A Star is Burned

Inside Daisy Clover from David Cairns on Vimeo.

I’m extremely glad I never watched the pan-and-scan copy of INSIDE DAISY CLOVER I used to own, so I could appreciate the proper super-wide-screen version I have now acquired. That said, there’s only really one scene in it that really comes alive, but BOY does it come alive.

Producer Alan Pakula and director Robert Mulligan (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) tackle Gavin Lambert’s novel (with the author himself adapting the screenplay), effectively a Judy Garland roman a clef, with a perfectly cast Natalie Wood as the waif-starlet abused by the system. There’s good, creepy work from Christopher Plummer as her studio boss (though no thirties studio boss was remotely as handsome — you were lucky if you got Darryl Zanuck, “he of the air-conditioned teeth,” as Orson Welles unkindly but accurately remarked) and Katharine Bard as his sinister sister wife. Ruth Gordon plays the crazy mama, a more benign figure than the monstrous stage mother in Natalie’s own life, and Roddy McDowell is rather wasted as a studio factotum.

Robert Redford is intriguingly cast as a dashing drunk, a Flynn/Barrymore composite who also turns out to be gay, something one can’t imagine Redford playing later. Since reading Peter Biskind’s gossip-fest book Down and Dirty Pictures, which characterises RR as, essentially, a passive-aggressive jerk, I can’t help see his characters as passive-aggressive, and it’s definitely a suitable filter for this one. Weird how an actor who’s been criticised for being bland and always playing sympathetic golden boys can be realigned as the movies’ biggest and best portrayer of arrogant jerks.

But the movie fails to catch fire. Wood is energetic and effecting as she always was, but the story’s progress is full of mysterious lacunae. Is it a problem that, in charting this aspirant screen goddess’s rise to fame and heartbreak, we never see her first day on set, meet her co-stars or directors, or see her actually notice her fame or meet her public? It might not have to be, if the lacunae were bridged by consistent narrative development. But Daisy is introduced as a girl who wants to sing, and then her singing drops out of the picture altogether. Sure, there are a couple of musical numbers staged by Herbert Ross, who, as his later PENNIES FROM HEAVEN shows, could certainly pastiche 30s style, but here seems to have been ordered to keep it vague as to period. Edith Head and team’s costumes likewise eschew anything smacking too strongly of the depression, and try to touch lightly on sixties styles. The movie’s planting its feet three decades apart makes for an uncomfortable pose.

It’ a strangely underpopulated film — giant studio barns, inside and out, a deserted boardwalk, a motel in a literal desert, a yacht at sea (always uncomfortable to see Natalie in such a setting, but Redford is there and he’s Mr. Boat) — scene after scene is stripped of extras and period detail, perhaps making a point about the loneliness of stardom, but not as vividly as showing the uncaring mob would.

Then comes the scene quoted above. Outstandingly edited by Aaron Stell, with a really creepy drone from André Previn on the soundtrack, and striking choices with sound editing that make the whole thing modernistically unsettling. There just weren’t Hollywood films evoking this kind of European unease at the time, or damn few: how many American directors really gave the impression they’d seen Godard, Fellini and Antonioni? Mulligan sure has.

I guess this is the pay-off to the character’s initial love of singing, the thing that makes her feel the world isn’t as crappy as it seems. Even that’s been taken from her. But there’s no real middle to that journey. Still, it gets a powerful ending.

The movie ends happily — either a cop-out or an act of mercy. Give Daisy the triumphant escape so few of her real-life counterparts achieved, why not? We also get perhaps cinema’s first instance of what is now a tiresome cliché, the Walking Away From An Explosion moment. Astonishing. Without Natalie Wood, no Wolverine.

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12 Responses to “A Star is Burned”

  1. That scene is indeed the apex of Natalie Wood’s career. It’s as f Mulligan out Bruce Conner in the director’s chair for a day. Plummer, who I met a couple of years back told me e was crazy about Natalie Wood. Literally everyone in Hollywood was. She had no enemies. (Katherine Bard, btw, is playing Plummer’s wife, not his sister.)

    Gavin adapted only the first part of his novel for the screen version. In the book we get Daisy Clover’s comeback as a concert performer — with the Judy Garland connection made stronger than ever.

    The oddly depopulated studio is art of the film’s eeriness. it regards Hollywood as a kind of haunted house. “Inside Daisy Clover” was made in 1966. The next year came “Bonnie and Clyde” which altered the way movies treated “period” forever.

  2. That one’s the best musical number — I really like the way it pretends to be behind the scenes while always filming the main action from the right spot. Gives it an eerie divided reality.

    I really must read the novel. This movie led more or less directly to Lambert’s Wood bio, which is excellent, helped by his personal connection with the star.

  3. Gavin knew her since she was knee-high to a doormat. Read “The Slide Area” too as one of the stories in it is a kind of warm-up for “Inside Daisy Clover” and another “The Closed Set” is a a clef about the shooting of “Johnny Guitar”

  4. Yes, that one I *have* read! Excellent stuff.

  5. chris schneider Says:

    I’ve grown to be a big fan of the DAISY CLOVER movie. (I read the novel, once upon a time, but have virtually no memory of it.) My big question, last time I saw it, was whether the ’60s-on-’30s look was a deliberate Alienation Effect or simply the result of a slack approach to recreating a period’s style (see Cyd Charisse in Ray’s PARTY GIRL).

    I was also thinking how Robert Mulligan, the man who had previously directed TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, was basically following up his Southern Gothic with a Hollywood Gothic. Plummer is, basically, Dracula, after all, and they do refer to him as The Prince of Darkness. My favorite throwaway line: during the Christmas party, with its off-camera music, when we hear Plummer say “Kill the choir.” Umm …

    I would call “The Circus Is A Wacky World” song Music To Have A Nervous Breakdown By. And note how Wood, recording her disc at the movie’s beginning, anticipates the later crack-up scene.

  6. Yeah, Party Girl is the ne plus ultra of non-period period film.

    I think this one is trying to be with-it, and the assumption is that too many 1930s old hats would make it old-hat. They’re trying to straddle the line between 30s and modern dress, unaware that it’s not a line but an ocean.

    What Bonnie & Clyde discovers is a way of signalling from one shore to the other.

    The closest thing to a deliberate alienation effect is the graffiti in scene 1, with slogans like “GROPE FOR PEACE” which couldn’t be more sixties or more dumb or obnoxious. The verfremdungseffekt is on the wall.

  7. Even before I thought of Pakula’s participation in both movies, the look and sound of that scene instantly prompted me to think of The Parallax View.

  8. Good point! Mulligan could do disturbing material — The Other is supremely creepy — but this tone is more Pakula’s bag.

  9. I’d assumed Natalie did her own singing here, but apparently not. It was session singer Jackie Ward. They only use Wood’s real voice for the intro of You’re Gonna Hear From Me.

  10. Ward also did the singing for Natalie in The Great Race, performing the Oscar nominated Sweetheart Tree. It’s an extraordinary match. She sounds just like her. I’m aware Wood was anxious to do her own singing in West Side Story, took lessons, and performed the numbers, but she’d signed a contract giving the producers leeway to use a ghost singer if they felt it necessary. They did.

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