in spirit at the Castro
by David-Elijah Nahmod
The Castro Theater will celebrate the legend of Natalie Wood on Nov. 9-11. Wood (1938-81) was one of only a handful of child stars who successfully transitioned into adult roles. Showing a versatility that not many actors had, she received three Oscar nominations by the time she was 25. She was one of the greatest beauties the film industry has ever seen. Her beauty was natural. She was as riveting to behold off-screen sans makeup as she was in any of her films. Looking back on her career, it's impressive to realize how many bona fide classics appear on her resume.
She may also have been the first Hollywood star to publicly support LGBT people. Her friendship with the openly gay playwright Mart Crowley (The Boys in the Band) is recounted in the recent documentary Making the Boys. Wood mentored the aspiring young writer in 1960s Hollywood, introducing him to her friends and colleagues. At about this time, Crowley wrote the screenplay Cassandra at the Wedding, which he wrote with Wood in mind. As Crowley recalls in Making the Boys, Wood agreed to play twins in Crowley's film, one of whom was a lesbian. She was advised against this by her friends, who told her that taking such a role might damage her career. Wood refused to heed this advice, and was set to do the film until 20th Century Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck pulled the plug.
Wood and Crowley remained friends. Years later, when Crowley was unemployed, Wood arranged for him to work as a script writer/consultant on Hart to Hart, her husband Robert Wagner's hit TV series. By this time it was the late 1970s. Being gay in Tinseltown was still unacceptable, yet Wood stood by her friend.
Her death by drowning in 1981 remains shrouded in mystery and controversy. Her star in the Hollywood firmament remains fully intact. The three-day celebration at the Castro, presented by master showman Marc Huestis, includes some of Wood's best-known classics. The centerpiece event takes place on Sat., Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m., with a screening of Splendor in the Grass (1961). Wood's sister, Bond girl Lana Wood, will appear on the Castro stage for what's described as "an honest, open discussion, personal and completely truthful. No holds barred."
As she prepared for her Castro appearance, Lana Wood spoke to the B.A.R. by phone from her home in Southern California. She said that Splendor, a then-daring drama of young love and sexuality, is her favorite film of her late sister. "I love Splendor in the Grass," she said. "It's dear to my heart. How Natalie blossomed in it. It was a very giving and brave performance. What Natalie gave is something that not a lot of actresses have. She was beloved by everyone. She was the girl next door, but a little bit naughty – sexy, but not in a nasty way. She gave everything to her roles, she gave part of herself. Natalie laid it all out there."
As she spoke of her sister, Wood's voice cracked every now and then. She was, after all, talking about a beloved sibling who died young. Wood is delighted that Natalie remains an icon after all these years. "What she gave, her body of work, should not be forgotten. We should never minimize the impact that films, books and art have on us."
Wood also called the Oscar winner West Side Story another of her personal favorites. The classic musical was inspired by Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, updated to the then-violent Hell's Kitchen neighborhood in New York City. The film was considered groundbreaking not only for its complex choreography, but for its frank depiction of racial tensions, a generally unspoken topic at that time.
"There aren't a lot of films that completely hold up and mesmerize, but West Side Story is one of them. It should be seen over and over again."
Though it's not part of the Castro program, Wood recalled the 1956 western The Searchers with great fondness, in which she and her sister played the same character. "It's another film that holds up well," she said. "I recommend watching the Blu-ray, which looks stunning."
Wood is very excited about the Castro show. Best known as Plenty O'Toole in 1971's Diamonds Are Forever, she said that she passed up an opportunity to attend the premiere of the new James Bond film Skyfall in order to honor her sister.
"I will enjoy every second of it," she said of the Castro show. "It will be beautiful to sit with people who love Natalie."
Join Lana Wood and host Marc Huestis on Sat., Nov. 10, at 7:30 p.m. for the great Natalie Wood classic Splendor in the Grass. At 12 Noon that same day, Matthew Martin will appear on the Castro stage as Mama Rose for a screening of Gypsy. Sun., Nov. 11 offers a 2 p.m. screening of sing-along West Side Story. Other films in the three-day program include Rebel Without a Cause, This Property is Condemned, the late-60s sexual revolution satire Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, and Inside Daisy Clover, in which Wood co-star Robert Redford played a thinly-veiled gay role.