Natalie Wood: a life by Gavin Lambert

West Coast story of a hothouse heroine
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The Independent Culture

One of the great truisms found in many low-grade books about Hollywood is that (surprise, surprise) the glitzy veneer of Tinseltown is egg-shell thin; and that beneath its showy façade lurks the worst sort of showbiz social Darwinism, in which only the winner goes to dinner. But, for me, the best writing about Hollywood has always focused on its self-obsessiveness. Read Nathanael West or Scott Fitzgerald or Budd Schulberg (to name just a handful of the writers who have fictionally reinvented the town), and you will see that they have all touched upon Hollywood as a hermetically sealed universe; an all-consuming playpen of ambition and fear.

Since only a handful of actors, directors and producers manage to stay the course over an extended career, most Hollywood biographies are rise-and-fall sagas. Better yet, they possess a roller-coaster dramatic arc, which could be best delineated as: rise/ fall/ rise again/ then a complete tumble into the abyss.

Which brings us to the late Natalie Wood ( above). Her life was undoubtedly messy, and she met a Very Bad End - which certainly qualifies her as excellent biographical material. More tellingly, Wood was someone whose entire life was spent within the industry. In 1946, at the age of seven - thanks to the machinations of her ferocious mother - Natalie was cast opposite Orson Welles in a third-rate weepie called Tomorrow is Forever. From that point on, her childhood was consumed by the studio system.

Wood's very Russian mother said from the outset that "I raised my daughter to be a movie star". This wildly narcissistic, overpowering, often unhinged woman would be an ongoing, toxic presence in her daughter's life.

Her ambitions for her daughter also meant that she turned a blind eye when the-then 45-year-old director, Nicholas Ray, seduced her then 16-year-old daughter. But the price of her virginity was the female lead in Ray's seminal teenage-angst classic, Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and mateship with some of America's more brooding young exponents of torn T-shirt alienation, like James Dean and Dennis Hopper.

Hopper became one of Wood's early lovers, although it was more of a fuck-buddy relationship than a major passion. Wood, of course, had dozens of lovers - from Warren Beatty to Steve McQueen to Frank Sinatra to... Well, the list could take up a sizeable paragraph. But as Gavin Lambert points out in this shrewdly observant biography, Wood used sex as a means of reassurance against her own massive insecurities.

Lambert is the ultimate Hollywood insider/outsider. He is a Brit who has been based in the City of Angels for several decades, and whose novels and non-fiction books (especially The Slide Area and Running Time) rank as some of the most insightful writing on the film industry. More tellingly, he has also been a screenwriter - and the film adaptation of his novel, Inside Daisy Clover, starred a certain Natalie Wood.

They became friends and confidants, thereby making him an ideal choice to chart Wood's precarious psyche. And given that he received full cooperation from her husband - the actor Robert Wagner - the biography, although obviously affectionate, does not flinch from the emotional and romantic debris of her life. It also tries to solve the mystery surrounding her death.

Wood had an abiding dread of dark water. But this did not stop her from spending much time on her boat, the Splendour, in the company of her husband. By l981, however, she was in something of a career tailspin and had also developed an infatuation with that most "out there" of actors, Christopher Walken.

He happened to be a guest on the boat on the night in question in November 1981. Much drink had been taken, and marital tension was in the air, not to mention unspoken questions about whether Walken and Wood had become lovers. Wood was also heavily into the pharmaceuticals by this point in her life. When she disappeared overboard in the middle of the night (with her body later found floating face down in the ocean), the tabloids had a field day with the allegedly suspicious circumstances of her drowning.

In the end, though, Lambert's book is at its most engaging when it chronicles Wood's travails in the studio system, and the way that her career paralleled the enormous changes that Hollywood went through from the Forties to late Seventies. Although he does made the case for her as a more important actress than she was ever credited to be, one comes away from this very readable and well-crafted biography still wondering if her life-and-times merit such exhaustive scrutiny... especially as she does not seem to be particularly emblematic of any particular strand of the great Hollywood saga. Then again, that's show business.

Douglas Kennedy's novel 'A Special Relationship' is published in paperback by Arrow next month