|This expanded Tennessee Williams one-act may not have turned out to be a classic, but it didn't deserve to be condemned.|
Why on earth did Paramount try to expand a 15-minute one-act play, This Property is Condemned, into a 1966 film? Because it was Tennessee Williams, baby!
Williams plays had been prolifically and profitably adapted into films for 15 years: The Glass Menagerie, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Rose Tattoo, Baby Doll, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Suddenly, Last Summer, The Fugitive Kind (from Orpheus Descending), Summer and Smoke, Sweet Bird of Youth, as well as his novel The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, and his comedy Period of Adjustment.
|Robert Redford and Natalie Wood made an intriguing screen couple, in two films: this and 'Inside Daisy Clover.'|
That any studio thought they could conjure up a feature-length story from a wisp of writing from Tennessee Williams, the greatest playwright of his time, is typical Hollywood hubris. A dozen screenwriters took a whack at constructing this slight Property. As always, Tennessee Williams complained about the compromised results of his work—and yet Williams sold his plays' film rights away for huge paychecks. In Property’s case, he threatened to have his name removed from the credits. Funny, since 1968’s Boom was just around the corner!
Despite the disappointing results of 1965’s Inside Daisy Clover, Natalie Wood and Robert Redford re-teamed for This Property is Condemned. Though Redford felt the film was tailored as a Natalie Wood vehicle—why Robert found this an issue is odd, as Natalie was a huge star then, and he wasn’t—Bob accepted. He also got his buddy Sydney Pollack as director.
|Natalie Wood, at the height of her stardom, when she had a big say in who was her leading man and director.|
Here’s the expanded story of This Property is Condemned: Owen Legate (Redford) comes to a Depression-era small town in Mississippi to lay off some railroad crew. He meets Alva Starr (Wood) and her kid sister, Willie (Mary Badham), at their mother’s boarding house. Though taken by fanciful, vivacious Alva, she is the total opposite of his buttoned-down, pragmatic persona. While they spark and spar in a love-hate relationship, Mama Starr schemes to set her daughter up with an older man from the railroad, so he can provide for them. Aside from Owen, complicating things too is Mama’s young beau, J.J. (Charles Bronson) who has the hots for Alma. When Owen hands out the pinks slips and several railroad workers punch him out, as well as the time clock, it’s quitin’ time. He invites Alma to join him in New Orleans. Mama interferes and the couple fall out, with Owen leaving alone. Alma gets back at Mama by upsetting her plans and eloping with J.J. The morning after, Alva goes to New Orleans, hoping to find Owen. Their reunion does not end happily ever after.
|Natalie Wood, like Alva Starr, was 'the main attraction' here. With Mary Badham as sister Willie, and Robert Blake.|
|Alva just can't get sensible Owen to see things her fabulous way.|
This Property is Condemned was released to poor reviews and even worse box office returns than Inside Daisy Clover. However, I find Property far more watchable than Clover. The greatest debit against this Property is that it was produced literally in the last gasp of the Hollywood censorship code, and is one of many movies made in the first half of the '60s that feels like it still has one foot stuck in Hollywood’s house style of the '50s.
|Still, who wouldn't mind gazing into her crystal ball, or those big beautiful brown eyes?|
Still, why do some critics and online pundits still beat up on this movie, while there are revisionists who drool all over same-era bombs like Marnie and Bunny Lake is Missing? I think it’s mainly because those films feature past their prime directing legends Hitchcock and Preminger, whereas Sydney Pollack merely became a skilled studio director. Also, This Property is Condemned is considered minor Tennessee Williams, though comparing an intimate one-act to A Streetcar Named Desire or Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is apples and oranges. And Natalie Wood has never been a critics’ darling, then or now. Natalie was far from a being a Bette Davis or Meryl Streep. Yet, compared to wooden non-actress Tippi Hedren and wan starlet Carol Lynley, Wood was a natural, engaging, intense, and charismatic performer.
Even if a film doesn't ultimately work, I can still enjoy the aspects that do come together or stand out. Walter Matthau once commented that even bad films usually have something to recommend them, whether it’s a great performance, dialogue, or even a costume. And while I feel this movie is as much of a hot mess as Alva Starr herself, This Property is Condemned is still highly watchable.
|Robert Redford as Owen Legate: Understated or underwritten?|
The acting in this Property is its strongest selling point. Wood and Redford make a good team. Both were perfect examples of mid-twentieth century attractiveness. Young Redford looks like a compact version of Tab Hunter, a former Wood co-star; Natalie is a Keane painting, come to life, the dark eyed pixie. Interestingly, it's been written that both stars felt uncomfortable with the "movie star" side of their images—and yet both fell back on it, over and over, throughout their careers. Still, Wood's warm yet intense screen presence is a complementary contrast to Redford's cool, detached demeanor. And their personas are in exactly in sync with the characters.
What to say about Robert Redford as Owen Legate? He’s not the typical Tennessee Williams hero, all cool and reserved, but his character just feels underwritten. Redford’s never been the most emotional actor, but his appraising manner and reticence work here. It’s just a shame that what makes Legate tick is never revealed. At times, Owen’s behavior toward Alva just seems cruel.
|Mary Badham, beloved as Scout in 'Mockingbird,' is great here as Willie.|
Mary Badham, famed forever as Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, gives another naturalistic performance as Alva’s no-nonsense kid sister, Willie. Badham is the observer to the drama and provides some comic relief, looking like a cross between Pippi Longstocking and Delta Dawn. It also helps that the young actress was actually from the south. Badham was in her teens here and looks a bit gawky in the way Peggy Ann Garner did after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Badham retired from acting in ’66 after Property and a William Castle horror flick, Let’s Kill Uncle.
Kate Reid as Mama Starr is one of Williams’ monstrous older women. Reid, with her deceptively loveable face, is unrelenting in her survival plan for the poor family. When the boarding house lady’s bawdy mask drops, look out! Her haranguing of Natalie’s Alva is terrific and terrifying. John Harding gives solid support as Mr. Johnson, the older man with an invalid wife, who wants to set Alva up. Though he’s not exactly sympathetic, Harding plays him as a lonely man who is taken by lively young Alva. Robert Blake has several sweet moments as Sidney, one of Alva’s many admirers. Of course, Blake’s big breakthrough as an adult performer came the next year, with In Cold Blood.
|Kate Reid is a killer Tennessee Williams mama!|
Cinematographer James Wong Howe does some stellar work, along with Pollack’s penchant for camera showmanship, which he really went to town on in the later They Shoot Horses, Don't They? The authentic Mississippi and New Orleans location scenery and studious production detail are a bit offset by huge, obvious sets, like the main floor of the boarding house or the New Orleans street where Alva lives. Still, This Property is Condemned is one of the few ‘60s movies that are reasonably authentic to another era.
|Natalie, as Alma, turns the tables on manipulative Mama, played by Kate Reid. Wood was only 8 years younger than Reid!|
Natalie Wood as Alva gives one of her best adult performances. It’s not her fault that the character is a mash up of many Williams’ heroines. My only criticism is that Wood strived for realism and authenticity, but too often falls back on being movie star glamorous, with an endless array of tight-fitting frocks and perfect ‘60s makeup. One example: When Alva does the walk of shame out of town after drunkenly marrying Mama’s stud, Wood is beyond bedraggled. Yet, as she gets off the train in New Orleans, with a cloud of smoke behind her, Natalie looks radiant.
Still, as a vehicle for the actress, Wood gets to shine in a number of set pieces: the birthday cake scene, where Owen first sees flitting and flirting Alma, literally glowing in candlelight; Alva’s boxcar tour for Owen, where the two try to understand one another’s outlook on life; the scarecrow scene; after Legate’s beat down, where Owen finally lets his guard down to Alva; the argument where Mama guilt trips Alva into her plan by citing vicious comments made by her late father; the final scene where Mama finds Alma in New Orleans; and the best, the mother-daughter barroom showdown with drunken Alma.
|Gossip has grown over the years as to how much Natalie drank in this scene. IMO, Wood is too on the ball here to be blotto.|
One of my pet peeves is Hollywood "anecdotes" that become taken as absolute truth in the Internet age. Here, in Property, it is said Natalie got drunk to do the big showdown scene between her and Kate Reid. I don't doubt that perhaps Wood had a drink or two to get in the mood of playing drunk, as she was at times a tensed up actress. But you have to be pretty high functioning to play Tennessee Williams blitzed. In this scene, a drunken Alma is toying with her aging admirer, goading her mother, and taunting her mama's younger boyfriend. The scene is mostly on Natalie’s shoulders, and it’s easily the best one in the movie.
|Director Pollack with his stars, all of whom enjoyed working together.|
About Wood drinking for the scene, director Pollack told Natasha biographer Suzanne Finstad: "I don't necessarily believe in tricks like that, but in this case, I thought it worked very well. She had two glasses of wine and it just took the edge off."
But a few years later, Pollack told Gavin Lambert for his 2004 Natalie Wood: A Life bio:
"We started in the morning and it didn't feel quite right. Not enough charge. So I decided to break early for lunch, and gave Natalie a glass of wine. She drank it but said, 'You son of a bitch, are you telling me I can't play this scene without getting drunk?' Then she laughed, and as the wine started to wear off, she asked for more. She drank six glasses in all, played the scene wonderfully—and threw up after finishing it."
And this is how show biz “stories” grow—in this case, starting from the director. Either way, the point here was that the wine was to relax Natalie, not serve as a substitute for acting.
Another myth is that This Property Is Condemned was made to bolster Natalie's career after a long string of bombs. Not true. While Natalie's adult career took off with West Side Story, Gypsy, and her best screen performance in Splendor in the Grass, along with Love with the Proper Stranger, her box office was fine for the first half of the ‘60s. The problem was that while they were big money makers, 1964’s Sex and the Single Girl and ‘65’s The Great Race were fluff. And when Natalie attempted to stretch with Redford in ‘65’s Inside Daisy Clover and This Property is Condemned, this is when her box office first suffered. But it is important to remember that, on a more modest scale, Natalie had a similar career arc as Elizabeth Taylor. Wood was a popular child star who became a substantial ingénue with Rebel without a Cause and The Searchers. Solid hits, if not classics, like Marjorie Morningstar, Kings Go Forth, and Cash McCall followed. Natalie Wood grew up in front of mid-century moviegoers. While troubled, she wasn’t a scattershot star like Tuesday Weld or later, Patty Duke. Like Elizabeth, the show always went on, and Natalie worked steadily.
|Natalie Wood with one of her two Keane paintings. The other portrait was Nat as a child. This shot is haunting, I think.|
That is, until after Property, when Wood’s on-again, off-again lover, Warren Beatty, wanted to reunite with her as fellow gangsters in Bonnie and Clyde. She turned that and Barefoot in the Park down, to work on her emotional well-being. The sabbatical was much needed. It's been written that Natalie attempted suicide during the filming of Property. This actually happened after filming. Wood took an overdose of pills after the Christmas holidays, apparently depressed and lonely, in early 1966. She had made her first suicide attempt after the filming of The Great Race near the end of ‘64. And her most serious overdose came in the summer of '66, depressed about her career, and most concerning, over being single and childless. Whether the attempts were emotional cries for help, a couple of these were quite serious, medically.
|Though Natalie and Elizabeth were two of the few stars to make the transition to adult stardom, their lives weren't easy.|
From Suzanne Finstad’s 2001 Natasha, an interview with director Sydney Pollack included this apt observation about Natalie: "There was a fragility in her, and the emotions were very close to the surface: scratch her and get to an emotional color right away. There's something breathless about her, and you feel it, and you feel a kind of quivering just below the surface, a very appealing and vulnerable part of her. She had it in person, too. I've only seen that color twice in actresses. In her, and years ago, I sat at a dinner table with Elizabeth Taylor, and she had the same thing."
Yet, there was a major difference between Natalie Wood and Elizabeth Taylor. While stars both were intense and vulnerable, Elizabeth was totally at ease on screen, and not afraid to muss up her image. Wood wasn't as secure. Natalie's performance mirrors the ‘50s and ‘60s dichotomy of This Property is Condemned itself. Wood never looked more luscious or lovely onscreen—except that she was playing poor white trash. Compare her work with Jane Fonda’s just three years later for Sydney Pollack in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Fonda’s desperate Depression era starlet/hooker is gritty and grim, compared to Natalie’s Alva.
|Even five years prior, ET was too overripe to play Alva Starr in 'Property.'|
In Property, the character ages are skewed. While Natalie could pass for girlish, she's cutting it close here at 28, as Alva is 18, a bit like Elizabeth Taylor at 27 playing 20ish Catherine Holly in her one-act Williams expansion, Suddenly, Last Summer. (Actually, Elizabeth was first announced as Alva, with Montgomery Clift as Owen Legate, and Richard Burton directing—a decade earlier ET and Monty would have been great.) Kate Reid, as the monster mama, was only eight years older than Wood, but looking a bit blowsy, pulls it off. However, as Mama’s boy toy J.J., Charles Bronson at 45, a sinister stud in the Stanley Kowalski mold, already looks weathered.
The big problem of Property, other than expanding a one-act, is that Hollywood censorship and studio self-censorship wreak havoc with character motivations. Alva Starr's morality is constantly teased, but as coy as the character herself, and is left ambiguous. Is Alva a huge flirt in the Scarlett O’ Hara manner? Or is she a glorified whore, who draws male clientele to her mother’s Depression era boarding house? Or is she in denial, ala Blanche Dubois, while carrying on at the Tarantula Arms on the down low? Redford’s character calls her a whore at several key points, Alva’s monster mother throws in her face that she’s slept with every man in town. Despite earlier indications this is true, Alva’s crushed by these accusations.
|Owen is alternately enchanted and exasperated by Alva's tales.|
After the climactic scene between Alva and Mrs. Starr, the movie runs out of steam. According to Pollack, in the original script, after their showdown, Alva still runs away. But instead of meeting up with Owen, she becomes a prostitute in New Orleans, picking up men at the train station. In a Williams-esque moment, when one travelling salesman compliments her, Alva asks, "Did you say beautiful?" As he says it again, she responds, "My name is Alva Starr. Starr with two R's."
Instead, the movie reunites the couple, only to have vengeful Mama expose Alva’s prior actions. Owen is angered again, and this sends Alva fleeing into the rainy night. The film takes us back to Willie, back on the railroad tracks, to conclude the tale, explaining that Alva died of a “lung affliction.”
However, I’ve also read that the “Alva as prostitute” scene took place after she runs away from Mama and Owen, followed by her Willie’s railroad epitaph. This makes more sense, or it would have been a 90 minute movie otherwise. Dabney Coleman is listed on various sites as “The Salesman.” In a recent interview, Coleman commented that his pal Pollack got him the role, but it was cut—though he was thrilled to play a scene with Natalie Wood.
|Natalie Wood and Dabney Coleman's back, in a deleted scene, where Alva's doing more than waiting on a train.|
This Property Is Condemned was filmed and released at the same time as Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but their directors’ takes are totally different. With Woolf, director Mike Nichols fought the Warner Brothers’ interfering and fears, and the result was a film that was an artistic victory, broke the censorship codes, and was a smash hit. Property's studio and producer John Houseman held sway over the production, smoothing away the rough edges. Sydney Pollack was just as much a film novice as Mike Nichols, but pegged himself early on as a skilled but obedient studio director. And so this Property suffered accordingly.
|In another deleted scene, Wood with 40-something boy toy Charles Bronson.|
At the time, Williams' once-daring work seemed dated compared to the realistic style of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, making him passé. However, Tennessee Williams’ work has passed on into classic status, especially after he died. Although Natalie Wood is often first remembered for her mysterious death, I hope she will also be remembered for her best work.
I am not a film fabulist, who insists there is movie magic where there is actually none. But I do think that Natalie Wood was much underrated as an actress, especially here, as Alva Starr. Like her friend Elizabeth Taylor, Wood’s range wasn’t huge, but within her reach, Natalie was naturally appealing and hauntingly memorable.
|Make a wish: The lovely moment where Redford's Owen sees Natalie's Alva Starr for the first time.|