Musings on Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind documentary

I’ve subscribed to HBO for a month so I could watch season 3 of Westworld. Well, I finished on Friday night and this documentary’s key art on the HBO’s interface and decided to watch it.

The film began with the narration of Natalie Wood‘s own daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, who was only 11 years old when her mother died, saying that so much has been written about her mother’s mysterious death that it practically overshadowed who she was as a person. I think that’s a real tragedy because as I was watching the film, I learned just how accomplished she was as an actress.

Now, I personally wasn’t at all familiar with the legendary performer. I’ve only seen one of her films, Rebel Without A Cause, but news about her death surely hasn’t let up for decades. Even though I haven’t read up much about it, I did remember reading about her case being reopened as late as 2018!

Wood’s husband at the time of her death, Robert Wagner (known as RJ to those close to him), was never charged but was still a ‘person of interest’ in the case. But before we got to that case, the first two acts pretty much focused on Natalie’s story since childhood, born to Russian immigrants, and how she got discovered. She was one of the most accomplished child actors who’ve made a successful transition as a formidable Hollywood star. She began acting at the age of 4, got her first starring role at the age of 9 in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and received three Oscar nominations before she was 25.

It was really fascinating and moving to see all the archival footage and photos of Wood in various productions, from the not-so-well-known films to the iconic ones such as ‘Rebel’ and West Side Story. Interesting that one of the people interviewed said if she were alive today, she would’ve never gotten the role that made her famous as she played a Puerto Rican character in the famous musical. One thing for sure, Natalie Wood is much more than just a pretty face. Though she was definitely one of the most beautiful Hollywood stars, in her home life she’s shown as down to earth and a dotting mom. She was also intelligent and ambitious, and wanted to take charge of her career. One photo that strikes me the most is this one of her in a film board meeting sitting confidently at a table surrounded by all-male studio honchos. It’s definitely not the kind of photo I often associated with Natalie Wood, who’s often painted as a victim. So it’s good for her daughter to show the world a different side of her late mother.

Now, the third act did address her mysterious death. It’s the huge elephant in the room that everyone expects to be covered in the film. The one-on-one interview between Natasha and her stepfather RJ is no doubt the most emotional moments of the film, both of them looked quite emotional talking about her death. Robert himself was quite candid when talking about their careers. Though he was more famous when they first met, soon her career far outpaced Robert’s, which became a strain to her marriage. Even Robert himself admitted to being so jealous when, after their first marriage ended, she started dating her Splendor in the Grass‘ co-star Warren Beatty. But never did the film ever paint Robert as the guilty party in her death. If anything, it showed how much Natalie loved him and vice versa. I learned that she ended up marrying him twice after both had remarried after their divorce.

It’s clear that from Natasha’s and the doc’s director Laurent Bouzereau‘s perspective, Wood’s death was a tragic accident. Natasha and her younger sister Courtney even said that it’s hurtful to them that the media, and Natalie’s sister Lana Wood, constantly pointed their finger at their stepdad RJ. That fateful night started with RJ having an argument with Natalie’s co-star in her last film Brainstorm, Christopher Walken, but then RJ couldn’t find her, which led to him instigating a search involving the coast guards, etc. But even with the film covering some of the details about that fateful night, we’re still left in the dark about what happened to Natalie. We probably will never know the real truth, only Natalie would know… as Walken himself said at the end.

It’s definitely an intriguing documentary for film fans, especially if you’re a fan of her work. Given it’s produced by her own daughter, it feels personal and full of heart. I’m never bored in the entire 99-minute running time as the film seamlessly combines archival footage and talking heads featuring the who’s who of classic cinema: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, George Hamilton, Elliot Gould, etc. There are also a myriad of photos and clips from her family, as well as those of her famous parties featuring famous Hollywood guests. I mean, according to IMDb, the pallbearers at her funeral were Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Elia Kazan, Gregory Peck, David Niven and Fred Astaire.

I’m glad I watched this beautiful tribute to a legend that’s equally fascinating and heart-wrenching. I can’t help feeling sad as I’m watching it… Natalie Wood was such a stunning bright star who left us far too soon. I’m glad I got to see just how much she meant to her family as well as her legacy in the film world.

4/5 stars

Have you seen this documentary? What are some of your favorite film(s) of Natalie Wood?

April 2016 Blindspot: A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)


It’s been ages since I wanted to see A Streetcar Named Desire, not sure why I’ve put it off. I feel like I have watched it as one day I actually watched a bunch of clips from this film on youtube. There’s of course the famous scene where Brando yelled ‘Stellaaaaaaa…!’ that’s been parodied many times over, but I definitely need to see it to understand the significance of this steamy Southern classic.

Based on a hit play by Tennessee Williams, it’s one of those rare films that happen to be directed by the same person who did the original Broadway production, Elia Kazan. It’s interesting to see Vivien Leigh as yet another Southern belle, as I’ve only seen her in Gone With The Wind (1939), but really, the appeal of this film for me is Marlon Brando, whose brutish performance is the quintessential sexy bad boy.

As with any of my blindspot reviews, there are definitely spoilers so if you haven’t seen the film yet, proceed with caution.

First Impressions

Well, what can I say… my first impression had more to do with Marlon Brando. Can you blame me? I mean look. at. him.

tumblr_o2qnvyjTWj1qd6639o1_500tumblr_o2qnvyjTWj1qd6639o3_500 From the first moment he came on to the screen when he saw his sister in-law Blanche at his house, Brando’s definitely got a magnetic presence like nobody’s business.

The trivia section of this movie on IMDb is filled with interesting tidbits. So apparently fitted t-shirts could not be bought at the time, so Brando’s apparel had to be washed several times and then the back stitched up, to appear tightly over the actor’s chest.

Err, what was I talking about again?

Ok so obviously there’s SO much more to the movie than Brando’s immense sex appeal, though obviously this role cemented his sex-symbol status.

A classic story adapted beautifully on the big screen

I could see why there are still countless stage adaptations of Williams’ classic story all over the world. Even though time has changed and to a certain degree, gender roles and social norms have evolved, the very core of the human condition still remains. Stories that deals with obsession, distorted reality, fears of aging, etc. are still relevant today and will always remain so. The film version underwent a major change in terms of the homosexuality of Blanche’s late husband, due to the Production Code demands that the film toned it down. The same with the depiction of rape, though it’s implied that Stanley did rape Blanche with the scene of smashed mirror and a firehose spurting onto the street.


It was a clever way Kazan dealt with the strict Code, and also when Stella was in bed the morning after Stanley hit her. She had a big, gleeful grin on her face that indicated they had um, a very satisfying make-up sex.

Kazan’s big screen adaptation not only look beautiful in black and white, but it has an atmospheric and moody feel to it. I read that he worked closely with the production designer to create the authentically sordid look and literally had the walls around Brando and Leigh closed in on them during filming to create a claustrophobic tension within the space. Well that worked because that constricted feeling practically ricochets off the screen and into my living room!

Blanche and Stanley are such an interesting pair to watch on screen because there’s all this nervous energy around them. They’re attracted as well as repulsed by each other at the same time, at times they couldn’t even reconcile the two, which creates such interesting dynamic.

Kazan doesn’t immediately expose that Blanche’s dark past and the fact that she’s got mental issues, but it’s more of a steady buildup that escalates to the boiling point. The more her brutish brother in-law relentlessly torments her, the more she goes off the rails.

I’m constantly torn in how I feel for the characters as well, which is what a good movie should. A good character is not simple, one-dimensional and how we feel about a character could (and perhaps should) change as the movie progresses. Well, I initially feels sorry for Blanche but also exasperated by her, even if she couldn’t control it. As with Stanley, what starts out as a carnal attraction to this brooding, hunky man (as any full-blooded woman would) quickly changes to disgust and repulsion. I literally want to strangle him many times as I watch the movie, especially his treatment of his pregnant wife!


Performance wise, the film definitely belonged to Leigh and Brando. The British actress played yet another American Southern belle but in a completely different role. Leigh definitely got to display her vulnerability even more, especially towards the end when Blanche’s gone completely mental. It’s interesting that she had played the character in the London production under her husband Laurence Olivier’s direction. Per IMDb, she later said that Olivier’s direction of that production influenced her performance in the film more than Elia Kazan’s in this film.

Brando has had many memorable roles in his illustrious career, but no doubt this is one of the earlier ones he’s most remembered for. His intensity is second to none, there’s few actors who are as explosive on screen in terms of presence and charisma as Brando.

Kim Hunter was pretty memorable as Stella, but I think every cast member was practically outshone by the two leads. So was Karl Malden as Blanche’s potential suitor. I think both were believable in the roles, it just didn’t leave a lasting impression to me. I guess it has less to do with their performances, but more about the strength of the two leads. I wish Brando had won Best Actor as well, but then again I hadn’t seen the other male performers of that year.


Does it live up to the hype?

The film won four Oscars out of twelve nominations and also rank #47 in AFI Top 100 Films. Elia Kazan was certainly one of those stellar directors who have won acclaimed in film AND on broadway, winning multiple Oscars as well as Tony awards. I’m always astonished when a story could work as well on stage as on screen.

I have never seen the stage adaptation, but my impression of the film was that it was sexy, gritty, but deeply unsettling to the point that by the end I was just quite revolted by the whole thing. None of the characters are likable except for Stella, Blanche DuBois’ devoted younger sister. I think that was the point though. This wasn’t going to be a cheerful movie with a happy ending and there’s also very little humor to give you relief from all that tension.


I’m glad I’ve finally watched this film from start to finish. It’s one that won’t easily escape from one’s memory. I have to say though, compared to other classics like say, Casablanca or Gone With the Wind or Roman Holiday, I’m not sure this is something I’m keen on watching again. It’s just not a pleasant film overall, and I don’t find it to be an emotionally-gratifying film either as it’s hard to care for any of the characters. That said, it’s definitely essential viewing for cinephiles. The story is such an intriguing character study that is chock full of riveting-but-inherently-imperfect relationships.

Final Thoughts:

The film ending is apparently different from the stage version. In the film, Stella no longer trusts her husband and she took her baby and leaves. We hear Stanley yelling ‘Stellaaaa….’ again as he did in the most famous scene in the film. I read that in the stage version, Stella chooses to be with Stanley as her sister is escorted to a mental institution. I’m not sure which version I prefer, I think it’s riskier to have an ending that isn’t tied neatly with a big red bow, though not necessarily better.

Regardless of the different ending, there are certainly plenty of thought provoking themes to grapple with. Delusion, denial, forbidden passion, and tragic irony… Williams’ timeless play has all the ingredients for an engrossing story, and Elia Kazan certainly had what it takes to do it justice… both on stage AND on screen.


Check out my full 2016 lineup by clicking the graphic below


Have you seen A Streetcar Named Desire? I’d love to hear what you think!

The Oscar Best Picture Project and Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) Review

It’s Oscar Week, so today we’re taking a look at some of the past Best Picture films from each decade from the 20s to the 90s. With some help from my friends, below are a list of reviews they’ve selected from each decade.

• Ruth – Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)
• Iba @ I Luv Cinema – An American in Paris (1951)

• Paula @ Paula Cinema Club – The Apartment (1960)
• Michael @ It Rains… You Get Wet – The Godfather (1972)
• Ronan @ Filmplicity – Rain Man (1989)
• David @ Never Too Early Movie Predictions – Shakespeare in Love (1998) 

Thanks to Iba, we’ve also got some Honorable Mentions from the 20s and 30s, see below:

1920s (Wings, 1927/8)

There is not much on offer for the span of the decade since the Academy Awards only began in 1927/8. So let’s take a look at that first awards ceremony. The WWI silent epic “Wings” took home the prize for Best Production (Picture). The William Wellman masterpiece, with its groundbreaking footage of in-the-air fighter plane battles is the first and only silent film to receive the Academy’s highest honor (this of course may soon change).

But wait, there is more; another film “Sunrise”, received an award for Best Picture (Unique and Artistic Picture/Artistic Quality of Production). This was the first and only year in which there were two separate categories for best picture. “Sunrise”, directed by F.W. Murnau, was the famed German expressionist’s first Hollywood feature and is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all-time.

There is also symmetry with the Awards and the dawning of a new era in the motion picture industry. This first year of industry wide recognition for excellence in film production coincided with the advent of sound. As such, although Al Jolson’s “The Jazz Singer” was released in 1927, the Academy deemed it ineligible as it was claimed that its revolutionary use of sound gave it an unfair advantage.

Another major snub of this year was the Buster Keaton classic “The General.”

1930s (The Life of Emile Zola, 1937)

It is far too easy to mention the Golden Year of Hollywood, 1939 as one enters a discussion of one year to focus on in the decade. That year is the stuff of legend. It should be noted, however that the excellence in filmmaking goes beyond that one isolated ‘magical’ year. Overall the decade produced a bounty of escapist entertainment for the masses.

So let’s take a look at another year in the decade that produced equally stunning pictures – 1937. The winner of the Best Picture prize was the Warner Brothers’ biopic “The Life of Emile Zola,” starring Paul Muni as the crusading activist involved in the 19th century “Dreyfus Affair” in France. During the heyday of the studio system, Warner Brothers was the studio with the reputation of being the “socially conscious,” “realistic” studio; the win in this category marked the studio’s first win for Best Picture.

Zola beat out a diverse offering of films which included “The Awful Truth”, “Captains Courageous”, “Dead End”, “The Good Earth”, “In Old Chicago”, “Lost Horizon”, “One Hundred Men and a Girl”, “Stage Door”, “A Star is Born.”

Notable snubs from this year included the Garbo tearjerker “Camille”, the screwball comedy “Nothing Sacred” and Disney’s first full-length animated feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

Director: Elia Kazan
Screenplay: Moss Hart, based on the novel by Laura Z. Hobson
Cast: Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, John Garfield, Celeste Holm, Anne Revere

Before I get to my in-depth review, I just want to share some interesting tidbits about this film. From the Gregory Peck’s biography by Gary Fishgall, it’s noted that this film was so controversial in its day that even major Hollywood moguls such as Samuel Goldwyn and Louis B. Mayer who are Jewish did not want this film to be made, not wishing to ‘rock the boat’ and prefer to deal with the matter quietly. In fact, they pleaded with Darryl Zanuck (who is NOT wish) to abandon the project. Even some of Peck’s fans and his own agent encouraged the actor to refuse the part. This film was also the first time the word “Jew” was used explicitly in a mainstream film. Well, this film not only won Best Picture and Best Director for Elia Kazan, but is also the highest-grossing picture of 1948.

Fifteen years before Peck dealt with blatant racism as Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, he tackled the issue of anti-Semitism as a reporter who pretends to be Jewish to cover a story on the controversial topic. The film opens with Phil Green, a widower who just recently moves to New York City, hanging out with his son Tommy (Dean Stockwell) just before his appointment with a magazine publisher for his next assignment. Even for a seasoned writer like Phil, this assignment presents quite a challenge as his boss John Minify wants a fresh new take on the issue of anti-Semitism, not just mere facts-and-figures type of articles that have been written many times before.

After some soul-searching and weeks pounding away tirelessly at his typewriter, a eureka moment hits him that in order to really understand what it means to be Jewish, he must become Jewish himself. The fact that he just moves to NYC and practically nobody knows who he is should make his plan a cinch, and in a way it is, but by no means is it going to be a walk in the park. Inevitably, Phil encounters bigotry and discrimination first hand and discovers that the silent prejudices also exist amongst the people he holds dear.

It really makes me cringe to see the in-your-face bigotry displayed by seemingly ‘nice’ people Phil encounters in the day-to-day. His own doctor actually advises him against contacting a Jewish internist, his son Tommy is being called a ‘dirty Jew,’ and one of the most heart-wrenching scenes takes place at a resort where Phil actually has reservation for. As soon as he reveals he’s a Jew, the manager tells him the place is fully-booked but that he’d be happy to book him a room at another hotel! You can watch that clip on YouTube (starting at minute 6:00), it really makes my blood boil just watching it.

Phil hates anti-semitism with a passion, it makes him sick no matter who commits it, that’s what tells his Jewish secretary who admits that she too sometimes refers to herself as a ‘kike.’ He’s equally vehement with Kathy when she’s reluctant to fight against the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ about not selling her property to the Jewish people. He confronts her that the ‘nice’ people who choose to remain as bystanders are as guilty in fostering any types of discrimination.

“I’ve come to see lots of nice people who aren’t [antisemitic]…people who despise it and protest their own innocence help it along and wonder why it grows.”

This clip shows his interaction with both Tommy and Kathy, and also his army best friend Dave (John Garfield) telling Phil about what his and his family’s day-to-day life is like being a real Jew. Garfield himself is a Russian-Jewish immigrant who had to change his original name from Jacob Garfinkle, so he certainly could identify with his character very well here.

I’d like to think (hope) that we’ve come a long way since then but it doesn’t mean that this film is passé nowadays as we know that many forms of prejudices still exist, even if they may not be as blatant as it once was. The fact that this film also tackles the more ‘silent’ discrimination makes it all the more relevant and relatable.

Now, even though the subject matter is pretty heavy handed, at the heart of this human drama is a budding romance between Phil and Minify’s niece Kathy. The relationships between Phil and his mother and son, as well as his best friend Dave are also handled very well, which give you insights into his character. Perhaps Phil is a bit too solemn for his own good, even he admits that himself several times every time he gets into an argument with Kathy. I kind of think of Phil Green as Superman without a cape in some ways… fighting for truth, justice and the American way. Plus Peck has that Clark-Kent sensibilities about him 😀

Now, another thing I like about this film is the character of Anne, the Fashion Editor, played wonderfully by Celeste Holm. She won a Best Supporting Oscar for her role as a sharp, spunky and strong career woman who shares his worldview and empathizes with Phil’s plight. I was quite taken aback in their scenes together towards the end as she makes it quite obvious how she feels about him. It’s quite modern in those days I’d imagine for her to do what she did. I actually kind of wish Phil would end up with her instead of with the more conventional Kathy.

Now the performances are just superb throughout. Peck deservedly earned his third Best Actor nomination in four years. I’ve always considered that Atticus Finch is where the actor and the role meets, I think the same could be said about Phil Green as I can’t imagine a more perfect match between the actor and the role. Peck shares a wonderful yet effortless chemistry with all the actors, but I especially love his scenes with his 11-year-old son. There’s an earlier scene where Tommy grilled his father about what anti-semitism is and why people treat the Jews differently, it’s certainly something every parent can relate to having to explain such a tricky subject. This is apparently the second time Dean Stockwell played Peck’s son, the first one is in The Valley of Decision which was his debut. The scene where Phil comforted Tommy after he’s been bullied at school reminds me of Atticus with Scout. As a father of young boys himself, Peck was such a natural as a dad and it made me wish I had such a loving dad like that!

John Garfield, Ann Revere and Dorothy Maguire are all equally convincing in their roles, Maguire perhaps has the least sympathetic role as the confused and weak Kathy but she sort of represents a lot of the ‘nice’ people in the real world who’d rather not speak up against bigotry because we’re afraid to stir things up. Thanks to director Elia Kazan for bringing out the best out of his actors, he’s known for being an actor’s director as many actors flourish under his directions. This is perhaps not his most famous film compared to A Streetcar Named Desire, On the Waterfront (which earned Marlon Brando his Best Actor Oscar) and East of Eden. Kazan won a total of three Oscars, five Tony Awards and four Golden Globes throughout his career but he’s also famous for his controversy for being an informer during the McCarthy era’s anti-communist movement.

Writer Moss Hart, Gregory Peck, Elia Kazan and producer Darryl F. Zanuck

The excellent script by Moss Hart, gorgeous cinematography by Arthur C. Miller and music by the celebrated composer Alfred Newman all make up for an astounding film that definitely merits its place amongst the best of Hollywood’s golden years. I love that many parts of the film was shot in on location in NYC around Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Plaza, it’s nice to see the characters walking amongst the crowd of New Yorkers and getting a glimpse of what the office of a major publication looked like.

I’ve seen this film three times just in the past six months and appreciate it even more each time. It’s a well-crafted and well-acted film that entertain as well as enlighten.

Thoughts on this film? If you haven’t seen this yet, I’d love to hear your favorite film from the 1940s.