Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

The screaming lady (1907-2004)

My more persistent readers will know that I like to imagine that I have personal connections with famous people. Here is my personal connection to Fay Wray, who died on Sunday. In 1999, my niece got married to a nice young man from Alberta, Canada. The wedding was in her hometown of Las Vegas. Afterwards, the Missus and I followed them on a long car journey north for a reception in his hometown, a tiny place near a town called Cardston. While wandering around the place, we happened onto a fountain that was dedicated to Wray, who was born there (on a nearby farm, not in the fountain). This was one of those happy cinema-related discoveries that happen from time to time. Like the day we went on a silly errand to a village in County Cork and discovered that it was the place where Oliver Reed had spent his latter years.

Wray did not stay in Alberta long. After her parents separated, she and her mother moved to Los Angeles. She began appearing in films while still in her teens. In all, according to her New York Times obituary, she was a player in about 100 movies. But, of course, we mainly remember her for one. She had made more than 30 movies before she starred in King Kong. During that time, the young blonde mainly played the ingenue. Among her more notable films were Erich von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and the 1929 version of The Four Feathers. After King Kong, she frequently played women in peril who did a lot of screaming. She retired from movies twice, once in 1942 and again in 1958. And she came back again for the 1980 film, Gideon’s Trumpet, which starred Henry Fonda.

Given the fact that Wray had become part of a sequence of iconic movie images long before most of us were even born, many people will have had placed her in the “Oh, I thought she was already dead” category. That’s what happens when you make your big mark in your mid-20s and then go on to live to be 96. There was something about the way she screamed when that big ape carried her up the Empire State Building that just won’t go out of our heads. Every movie woman in a perilous situation has been but an echo of her. If they haven’t already, someone should write an elegiac song for her. She even has the perfect name because it rhymes.

Wray didn’t seem to be bothered by the eternal linkage between her and the giant ape. In fact, she seemed to be pleased to have been part of cinematic history. When producer Dino De Laurentiis decided to do a 1976 remake of King Kong, he and director John Guillermin sent her a script, with the idea of her playing a small role in the film. She decided she didn’t like the script and declined to be involved. She was prescient. The remake was lambasted by the critics and, despite its accomplished special effects, it pales in our memory next to the original. (Viewing it today would evoke strange emotions indeed because, instead of scaling the Empire State Building, as in the original, the remake had Kong climb the taller World Trade Center.) Still, the remake did manage to get Academy Award nominations for cinematography and sound, as well as a special achievement award for visual effects. And it certainly didn’t hurt the career of the actor who followed in Wray’s footsteps. It was Jessica Lange’s big screen debut, and she went on to star in better films, including All That Jazz, Frances, Tootsie, Blue Sky and Big Fish, picking up both Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress Oscars along the way.

Has there ever been any point to remaking King Kong? If the answer is at all possibly yes, we will know next year. The best fantasy film director in the business, Peter Jackson, is following up his triumphant Lord of the Rings trilogy with his own remake. If anyone can possibly make a remake of this classic seem necessary (and that’s not at all certain), Jackson is the man. Said to be in the Fay Wray role this time is Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive, Le Divorce, 21 Grams).

Wray’s personal life was not always easy. In her autobiography, wittily titled On the Other Hand, she recounted that her first husband, screenwriter John Monk Saunders, was an alcoholic, a womanizer and a drug addict. She finally divorced him after he injected her with drugs as she slept, sold their house and furniture and kept the money and vanished for a time with their baby daughter. She was married two more times, but not before she had involvements with both Sinclair Lewis and Clifford Odets.

Her later years may have been less turbulent. Interviews during the latter part of her life described a woman who was bright and cheery. Refreshingly, she had a positive attitude about her life in the film business. In 1889 she gave this lovely quote to Aljean Harmetz of The New York Times: “I find it not acceptable when people blame Hollywood for the things that happened to them. Films are wonderful. I’ve had a beautiful life because of films.”

-S.L., 12 August 2004

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