|Original poster for Gypsy, 1962.|
|Natalie Wood as Louise, and Rosalind Russell as Rose in Gypsy.|
|Natalie Wood as Louise and Karl Malden as Herbie in Gypsy. (Note Caroline the cow in the background.)|
|Natalie Wood after Louise's transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee. *Sigh* She was so beautiful.|
|Natalie Wood on the set with the real Gypsy Rose Lee, who was at least 5 inches taller than Natalie.|
The 1959 Broadway musical Gypsy introduced the world to a character with a huge personality: dedicated stage mother Rose Hovick, whose only ambition in life is to make her daughter June a vaudeville star. No matter that vaudeville is already on the way out, Rose will find a way to make it happen. The character of Rose is widely known in pop culture as “Mama Rose,” but she’s actually never referred to that way in either the play or the 1962 movie version. Gypsy featured a book written by Arthur Laurents, with music by Jule Styne, and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Laurents and Sondheim had previously collaborated on West Side Story. Oddly enough, Natalie Wood starred in both the movie versions of West Side Story and Gypsy.
The score of Gypsy is simply fantastic, and it features many great songs like “Small World,” “You’ll Never Get Away From Me,” “All I Need is the Girl,” “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and “Let Me Entertain You.” While the Broadway production starred the legendary Ethel Merman as Rose, the movie starred three actors not known for their singing voices: Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden. The decision was made by someone to cut all of the songs that Karl Malden’s character, Herbie, sings, turning it into a non-singing part. That decision meant ditching the super cute song “Together (Wherever We Go),” which was filmed, but then cut. It’s included on the DVD as a bonus feature. Natalie Wood had her singing voice dubbed for West Side Story, much to her annoyance, and she did all of her own singing in Gypsy. Rosalind Russell had appeared in musicals before, as she starred in the original Broadway production of Wonderful Town, with lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and music by Leonard Bernstein. But for Gypsy her vocals were mixed with those of Lisa Kirk. Some songs, like “Mr. Goldstone, I Love You” are all Russell’s voice, while others are a mix, and Kirk did an excellent job of matching Russell’s voice.
In terms of acting, Russell, Wood, and Malden all did excellent work. The role of Herbie, Rose’s long-suffering boyfriend, requires a “normal guy” actor, and Karl Malden certainly fit that bill. Malden is by turns intense and also good-naturedly laid-back, and it’s another superb performance from an actor whose career was full of them. Russell is marvelous as Rose, who comes off as something of a more intense version of Russell’s Auntie Mame. Like Mame, Rose sucks all the oxygen out of any room she’s in. Sometimes in a good way, and sometimes in a bad way. Wood is fabulous as Louise, the plain older sister who is never the star, but finally blossoms into the burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. For the role of Louise, you need someone who is believable as both a shy wallflower and as the belle of the ball. Wood was such a good actress that she pulled it off very convincingly. I know, we all KNOW Natalie Wood is gorgeous, even when she’s dressed up as plain as she can possibly be. The costume designers did a really good job of making Wood look plain as Louise. (Orry-Kelly designed Natalie’s dresses for the burlesque scenes, but I doubt he had anything to do with the drab clothes Wood wears as Louise.)
Gypsy was directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who had a long career in Hollywood stretching back to the dawn of the talkies. An old school studio director who could handle any genre, two of LeRoy’s best known films today are Mister Roberts and Quo Vadis. I really enjoyed the sets in Gypsy. The sets throughout the movie are obviously fake. For example, the train station where Rose sings “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” and the Western set as Louise becomes the new star of the act after June leaves. I think it was an obvious choice to make the sets look like sets, and I took that to be a way of showing the audience that these characters don’t exist in the “real world.” Their whole lives revolve around showbiz, and they are disconnected from any other kind of reality. Especially Rose, who creates her own reality wherever she goes.
There aren’t many interesting behind the scenes stories from the set of Gypsy. As a small nod to my ongoing fascination with Warren Beatty, I’ll point out that Beatty was dating Wood during the production of Gypsy, and most days he could be found on the set, being a supportive boyfriend. According to Gavin Lambert’s 2005 biography of Natalie Wood, the reason that Rosalind Russell played Rose instead of Ethel Merman was a simple one: Russell’s husband, theatrical producer Frederick Brisson, owned the film rights to Gypsy, and sold the rights to Warner Brothers on the condition that Russell would play Rose. (Natalie Wood: A Life, by Gavin Lambert, p.184)
Natalie Wood began her career as an actress at the age of 5, and Wood’s biographer Suzanne Finstad has a rather dramatic view of her role in Gypsy: “Natalie was driven by demons to play the stripper with the stage mother of all stage mothers, Mama Rose-played in the movie by Rosalind Russell-viewing Gypsy as the catharsis for all her years as a child star under the tyranny of Mud.” (Mud was a nickname for Natalie’s mother Maria Zakharenko.) (Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood, by Suzanne Finstad, p.279) However, Christopher Nickens’ 1986 book Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, says the opposite. Nickens writes, “Maria realized early on that Natalie was destined to be a performer, and she was wise enough to encourage her daughter’s talents and help her make the most of them.” Nickens also includes two quotes from Natalie to back up his point. Natalie told Hedda Hopper during the filming of Gypsy, “My mother was the furthest thing from a stage mother.” When asked how she dealt with being a child actor, Wood told the Los Angeles Times: “It all depends more than anything else on the parents. I happened to enjoy it all. I wanted it. I wasn’t being pushed. I was lucky.” (All three quotes from Natalie Wood: A Biography in Photographs, by Christopher Nickens, p.113)
So, which was it? Was Gypsy just like Natalie Wood’s own childhood? Or was her mother nothing at all like Rose Hovick? The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. I think it’s fair to say that Wood had a sometimes difficult relationship with her mother, and she probably related to Louise in some ways. Natalie’s beautiful rendition of the song “Little Lamb” is proof enough for me that she felt a connection to Louise.
Another member of the Wood/Zakharenko family who might have felt a close connection to the overlooked Louise was Natalie’s little sister, Lana Wood, who also became an actress but whose career never climbed to the same heights as Natalie’s.
Wood was at the peak of her movie stardom when Gypsy was released in November 1962, and if you watch the trailer you’ll see that Warner Brothers was really selling the movie as “Natalie Wood Strips,” while in reality it’s only the last 15% of the movie that’s about Louise’s transformation into Gypsy Rose Lee. Wood received some stripping tips from Gypsy Rose Lee herself on the set. Wood was understandably a bit nervous about the stripping scenes, but in the finished film she handles them with aplomb. Because Wood was so petite, with reports of her height ranging from 5’0” to 5’3”, and the real Gypsy Rose Lee was 5’8”, director Mervyn LeRoy and director of photography Harry Stradling Sr. did their best to make Natalie look as tall as possible during the stripping scenes. Natalie’s clothes were made to accentuate her legs and give the illusion of greater height. Most of the camera angles are low, so you’re looking up at Wood, making her look taller. And notice how during the New Year’s Eve strip, the showgirls disappear into the wings by the time Natalie appears on screen, so you never see a showgirl towering over her. Wood certainly looked glamorous and very beautiful and attractive in the scenes where she’s Gypsy Rose Lee.
Gypsy was a financial success, earning $11 million at the box office, making it the 9th highest grossing movie of 1962. Warner Brothers’ other 1962 musical release, The Music Man, made just under $15 million, making it the 5th highest grossing movie of 1962. Wood and Russell were both nominated for Golden Globes for Best Actress in a Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, and Russell took home the trophy. Malden was nominated for Best Actor in a Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, losing out to Marcello Mastroianni in Divorce, Italian Style.
Gypsy is a wonderful film of one of the great American stage musicals, and it showcases great performances from Rosalind Russell, Natalie Wood, and Karl Malden.