Natalie Wood: A Life
by Gavin Lambert
Knopf, 370 pp., $25.95
Gavin Lambert was the first person in the movie business my wife and I met when we moved to Los Angeles in 1964. It was at a small outdoor Sunday lunch in Beverly Hills given by my brother and sister-in-law, both peers in Hollywood’s version of Debrett’s. There were six of us, the fifth and sixth being Gavin and his New York literary agent, Helen Strauss, who was also my wife’s book agent. Gavin had careful, hooded, missing-nothing eyes, spoke so softly that one could hardly hear him, and looked, as he does to this day, as if he were trying to suppress a laugh and only half succeeding. He was gay, but hiding in the closet was something actors did, not an expatriate English writer who had come out at age eleven. In his wonderfully indirect memoir, Mainly About Lindsay Anderson, Lambert described reporting for conscription as an Oxford undergraduate during World War II, when pederasty was still a criminal offense in England. “I decided to dress and behave with the utmost normality,” he wrote, “except for painting my eyelids gold.”
After Oxford (and rejection by the military), he edited Sight and Sound, turning what he called a “terminally boring” English film magazine into a precursor of Cahiers du Cinéma, offering poisonous reviews along with serious contributions by Carl Dreyer, Jean Renoir, Josef von Sternberg, and Lindsay Anderson, a friend of Gavin’s since public school and Oxford, and as formidable a critic as he was later to become a stage and film director. Gavin worked for a while as an assistant to, script doctor for, and part-time lover of the director Nicholas Ray. Moving to California, he wrote The Slide Area, seven connected stories about Hollywood’s marginal and downsized fringe, modeled on Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his screenplay (shared with T.E.B. Clarke) of Sons and Lovers.
In the years since we met, there have been numerous scripts and ten more books, including the novel Inside Daisy Clover, On Cukor (a series of conversations with the director George Cukor that is as stimulating about film as Hitchcock Truffaut), and GWTW, about the making of Gone With the Wind, which is dedicated to my wife, Joan Didion, and me. Now, with Natalie Wood: A Life, he has found an almost perfect subject, his friend Natalie Wood, the star of Inside Daisy Clover, perhaps her best film role (with a screenplay by Lambert). She was a movie star out of a post–Joan Crawford, pre–Julia Roberts age—promiscuous, insecure, talented, irrational, funny, generous, shrewd, occasionally unstable, and untrusting of anyone who would get too close to her—except for a Praetorian Guard of gay men.
Natalie Zacharenko—Natalie Wood—was born of parents, Maria Stepanovna Zudilov and Nikolai Stepanovich Zacharenko, who never would have met were it not for the Russian Revolution. The Zudilovs, Lambert writes, were haute bourgeoisie, rich from the father’s …