Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 1965. Park Place Production, Warner Bros.. Screenplay by Gavin Lambert, based on his novel. Cinematography by Charles Lang. Produced by Alan J. Pakula. Music by Andre Previn. Production Design by Robert Clatworthy. Costume Design by Bill Thomas. Film Editing by Aaron Stell. Academy Awards 1965. Golden Globe Awards 1965.
Natalie Wood is terrific as a teenager living on a grimy boardwalk in 1930s California with her mentally unstable, tarot-card reading mother (Ruth Gordon). When a film studio head (Christopher Plummer) gets wind of a record that shows off her enormously charming voice, Wood is whisked away to the stardom she dreams of, but the cost of success hits her from the beginning. Her conniving sister is only too eager to help the studio publicity department by putting their mother away in an institution where she won’t cause any embarrassment, while Wood falls in love with a gorgeous cad of a movie star (Robert Redford) who initiates her into the world of love and sex. An instant success on movie screens, Wood puts in the work and delivers on screen, but the personal compromises add up and what was already a volatile personality that didn’t suffer fools gladly threatens to pierce the edges of sanity. That the director of To Kill A Mockingbird would make a film that pulls no punches in describing the dark side of the film business is not the least bit surprising, but part of what makes this film so interesting is how it straddles the line between old Hollywood and the new order: it’s a bleak film shot in gorgeous, bright colours, looking like Flower Drum Song but with the kind of cynicism (not to mention sexual frankness) audiences would become accustomed to in films like In The Heat Of The Night and Midnight Cowboy a few years later. Plummer gives us the shadier side of the Captain Von Trapp he played the same year, just as handsome and noble but with much more unpredictable danger. The lead role plays very close to Wood’s own personal tragedies, and she gives an outstanding performance even if at twenty-seven she is a bit too ripe to play a fifteen year-old, while Gordon steals her scenes as a woman who is undeniably off balance but is never adorable about it.