer, radio spots and talent bios are included, as well as commentary by director Fuest, screenwriter Brian Clemens and Christopher Lee biographer Jonathan Sothcott. I rate the commentary as okay but I don't know why they bemoan the fact that they did not cast a different actor to play Paul. Did they have someone else in mind? I would like to have heard more about Pamela Franklin as well. Some commentaries I like to listen to more than once; this isn't one of them. It could have been better, but it's not the worst commentary I've ever heard.

In conclusion, this is one suspense film you can watch during the day and still get a good scare. Recommended. 

Monday, 3 September 2012

"A Summer Place": An Endless Love

Why do I love this movie so much? What compelled me at the age of thirteen to watch it on television? I don't know, but I fell in love with the film, and all these years later, I love it still. It was years before my time, and still I felt as though it was an important part of my adolescence.  And now, when I hear Max Steiner's glorious theme, the nostalgic feelings of my own teenage days coming rushing back. By today's standards, "A Summer Place" may seem dated to some, even corny or over-the-top.  However, melodramas of that time, or dare I say it, soap opera melodramas were very different than what makes it to the big screen today. The issues the movie addresses, however, are as relevant now as it was back in 1959.

Significantly for me, this was the first time I saw Sandra Dee in a film, and it was easy to see why she became a pop culture icon.  This, along with her two other films of that same year - "Gidget" and "Imitation Of Life", solidified her status as a teen idol and household name, immortalizing her in the song "Look At Me, I'm Sandra Dee" in "Grease".  At the time when I first viewed the movie, I had no idea the traumatic and tragic circumstances of Sandra's life and what hastened her retirement from the entertainment industry. If I did know, the significance of her character's relationship with her mother would have resonated all the more. Her portrayal is that of an innocent young girl, stifled by her mother's control and inspired by her father's free spirit about being true to and not being ashamed of herself. Her Molly Jorgenson finds herself caught in the middle between her parents and conflicted about whether to act on her feelings toward the dreamboat she meets at Pine Island.

Which brings me to the other teen idol that made a splash in his first starring role: Troy Donahue, here playing Johnny Hunter. Admittedly, he was pretty much a one-trick pony, and his stardom was even shorter-lived than that of his costar. However, he did have a few years of success and a screaming fanbase of teenage girls. Tall, blond, and with a deep voice, his appeal is not hard to see, but acting-wise, well, he was passable at best. But he and Sandra did make a striking onscreen couple and the chemistry was believable. After the success of "A Summer Place", his home studio, Warner Brothers, put him into two other similarly themed films, "Parrish" and "Susan Slade" (both 1961) and both, perhaps not too coincidently, paired him with another new young star, Connie Stevens.

Constance Ford is thoroughly detestable as Molly's mother Helen, who is so frigid, cold, and nasty that you have to wonder how Molly was even conceived in the first place. Indeed, she is definitely a Mommie Dearest, and the scene where her husband Ken (Richard Egan) calls her out on her biases and prejudices rings true all these years later and this scene apparently received a standing ovation when it premiered at New York's Radio City Music Hall. Determined to make sure that her daughter will remain a "good girl" even if it causes her pain, Helen does her best to turn Molly against her father and stop her from loving Johnny.

Egan's performance has more dimension than most less than favorable reviewers have given him credit for. He has a ruggedly handsome quality, yet he has a warmth along with the occasional sternness as a father who not only wants to protect his daughter but also wants her to experience life and love. Inevitably, the conflict between the two, his own loveless marriage and his rekindling an affair with old flame Sylvia Hunter (Dorothy McGuire), who also happens to be Johnny's mother (oh, the drama), causes emotional storms for all involved.

Dorothy McGuire never won an Oscar, and that is one of the many injustices of the Hollywood system. She certainly had enough warmth, humility and talent to be deserving of one. Sylvia, like Ken, was trapped in an empty marriage to the seemingly affluent and wealthy Bart Hunter (Arthur Kennedy, in another standout performance), but in fact he is a drunk, and his family fortune was long gone. Because Ken was not considered a decent prospect for her family, Sylvia had to make a choice, and while Johnny was perhaps the only good thing to come out of her union with Bart, she's had to live a dreary and dull existence.

As if our young lovers don't have enough to deal with, when their parents' divorce their respective spouses and Ken and Sylvia tie the knot, both Molly and Johnny feel angry and betrayed.  While I can certainly understand their viewpoint, Molly's anger toward her father and Johnny's toward his mother did get a little bit tiresome, especially considering that Helen and Bart hardly provided loving environments. Things to come to a head when the kids join the newlyweds at their beach house (designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, ultra-modern '50s design), and they too, find their way back to a level of intimacy that was interrupted when Molly abruptly left Pine Island when Ken and Sylvia's affair was revealed. As Ken puts it, their children take after them, which concerns him. Should Molly and Johnny succumb to their desires? And what will happen if they do?

That's not to say that there are not any campy moments (who can forget Helen's slap, causing Molly to knock over the plastic Christmas tree?), but more often than not, you sympathize with both pairs of lovers and their struggles to listen to their hearts. "We live in a glass house, we're not throwing any stones." With those words, Sylvia and Ken let Molly and Johnny know that they will love and support them no matter what. It might be a tough road, but when you have love, it makes it a little easier. As Ken tells Molly early in the film, "We have one purpose in this life - to love and be loved. That is our sole reason for existence." So, the title means both the place where lovers meet and reunite, but also a place where love and understanding lives. And that, I think, is why this movie still holds up over fifty years later.

I should also add that the novel by Sloan Wilson ("The Man In The Gray Flannel Suit") is excellent as well. Published in 1958, the book has much more detail, more sub-plots and back stories of the characters. I managed to get a first edition hardcover copy that was in excellent condition. It was easy to see why it was such a big bestseller, and why the film was such a box-office smash. And what can be said about the interior design of the locations/sets and the costumes? Not to mention the glorious cinematography and Carmel locations, doubling for Maine. Who wouldn't want to visit?

Bask in the beauty of the California coast, in the beautiful lovers, and whatever feelings or memories "A Summer Place" brings you. In 2007, the movie finally made its long-awaited DVD debut, after having been only available online as out-of-print, pan-and-scan VHS tapes. The Warner Brothers DVD is in widescreen, and the print looks wonderful, with a few scratches here and there and little discoloration. The Dolby sound is fine. The only extra is the theatrical trailer, and while it's interesting to see, it's too bad that the main actors and the director Delmer Daves have all passed on, therefore making a commentary somewhat difficult, but not impossible since there would have to be some film expert or historian who could have provided one. That aside, it's still a worthy addition to any DVD library.

Richard Egan, Troy Donahue, Sandra's mother Mary and other cast members and crew celebrating Sandra's birthday on the set.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

                 Anatomy Of A Stage Parent

What is a stage parent? More importantly, what separates a parent who simply wants the best for their offspring and who want them to achieve what they couldn't, and the ones who want to live vicariously and keep the lifestyle and wealth that their child earns? I'm not a psychologist but I think I have an idea of what strays from normal ambition to perverse domination and exploitation. Child star and later adult character actor Jackie Coogan (1914-1984), filed suit against his mother and stepfather in 1935 for his money that he earned in his childhood acting career and he was awarded only a relatively small sum. Soon thereafter, the Coogan Act was formed - trust funds set up for child actors to protect their earnings. 

These examples from the classic Hollywood era are interesting looks into the dynamic between the star child and the stage parent.

 It's impossible to talk about stage parents without mentioning Natalie Wood (1938-1981), and her mother, Maria Gurdin.  Before the child was even born her mother had apparently been told by a gypsy that her second daughter would be world-famous, and Natalie certainly fit well into Maria's plans. Natalie was her mother's darling, the golden girl - and the youngster would learn that there were both advantages and downsides to that position.  Maria had desperately sought the spotlight herself - and it was through Natalie that she was finally able to achieve some semblance of that dream.  While as a young girl, Natalie had the perks of being a child star, she missed out on the normalcy of childhood, something that she would come to regret later, causing her to ensure that her own children would have the kind of important and natural experiences of growing up that she had missed out on.  When her father's drinking became so out of control that he was unable to hold down jobs for any length of time, Natalie became the family breadwinner, and Maria kept her under tight control. And in something that was very common in these types of households, the other parent and the rest of the children were often pushed into the background.  Natalie rebelled, but inevitably, the strong bond she felt toward Maria and her obligation and loyalty for her family was never far from her mind. Many believe that it was Maria who instilled in Natalie her fear of water, in addition to several other phobias.

 However, as is often the case with parent-child relationships, Natalie was emotionally dependent upon her mother, and despite strains and tensions over the years, never cut her completely out of her life.  She did enjoy acting but at times became worn out from the pressure and publicity.  In her late twenties, she took some time off for herself to relax and explore other interests. Being a wife and mother overjoyed her, but she still loved acting and wanted to return to work, if at first only on a part-time basis. It can be argued that Maria pushed her into acting but Natalie had a natural gift that Maria may have tried to take credit for, but was her daughter's and only her daughter's alone. Natalie's death shattered Maria, who had lived for and through her daughter so much that she seemed to have a hard time separating her own identity from Natalie's. In a rather poignant and sad twist of fate, Maria Gurdin suffered from dementia and Alzheimer's disease in her last years, and perhaps her mind found refuge in the past, reliving those memories of her star child.

  It's also fascinating, in retrospect, to see how Natalie (and some of the other actresses that will also be written about in this post), a few times played roles in her career that had parallels with her own life and parental relationships. Rebel Without A Cause (1955), Splendor In The Grass (1961), This Property Is Condemned (1966) and especially Gypsy (1962) in which she played the title role in burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee's fictionalized and dramatized life story,  may explain why Natalie felt such affinity for these characters. She identified with their struggles, their joys, sorrows, pain and triumphs.  And her performances always ring true.  It may have hit too close to home but she was proud of her work and what it meant to her. 

 Sandra Dee (1944-2005) never managed to escape her mother, Mary Douvan, and even after her mom's death she remained a prisoner of her mother's manipulation and cushioning. Sandy was the focus of Mary's life, and would remain so until her mother's death in 1988.  But Mary ultimately did her child more harm than good. Not only did she live vicariously through her daughter's movie career, but she prevented her from learning how to make decisions for herself or face the realities behind the walls of the house or the studio.  Even Sandra's marriage to Bobby Darin was not able to liberate her from her mother's domination.  But Mary also was guilty of what we now see as one the ultimate acts of parental betrayal - she allowed and turned a blind eye to her second husband's sexual abuse of her daughter. This man, Eugene Douvan, died just before Sandra's acting career took her to Hollywood.

 Sandra's feelings about her stepfather were ambivalent - on the one hand he subjected her to horrendous abuse, but at the same time he gave her boundaries and allowed her to fit in with kids her own age. Mary wanted the perfect little princess who would never grow up, and the only way for Mary to survive the harsh reality of situations was to pretend that it wasn't happening, no matter what it might cost her daughter. Sandra, as a result of this emotional trauma, developed eating disorders and later alcoholism, which, even the fluffiest of magazine pieces and publicity at the time, is hinted at and glossed over. Sandra's son Dodd Darin, his book biography Dream Lovers: The Magnificently Shattered Lives Of Bobby Darin And Sandra Dee, also notices some disturbing things in the fan magazines - Eugene quoted as saying, "I married you just to get Sandy", and another desperately sad and telling theme - Sandra had no real friends outside of the studio. Mary may have been so lonely that she latched onto her daughter as a way of feeling loved and needed, which may explain why she tried to cater to Sandy's every whim. Unfortunately, Mary did not seem to comprehend that she was not helping her daughter, she was making her into an emotional cripple.  Sandra said herself that Mary was the best girlfriend in the world, and the worst mother. Dodd stated he found it nearly impossible to imagine his mother and grandmother apart from one another.  Mary also was in denial about Sandy's problems and to Dodd's knowledge, never took responsibility for her role in the situation. But I do believe that Mary loved her daughter, but her behavior strayed far from a healthy norm. Sandra, to the day she passed, struggled to learn the simple things the rest of us take for granted - shopping, cooking, writing checks, taking care of mundane daily tasks.  It cannot be denied that Mary's influence played a large role in what happened to Sandra.

 Sandra, too, appeared in a few films that emphasized the complexes and tensions of mother-daughter relationships. The Restless Years (1957), A Summer Place and Imitation Of Life (both 1959) not only showed that Sandra could play drama as well as comedy, but one gets the feeling that the emotion she displayed was very real.  Although in Imitation Of Life, her character's problem is the opposite of Sandra's real life situation, you can feel the anger, resentment, pain and longing when she confronts her mother.  The tears do not feel staged or rehearsed, and her words ring true. Whatever Sandra was feeling when she acted those scenes, she conveyed it to the audience in subtle facial expressions and then with compelling words that still have an impact over fifty years later.

Tuesday Weld (b. 1943), who was a fellow classmate of Sandra's in New York, was forced to become the family breadwinner at age three after the death of her father.  Her child model earnings helped to support herself, her mother Yosene Ker Weld, known as Aileen, and two older siblings. Inevitably, this pressure became too much for the little girl to handle. At the age of nine she suffered a nervous breakdown, one year later she had begun drinking heavily, and then before she was twelve, she had lost her virginity and was having relationships with older men. When she was thirteen, a romance ended badly and she attempted suicide. One can only imagine what a whirlwind of emotion and strife this would be for an adult, and Tuesday had this dumped on her plate before she was even a teenager. Despite the turmoil, she made her film debut in the low-budget film Rock Rock Rock! (1956), and became interested in the idea of an acting career. After finding some television work in New York, Tuesday and her family moved to Los Angeles and she began appearing in more films.  However, she continued her interest in older men and wild behavior, causing the press to both scold and admire her for her rebellious attitude.  After her mother tried to control her personal life, Tuesday apparently shot back, "If you don't stop bothering me, I'll quit acting . . .  and then there won't be anymore money for you, Mama."  Tuesday moved out of her mother's house when she was sixteen and bought her own residence.

 While they remained in occasional contact over the years, Tuesday and Aileen never seemed to have truly repaired their relationship. Tuesday resented her mother for taking her childhood away, and for some years even claimed that Aileen was dead, even though it was untrue. Tuesday's roles in Lord Love A Duck (1966) and in particular, Pretty Poison (1968) seem to have some interesting parallels with her personal life in that regard. Tuesday, however, resisted the trappings of stardom and turned down many key films, including Lolita (1962), which she later dismissed by saying, "I didn't have to play Lolita, I was Lolita." She managed to break free of her mother and lived and continues to live on her own terms.  For that she deserves admiration and praise, and her truly offbeat but fascinating body of work has resulted in a large cult following.

Italian actress Pier Angeli (1932-1971) and her mother Enrica had a close relationship that was both emotionally dependent and tension-filled. Pier also, in her late teens, helped support her family when she began acting in films, first in Italy and later in Hollywood, where she was signed by MGM.  Her innocent European charm made her a hit with the fan magazines and her mother's protective influence seemed endearing and proper in the early 1950s.  Her fraternal twin sister Marisa Pavan also became an actress, but she had a much more independent personality that allowed her to live more freely, while Pier was her mother's ideal daughter whom she felt was a way for her to live the dreams that she hadn't been able to have for herself.  Always chaperoned and carefully guarded, many young men, eager to just be able to have a date with the delicately beautiful young woman accepted this rule, although they had very little choice in the matter.  When Pier began seeing the unconventional and rebellious young method actor James Dean, Enrica's radar went into crisis mode and she did anything she could to break up the relationship.  Eventually, her plan worked and Pier agreed to marry singer Vic Damone who fit Enrica's credentials as a husband for her daughter. It was a decision that would have unforeseen and devastating consequences for all involved.

 The marriage lasted a few years and produced a son, but it was a mismatched and doomed union from the start. Damone was jealous and Pier loved being the center of attention and enjoyed innocent flirting.  It has been speculated that the marriage was a violent one and when it ended, Pier and Damone spent several years in a very public custody battle over their child. Pier's career never fully recovered from her decision to break her contract with her studio, which in effect blackballed her and she returned to Europe, where her film work did not have the same momentum as it had when she had left not even ten years before.  Her second marriage was also a mistake, except for the son that came from it, and the protectiveness that had shielded her in her younger years now became a liability as she found the reality of life hard to cope with. Returning to Hollywood in 1971, she hoped to resume her career but her phone wasn't ringing with offers. Then on the morning of September 10, a friend that she was staying with her found her unconscious. In a bizarre and heartbreaking coincidence, as the paramedics tried to revive her, her agent called offering her a guest spot on a television show. Pier never regained consciousness, and her death was ruled a suicide, although some people, including myself, believe that it was an accidental overdose. She had reunited with her son and she was looking forward to an outing with him that day. Enrica was devastated by the loss of her daughter, and like many stage mothers, was prone to exaggeration, and Pier's death made it easier to spin events of her life in the direction she wanted.  Perhaps Pier's onscreen vulnerability was what made her so trusting and didn't allow her to see when other people didn't have her best interests at heart.

Magarita Carmen Cansino aka Rita Hayworth (1918-1987), the beloved Love Goddess of Hollywood, was put into dancing school from when she could walk, and as she would recall afterward, she had no choice. Her father, Eduardo Cansino, had been a hit in Vaudeville dancing with his sister Elisa as The Dancing Cansinos.  After he married Ziegfield Follies dancer Volga Hayworth and produced three children, Eduardo opened a dancing school but the depression made it difficult to earn a living.  He decided to revive the Dancing Cansinos and have Rita, who was twelve years old at the time, as his dancing partner. Putting his child in less than honorable and secure places such as gambling boats makes one wonder why he didn't just select one of his students, one who was older and experienced.  There has been speculation that Rita was molested and beaten by her father at this time, since much of the time her mother was not with her and she was not allowed to have any real friends. In fact, her father eventually had her taken out of school and lied about her age so that she wouldn't have to attend. While the allegations of abuse can't really be verified, there is no doubt that young Rita was exploited and subjected to an environment that a child should not be a part of. She was not allowed to have a normal life, and later, the publicity machine in Hollywood would strangely portray her relationship with her father and her past as his dancing partner in a romantic and even erotic way.

 When Hollywood beckoned, Eduardo still tried to control his daughter and her career, but when she met Edward Judson, the man who would become her first husband, she found herself in yet another relationship with a controlling man. Her fourth husband Dick Haymes was also a rather nasty figure who reportedly physically abused her. Judson treated her like a child and sought to launch her career rather than living a life of happy matrimony.
Men were attracted to the beautiful young woman, and while her screen persona conveyed her as a sexy siren, they were surprised to learn how quiet and shy she was in real life.  Rita was at odds with her screen image, as her most often quoted statement suggests - "Men fell in love with Gilda, but woke up with me." It has been said that many of the great sex symbols were abused in childhood, and that later in life they seek security and love in relationships with men, and they tend to attract men who have less that noble intentions.  Rita, according to her daughter Princess Yasmin Khan,  was not close with her father later on. She resented that he put so much pressure on her when she was a child and placing a burden on her that no child should have to carry. When she died in 1987, after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, it's comforting to think that this all too human but gentle woman finally found the peace that she deserved.

Veronica Lake (1922-1973), born Constance Marie Ockelman,  known around Hollywood in her brief stardom days as The Girl With The Peekaboo Bang, had a viper of a stage mother to contend with.  After Veronica's drinking and martial problems caused her career to go on the downslide in the late 1940s, Constance Trimble Ockelman sued her daughter for financial support, leading to more unsavory headlines. Many now believe that Constance used Veronica as a meal ticket, and threw her away when the money dried up. The fact that she expected her daughter to support her is not only outrageous but ridiculous.  She entered her daughter into beauty pageants while she was still underage, and after using Veronica for financial gain and security, turned against her and didn't even bother to attend the funeral of her only child. So much for motherly love.

To add insult to injury, Mrs. Okelman later told author Jeff Lenburg that Veronica was a paranoid schizophrenic, with absolutely no proof of any kind of official diagnosis or any documentation to support this. Perhaps this was a way to slander her daughter's memory and portray herself as a victim, and to get a last little bit of limelight for herself. In any case, despite Veronica's turbulent life and problems with alcohol and depression, she did not deserve to be treated that way by her own mother. And it wouldn't surprise me that she had a hard time having a healthy relationship with her own offspring as a result. This lady was in very bad shape at the end of her all-too-brief life, and the fact that her mother treated her the way that she did, even after her death, is just so painful and outrageous to think about.  I can't fathom how Mrs. Okelman was even capable of maternal love and affection, and it wouldn't come as a shock at all to learn that Veronica seldom got either from this stage mother from you know where.

I will finish this off by saying I don't claim to know all the details, and while there's nothing wrong with having ambitions for your children, there needs to be a healthy balance in there. Your child's safety, interests and needs have to come first.  They need to feel loved, protected, nurtured and especially, allowed to be a child. All of these girls were deprived of that in some fashion, and all of them suffered as a result and it severely affected their sense of self-worth, their emotional security and their future relationships. Children are a gift, and being a parent is a privilege, not a right. Parental love is a critical element in a person's life, and it needs to be given and shown without any strings attached and without conditions.

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

                 Suspense Awaits On "The Dark Shore"

It's been quite a long time since my last blog post, and I thought it might be a good time to revisit some literature, and I thought my first introduction to the romantic-suspense/gothic genre was a good idea. Susan Howatch's first novel, published in 1965, has often been compared to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca which can be said of many books of the romantic suspense/gothic genre. However, The Dark Shore has a compelling quality all its own. The familiar and often reused plot is here - a young bride, newly married to a wealthy and successful man, finds herself thrown into his world - namely, his home estate which is filled with secrets, danger and the shadow of his departed first wife who died in suspicious circumstances. The setting is in the same part of Britain - Cornwall. But Howatch puts her own unique spin on the often-told tale, created characters with not only a connection to the "hero" Jon Towers and his past, but also all of whom had motives for killing his first wife, Sophia. At a party at the estate ten years ago, the first Mrs. Towers "fell" off one of the cliffs, and Jon left England in part to escape memories of the past and the whispers of the gossips. 
Sarah, his new spouse, eager to begin a new life with Jon in Canada, not only is very uncomfortable visiting Clougy, where Jon had resided with Sophia and the place were she met her death, but the new Mrs. Towers is also unnerved by the strong connection between Jon and his "cousin" Marijohn, who seems to have psychic abilities. Jon has another motive for returning to Clougy: he wishes to reconcile with his son, Justin, who has been estranged from him since his mother's death. It's not long before Sarah begins to notice a change in Jon, he has become withdrawn and short-tempered, and then a series of strange "accidents" begin to occur. Inevitably, the heroine begins to doubt her husband - how well does she really know him? Is he capable of murder? Is she doomed to suffer the same fate of her predecessor? Are those around him out to get her?


 Three other characters - Eve Randall, Michael Rivers and Max Alexander- all have apparent motives for murder, as does Jon, but the murderer is not so easy to guess until right near the end of the novel. There are so many secrets, such a tangled web, that the reader begins to feel the same amount of confusion and terror as Sarah.

The character that I enjoyed the most, besides Sarah, is Justin. He is a very appealing, sympathetic young man whom you know was hurt deeply by his mother's death and his father's distance from him. In the end, it is Justin's memory of that terrible night that enables him to discover the killer's identity and race to spare Sarah from certain death. 
The story and setting by today's standards seems quite dated (no cell phones or internet), but that makes the atmosphere Howatch created all the more menacing. You feel Sarah's growing sense of dread and isolation. Who can she trust and believe in?

Comparisons to the works of du Maurier, Charlotte Bronte and Anya Seton are inevitable, but this genre experienced a big revival in the 60s and 70s and many authors were very successful in the genre as well as others - Howatch, Victoria Holt, Mary Stewart, Phyllis A. Whitney, Dorothy Eden, Virginia Coffman, Caroline Farr, Charlotte Armstrong, and several more. This is my favorite of Susan Howatch's novels I have read so far, next to The Waiting Sands. Howatch, along with more gothics, would go on to publish many "saga" novels, most famous of which are Penmarric and Cashelmara.

The Dark Shore is a good starting point if you want to try out Howatch's novels or if you are a newcomer to the classic romantic suspense genre.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

"I Don't Think Natalie Fell"

Lana Wood's telling last statement at the end of her interview on "Piers Morgan", despite her insisting that she believes that Robert Wagner didn't mean to hurt her sister Natalie, is very compellingAlthough she clearly chose her words carefully as to avoid compromising the investigation and possibly to avoid more negative reaction from her former-brother-in-law, Lana is and has been an important part of bringing the case to national and international attention once again.

Lana still has a lot of pain and it shows.  I'm sure their older sister, Olga, still has that feeling of grief and loss as well.  It never should have happened, Natalie should still be here, enjoying her golden years, having watching her daughters grow up, get married and perhaps have children of their own. Lana stated in her book that in many ways Natalie was like a surrogate parent to her as well as a big sister, whom she always loved, even when they didn't see eye to eye.  Lana stated in recent years that she has had dreams about Natalie that show her not being at peace, her being unhappy.  I'm sure many would like to believe it was no more than a tragic accident because we don't want to believe that her suffering and death was the result of negligence.  But the evidence that was submitted to the LA County Sheriff's Office may very well point to that.

 Marti Rulli and Dennis Davern have been interviewed since the reopening of the case was publicly announced, and I feel that a lot of these so-called interviewers have some strong bias and even hostility toward them, perhaps because they know very little about the case or the new evidence that has come to light.  It could also stem from celebrity worship that Wagner uses like a shield.  Speaking through his spokesperson, Robert Wagner has insinuated that all those who have worked so hard to fight for the truth to be revealed and have the case re-examined are not credible and are only out to make a profit. It seems that is what his defense usually entails, such as when he bemoans that anyone can say anything about a celebrity once they have passed on since they are not alive to refute it. Wagner doesn't practice what he preaches. His lawsuits with the late Aaron Spelling, his sanctioned biography of Natalie by Gavin Lambert and his autobiography, and his insinuations about Natalie and other stars in his book and on television interviews contradict these statements. I have no idea if he is scared right now, but if he's not, perhaps he should be.

I've seen some individuals on the internet (some of which are Robert Wagner fans, no doubt) who ask why did they bother to reopen the case all these years later, and the answer is simple: because the case warrants a second look, since the original investigation ended after three days and it was not looked at throughly. The truth, and justice need to be served, and the pain and grief does not end for the victim's loved ones.  They can't forget. While this new information will undoubtedly open old wounds, Natalie's family deserves to know the truth, and they have a right to know.  Wagner has had all the rights and a voice, while Natalie been deprived of that. It's long overdue to for her dignity to be restored and for giving her voice back.  I give my full support to Marti Rulli, Dennis Davern, Lana Wood, Marilyn Wayne and many others who were instrumental in getting Natalie's case reopened and bringing the suppressed evidence and eyewitness accounts to public attention. May your efforts not be in vain and may Natalie finally rest.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Natalie Wood: Talent, Beauty, Mystery, And The Written Word

I think I was about thirteen when I first saw Natalie Wood in a film - back when channels like A&E and Bravo! actually aired older films and television shows before the former, especially, lapsed into the CSI fictional type programming and reality shows.
Something about her touched me deeply, and has continued to do so since.   Not long after having seen "Splendor In The Grass" (1961), "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955), "West Side Story" (1961) and "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965),  her E! True Hollywood Story aired, and it compelled me to learn as much about Natalie as I could. At the time, there was very little biographical information available, so I started with her sister Lana's book, "Natalie: A Memoir By Her Sister", and later followed it up with Suzanne Finstad's "Natasha: The Biography Of Natalie Wood", followed by "Natalie Wood: A Life" by the late Gavin Lambert and finally "Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendor" by Marti Rulli. I will be discussing my opinions and views on these four published works.

The first is Lana Wood's book, published in 1984,  which is very much auto-biographical, but still presents the complexity of their relationship as sisters and how devastated Lana was by Natalie's death.  Lana was relegated into the background by her mother, Maria, who lived vicariously through Natalie (Maria was a stage mother of the first order), ignoring her husband, Nikolai, who unfortunately found solace in alcohol in his defeat at asserting himself.  Looking back at Lana's book, there are some interesting recollections that seem to fit the later viewpoint that myself and many others have regarding Natalie's tragic death and her relationship with her husband, Robert Wagner.  I'll leave it at that in order not to give too much away, but let's just say that there were hints even then that things may have not been as they seemed.

Despite the tensions and disagreements between them, Natalie and Lana's sisterly bond remained, despite what some naysayers have tried to claim.  Lana did become an actress at an early age like Natalie, but she was a shy child and did not like to be pushed by her mother.  Self-conscious about her appearance, Lana had no real interest in acting until she was nearly grown.  Being Natalie Wood's sister opened doors, but also made things difficult when Lana had to prove that she had something of her own.  Lana will probably be remembered as Plenty O'Toole, the gorgeous, ill-fated Bond girl in "Diamonds Are Forever" (1971), although she did have a two-year run on the television soap opera "Peyton Place".

The book has some great photos in it, ranging from family pictures to Natalie and Lana together, and at different stages of their lives and careers.  Early on, Natalie became Lana's protector, shielding her from their mother's attempts to push her into acting and keeping young Lana's secrets. After Natalie married and left home, Lana ran away and stayed with her big sister.  Not surprisingly, though, Lana worshiped Natalie but was also jealous of her at times. Considering the mother they had and the environment they were raised in, it's not surprising.

 Both women had a lot of ups and downs in their lives and in their relationship with each other, but in the end they were reconciled, which is something of a comfort to Lana after Natalie's tragic passing.  "The person that I loved most in the world, with the exception of my daughter, is dead. I cry for Natalie often; I expect I always will."

  Lana concluded near the end of the book that she believed Natalie's death to be an accident, although in more recent years she has reconsidered her original viewpoint.  It's clear that she was devastated by her estrangement from her nieces, and Robert Wagner's treatment of her is more that just a little bit questionable. But more of that later on.  While Lana's book is flawed, it is an interesting read.  Considering this was the first book about Natalie I found, I do have a special fondness for it, but it's not really a biography of Natalie. It's Lana's recalling of her life events and some of Natalie's.  The photos are definitely worth it.

 In 2001, former lawyer Suzanne Finstad published "Natasha: The Biography Of Natalie Wood", composed of interviews with her sisters Olga and Lana, friends, co-stars and aquaintences.  Many agree that this is the definitive biography, although as with all Hollywood bios, one wonders how much is truth and what is myth.  I enjoyed the book very much and still read it several times a year.  It does capture the person behind the Natalie Wood image, revealing the little girl nicknamed Natasha who became a studio commodity, dominated by her stage mother, traumatized by many fears and phobias.  I have to say that the book is very uneven in how it presents Natalie's life - too much emphasis on her early and teen years and not a lot on her later life, although the chapters dealing with her death are quite detailed up to a point. Finstad was also quite repetitive in her vocabulary and usage throughout the book.

 I don't doubt that Natalie's childhood years were important in shaping the woman she was to become, and dealing with the tremendous pressure to act well and support her family is just too heavy a burden for any child to bear, but unfortunately, in the golden age of Hollywood that was often the way it was.  There's also no doubt in my mind that her mother instilled many of the fears and anxieties that would plague Natalie for many years to come.  Her father's weakness when it came to standing up to his wife often resulted in violent arguments between her parents and heavy drinking to numb his feeling of inadequacy.   Natalie did however have a God-given talent and ability to draw people in, to display vulnerability and depth beyond her years. And that was evident from her debut in "Happy Land" (1943) to her last film, "Brainstorm" (1983). 

 In her teens, Natalie began to rebel, which threatened Maria that her star child would leave home and leave the family without an income, and leave Mud (as Natalie called her) without her vicarious dreams.  Natalie also faced that awkward stage that often kills the careers of child stars; however, she managed to get the role of Judy in "Rebel Without A Cause" (1955), which earned Natalie her first Oscar nomination. Her close friendship with James Dean ended with his tragic death in a car crash on September 30, 1955, although she forever after cherished her memories of him. She credited him and Rebel director Nick Ray (with whom she had a brief romance during production), with turning her on to acting as something she enjoyed doing and taking seriously, rather than something she was expected to do.  Maria, however, was determined to keep Natalie in her control by telling her lies about sex and the gypsy premonition that Natalie needed to "beware of dark water".

Rebel also established Natalie as a teen idol, and her dates with Elvis Presley, hotel heir Nicky Hilton, Woolworth heir Lance Reventlow, fellow actors Dennis Hopper, Nick Adams, Perry Lopez, Robert Vaughn, Scott Marlowe, Raymond Burr and Tab Hunter - some publicity set-ups, others platonic and a few that were actually romantic - filled the magazines, presenting Natalie as a beautiful teen queen with an exciting life, but belying her exhaustive schedule of filming, public appearances, pressures of supporting her family and stifled by her mother's control and drive.  She also had to try to maintain her perfect public image by always being made up, sporting the latest fashions, and carefully crafting her persona as to present only the happy and positive side of stardom and family.  Throughout her life, Natalie maintained her star persona in public, and in her considerate and kind ways, didn't say a bad word against anyone.

Natalie and Robert Wagner, the "perfect" Hollywood couple, circa 1958

On her eighteenth birthday, July 20, 1956, Natalie had her first date with Robert Wagner (known as RJ to friends), whom she had had a crush on ever since they had crossed paths on the Fox lot when she was eleven years old.  No sparks flew then, as Natalie was still involved with Scott Marlowe, whom she planned to marry but the wedding fell through because of the opposition of Natalie's home studio, Warner Brothers, and Maria.  Eventually, Natalie and RJ began seeing each other, becoming intimate for the first time on Wagner's boat My Lady, and marrying in 1958.  They were a beautiful couple, and their lives seemed like a fairy tale, but Natalie had a hard time adjusting to married life, trying to keep her career going and please her husband and the public. Her mother warned her that Wagner was not what he seemed and that no good would come of the marriage (some of Natalie's friends gave her the same warning), but Natalie was deeply in love and wouldn't listen.  Although neither ever went public with what caused their divorce in 1961, it has been alleged that it was the combination of career problems and the fact that Natalie had discovered her husband's bisexuality (Wagner has denied this).

Despite her private battles, Natalie was at the peak of her career.  Her roles in "Splendor In The Grass" and "West Side Story" (both 1961), "Gypsy" (1962) and "Love With The Proper Stranger" (1963) brought her acclaim and two Oscar nominations.  She dated her Splendor co-star Warren Beatty, as well as other high-profile men such as Arthur Loew Jr, but none of these relationships ended in marriage.  She showed a flair for comedy in "Sex And The Single Girl" (1964), and "The Great Race"(1965).  She also formed a close friendship with Robert Redford, her leading man in "Inside Daisy Clover" (1965) and "This Property Is Condemned" (1966).  By the mid-sixties, however, her films had begun to fail at the box office. After a hushed-up suicide attempt, Natalie embarked on a personal journey to discover her true self. She met British producer Richard Gregson in 1966 and the couple married in 1969. Natalie had also made a triumphant comeback that year in the comedy "Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice" but acting was not her focus at this stage in her life.

In September 1970 she gave birth to her first child, Natasha.  In giving her daughter the name she had been robbed of she wanted her children to have a stable, loving childhood, unlike her own.  Unfortunately, her marriage to Gregson ended when she discovered his infidelity with her secretary.  She began bumping into RJ at parties and the two began to fall in love again.  Blissfully in love and confidant that this time their marriage would last, they married in 1972.  Content to work only occasionally in television, Natalie focused on her family.  She gave birth to her second daughter Courtney in 1974, naming her after the character she played in a TV movie opposite her husband.  Wagner, who had never been much of a film actor, had found success on his television series, "Hart To Hart".

When the girls started to go to school, Natalie began to contemplate a return to acting on a more full-time basis.  She and Wagner once again seemed to have the perfect marriage, enjoying their free time giving parties and entertaining friends, if not at home than aboard their boat, the Splendour.  By the time Natalie was shooting what would be her final movie, some began to notice that all was not well. Lana couldn't put her finger on it, but at the party the Wagners gave at their home on Thanksgiving seemed tense, and that was the last time she and Maria would see Natalie alive.  They were not allowed on the boat and Lana had stopped asking why.  On that particular weekend, their only guest on the Splendour was Natalie's Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken and the skipper, Dennis Davern.  The night before she drowned, Natalie had left the boat accompanied by Davern, after a row with Wagner.  He had been accusing her of having an affair with Walken. The following day she returned to the boat, asking Walken if he wanted to take a sea plane with her back to Los Angeles.  The quartet went to Doug's Harbor Reef for drinks, then returned to the Splendour. What happened that led up to her death is controversial and shrouded in mystery. Walken has very rarely spoken about that night, but what he has said has proven to be contradictory. Davern maintained his silence for a few years before he began to struggle to tell his story. Wagner has too given contradictory statements in the rare times he has chosen to speak on the matter.  By the end of the book Finstad shows that his behavior is odd and suspicious to say the least.  (More on that later).

Natasha was the first full length biography of Natalie to be published, and for that alone it deserves praise.  That's not to say that it is without its flaws but it is without an agenda and relatively unbiased. Robert Wagner refused to meet with Finstad and one wonders if he was avoiding confronting the allegations that arise in the book.  Apparently, stories about his sexuality as well as Natalie's alleged rape at the hands of a powerful actor/producer (who is not identified, but reading between the lines you can guess his identity), have been around long before the book was published. While some things in the book must be approached with caution and can't really be verified, it does make an interesting read. At times I almost felt that I was there,  witnessing the events of Natalie's life as they unfolded. Recommended.

 I was hesitant to read Gavin Lambert's bio of Natalie after reading the mostly negative reviews on Amazon.  I decided to give it the benefit of the doubt, but I found that I was every bit as disgusted, bored and annoyed by this book as many others, which compelled me to write my own less than favorable review.  First of all, the book reeks of Robert Wagner's influence and patronizing tone.  Also, it shows a trend that would continue in Wagner's autobiography, Pieces Of My Heart - "outing" actors of the 50s and 60s that Natalie knew, yet avoiding the underlying question of his own sexuality and behavior during his first marriage.  It's clear that Lambert's insulting comments towards Lana, Maria and Dennis Davern stem from Wagner's fear that he will be questioned and exposed in what transpired on that fateful November night in 1981.  Lambert also threw in the "questionable paternity" of Natalie and Lana,  alleging that George Cetalopv, a Russian sea captain, was their real father.  There is no DNA evidence to support this theory, despite Cetalopv's daughter Natasha Lofft making an appearance in the book and her going on and on about how much she and Natalie resembled each other.  It seemed she was trying to get her 15 minutes of fame - the fact that she wanted to be related to Natalie but not to Lana speaks volumes.
Natalie and Lana loved Nick (Fahd, and Natalie called him, Pop, as Lana did), so for Lambert to make those claims was very cruel and hurtful.
As with Natasha, Natalie's relationship with her family plays a large part in the book, but the result is less interesting and much more vicious.  Maria, due to her fanciful superstitions and domination over Natalie comes off very badly, but Lana is treated even more horribly throughout, accused of being money-hungry and attention-seeking, ironic when one takes into consideration that Natalie paid off Wagner's debts upon their second marriage, and despite his later success on television he displayed jealousy over Natalie's career and rode on the coattails of her fame.  The latter of that statement is my opinion, anyway.

 Lambert wrote the screenplay of Natalie's film "Inside Daisy Clover" and was a social friend of her and RJ for years, but that alone does not qualify someone to write a biography.  Whether much of the book is Lambert's opinions or Wagner's influence can't be determined, but he was definitely writing it for Wagner, not Natalie.  He tried to portray Wagner as some knight in shining armor who put up with so much during his marriages to Natalie - I literally felt like cuing the violins when Wagner, through Lambert, seems to act as if he was some kind of saint to endure Natalie and her family.  The fact that the book tried to say that Natalie had a compromised liver due to drinking (which is contradicted by her autopsy report, stating her liver was healthy), and accuses her of "swishing her tail" is enough to take this drivel with a grain of salt.  Also, Lambert inadvertently showed that Wagner does have a violent and jealous side, such as the smashing of the wine bottle on that night (which Wagner admitted to after years of denying it).

Wagner also seemed threatened that Natalie wanted to return to work, no doubt fearing that she would overshadow him as she had in their first marriage. While Wagner had a successful run on TV in the 70s, he has never really been much of a film actor.  Natalie was already an established star and accomplished actor when they met.  The night of her death as described by Lambert made no sense at all, trying to tie up loose ends in a hasty manner in order to try to maintain that it was no more than a tragic accident.  It seems that Lambert was also very lazy in his research. He relied heavily on e-mails and telephone conversations, which makes one wonder just how many people who knew Natalie really cared to participate. As many fans have said of Natalie Wood: A Life, Natalie deserves better. So does the reader.  The photos are the only saving grace.

At long last, a book that confronts and investigates the night that Natalie died, what led up to it and what came after.  While Suzanne Finstad did make an effort to shed light on it, Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour is the book that dares to expose as much of the truth as possible, thanks to author Marti Rulli's detailed research and her long friendship with Dennis Davern, who was onboard the Splendour that weekend.  Rulli also shows that Davern has been unfairly portrayed as a fame-seeker, when he in fact anguished for years over that night and was torn between his loyalty to his boss (Robert Wagner), and his concern for Natalie.  The book is not a quick read, but an engrossing one, in which Rulli also shows how Wagner has lied and omitted many things over the years, worried about maintaining his image but not the welfare of his supposed "true love" and the mother of his child.  He maintains that he didn't start seeing Jill St. John until six months after Natalie's death, when it has been recorded that he was out with her on Valentine's Day 1982, not even two months after Natalie's death.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

"It always seemed that Natalie could live with or without RJ, and RJ needed Natalie more than she needed him.  Everyone in Natalie's world, including RJ, depended on Natalie, for many reasons," Davern told Rulli.  Previous works have downplayed the fact that Davern was a close family friend who was present on Splendour outings and was close with both Natalie and Wagner. Davern's late brother, Paul, was also part of the group. Wagner kept Davern near him for the first few years after Natalie's death and even found him work, then as Davern began to distance himself Wagner turned against him. Very similar in that when Lana told him that she believed him when he said that her sister's death was an accident, he cut her out of her nieces' lives.  If Wagner has nothing to hide, why does he go out of his way to ignore and insult both Davern and Lana? Lana was not there that night, neither was Natalie's longtime friend and hairstylist, Ginger Blymer, but he cleary perceives them as  threat.

In spite of her fear of water, Natalie did like boats - or learned to like them since RJ always had one. It was haven at times, away from agents, the press and studio heads.  But from some accounts, finding herself isolated with her husband presented problems too. While Davern maintains that he did not see how Natalie ended up in the water, he does know that she and Wagner were having an argument near the boat's swim step.  The coroner noted that Natalie had half a dozen bruises on her body, some on her face, which could not have been caused by the dingy, although Wagner has tried to maintain that Natalie fell in the ocean while trying to adjust it. She was also not drunk, something that Wagner has always hinted at. Wagner himself admits to having had a drinking problem, which makes the picture of that night very vivid.  The banging dingy theory has been discredited by Rulli, and Davern has passed a polygraph and undergone hypnosis in order to recall events of that night that his subconscious may have suppressed.

Rulli has confirmed that nothing Davern has said has proven untruthful, while Wagner's statements and lies have been overlooked, perhaps deliberately.  And no one calls him on it. His lawyers threatened to sue Rulli if the book was published but as soon as it was - nothing.  Maybe because they know he can't really refute anything without giving himself away or putting him in the position of answering detailed questions that he doesn't want to answer. Marilyn Wayne, who overheard Natalie's cries for help and a man's mocking voice in response, tried to tell the authorities what she heard and she was ignored. She also claims to have received threatening notes to ensure her silence. Wagner admitted that he didn't bother to call the Coast Guard until 1:30 am, roughly two hours after he first noticed that Natalie was missing. Davern wanted to call for help right away but Wagner stopped him.  Why did he wait so long to get help? Wagner told authorities he figured that Natalie had gone off to join a party on another boat, and considering she was found in her nightgown makes that suggestion ridiculous. As is the claim that she would have driven the dingy in the middle of the night. Given her fear of dark sea water, that notion is nonsense. Yet, to this day, everyone tiptoes around Wagner as if on eggshells.  He rarely speaks of Natalie unless he is tricked into it or it is on his terms.  Davern and Rulli, by contrast, have struggled for years to get to the truth and reveal it.

There are many more details in Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour that can't possibly all be divulged here but in a way I don't want to give away anymore - I recommend this book the most if you want a clearer picture of what happened the night that Natalie left this world, and how terrifying it must have been for her to realize that she had fallen victim to her worst fear -  drowning in the ocean, and the no one was coming to rescue her.  Many are hoping that this case will be re-opened and that a real investigation will be conducted (the mockery of the one that originally was, was shall we say, hopelessly botched), and that there will be justice for Natalie.


I want to conclude this post with a reminder of just what the world - and her loved ones lost on that terrible night.  Natalie was an actress who worked hard for her status in the film world, but also was a kind, gentle person who never lost the endearing qualities she showed from the moment she first appeared onscreen.  Perhaps I'm biased somewhat in my opinions on these four books, but I don't apologize for being a Natalie fan first.  Her work lives on, even though she was taken far too early. She was a wife, a mother, a sister, a daughter, and a friend to many, and she meant a lot to many fans.
The Cover Girl

                                The Clown

                           The Fashion Icon


                               The Actress

 The Woman

                              The Mother

                          The Unforgettable