Saturday, June 23, 2012

Natalie Wood: Did You Know?

To me, Natalie Wood was a reason to watch a movie on television -- like West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, Rebel Without a Cause, Gypsy, Cash McCall or Marjorie Morningstar -- and a really good reason to go to the the movies on a Saturday afternoon and totally enjoy something frivolous like The Great Race or Penelope.  She had a quality that I lit up my heart.  I loved her brunette beauty, her expressive eyes and the way she tilted her head when listening to someone.
Her films was personal emotional bookmarks for me.  Love With The Proper Stranger was the 1963 movie that made me want to move to New York to find career, love and a sense of myself.  She was Macy's clerk Angie Rossini.  Steve McQueen was jazz musician Rocky Papasano.  As a Catholic kid in Los Angeles, I understood the essential alienation, occasional hysteria and loneliness of living within the margins of religion and family. They were modern young singles burdened by old Vatican rules.  I loved how those two New Yorkers were good people who found true love after surviving some bad breaks in life.
Inside Daisy Clover was a 1965 movie Natalie Wood should've made after 1955's Rebel Without A Cause.  By that time in her career, she still looked great but she was too mature to play a teen girl like she did with James Dean and like she did opposite Warren Beatty, earning herself a 1961 Best Actress Oscar nomination for Splendor in the Grass.  But she still has a certain charisma as the tough, Depression era 1930s Santa Monica teen who's discovered by Hollywood for movie musicals.
My Dad took me to the movies one night.  We saw Inside Daisy Clover.  He let me pick the movie.  It was the last film we saw together, just father and son, before he moved out of the house when my parent's separated.  I sensed their rift was coming.  I'm sure they thought they were hiding the lovelessness and tension in the marriage, but they couldn't.  In the movie, Daisy's recording booth nervous breakdown scene expressed some feelings I had inside but didn't know how to express.  Or to whom.
Did you know that the untimely death of Natalie Wood in 1981 affected the way some news is presented and packaged today?  When I was a youngster and watching her films on the local Million Dollar Movie or a network presentation, entertainment news was not part of our daily local news platter.  There were no entertainment news shows in syndication.  In fact, entertainment news was not considered "real" journalism.  You didn't hear about what stars wore on a Red Carpet.  Celebrity news was part of the main newscast only if a star died, committed a major crime or made it to the Academy Awards race.  In fact, the Oscar nominations came out in the afternoon.  They weren't announced before sunrise in Beverly Hills.  On TV in L.A., Hollywood news came in short segments on local news and, later, on Good Morning America from folks like Rona Barrett.
There was more network and cable news coverage of the death of Anna Nicole Smith in 2007 than there was of superstar singer/actress Judy Garland in 1969.  I started my TV career doing film reviews and celebrity interviews for Milwaukee's ABC affiliate edition of PM Magazine.  This was a popular sydicated show in the late '70s, early '80s.  This entertainment show featured lifestyle segments, family entertainment tips and celebrity profiles.  It had its own style of writing ("Get set for a dog day afternoon at a beauty parlor for pets, coming up next" or "At-ten-tion! We'll meet a real-life Private Benjamin").  It was called a co-op show.  It was national.  Yet each station that aired the show would supply its own PM Magazine couple to introduce the features, have its own local supporting players on the show and produce two local main features per week for its particular market.  I was a weekly supporting player and occasional fill-in host.
The national office was located in San Francisco.  There execs in the national office would decide which features done by PM Magazine shows all across the country were good enough for national airing.  That's how I got my first professional national exposure.  The national office team liked my interviews of Sally Field talking about her Norma Rae success, a new actress named Meryl Streep talking about Sophie's Choice and a new actor named Ben Kingsley talking about his performance as Gandhi.  There was a regional convention for PM Magazine production staffers and our little ragtag crew attended. We hit it off with the creative team from San Francisco.  Over several cocktails after our work was done, a couple of top members from the San Francisco team confided in us that they were leaving.  They were relocating to Los Angeles to launch a new syndicated show.  A show called Entertainment Tonight.  The show premiered.  We carried it on our ABC affiliate, WISN TV in Milwaukee.  The early Entertainment Tonight shows were fluffy.  Celebrities talking about new TV shows or movies, diets and receipes and favorite things to wear.  The show, in a way, seemed like a PM Magazine spin-off that really didn't have its own identity.  Then came the shocking sudden death of Natalie Wood.  Entertainment Tonight immediately, boldly, wisely changed its format and went with updates of Hollywood star's drowning death for the whole half hour.  That was ET's bar mitzvah show.  Not only did it find its own voice, identity and rhythm, its newfound popularity made entertainment news a serious player.  ET's new identity was truly crystallized when a former PM Magazine co-host from Los Angeles was brought in fulltime.  Mary Hart was the perfect host for Entertainment Tonight.  Unlike the previous hosts, she popped.  The camera loved her.  So did viewers.  And stars.
As a former PM Magazine host, Mary knew that style of writing, the way to deliver it and the way the stories were produced.  Soon, that style of writing and story production seeped into your local newscast.  Then, of course, came E! and shows like Access Hollywood.  They followed that pioneer show, Entertainment Tonight.  The pioneer show found its trendsetting identity when covering the death of Natalie Wood soon after its premiere in 1981.  Besides Mary Hart, other PM Magazine hosts across the country were Leeza Gibbons, Steve Doocy (later of Fox News), Mike Jerrick (also later of Fox News) and Matt Lauer.

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