The guilty pleasure of ‘Daisy Clover’

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classOften associated with a “Valley of The Dolls”-type of quality, the Warner Brothers 1965 film “Inside Daisy Clover,” generally receives a somewhat worthy bad rap for it’s inflated acting and overall camp.  It “is” a bit overacted, it “is” a bit campy, it could even teeter on cult-ish. However, once you’ve come to that acceptance, then Daisy doesn’t hurt so much. Perhaps if you can clear the smoke and see director Robert Mulligan’s (best known for “To Kill A Mockingbird”) intention, the feature takes on a different tone.

Filmed on the Santa Monica Pier, and the Warner Bros. lot, “Daisy Clover” shines a light on the grungy, manufactured star machine of early Hollywood.  Daisy (Natalie Wood), a tough, tomboyish, street-wise, cigarette-smoking, 15-year-old girl, lives in a weather-worn trailer along the Santa Monica Pier, with her mother, who has a mental health condition. As a result of Daisy forwarding her recorded vocals, she is called upon by Swan Studio’s and is plucked from utter obscurity to be churned out as a flawless superstar who vehemently and continuously bucks the machine she is a part of. While Daisy is first escorted through the studio, the camera is lowered and pitched at an upward angle, to gain the perspective of imposing grandiosity. As she walks into a sound stage and is seen in comparison with an elephant door, the perspective is reinforced. During early cinema, and until approx the 1950s, studios rarely filmed on location, rather, locations were recreated. Escapist fantasy films, the likes of Busby Berkeley productions, required enormous space. Sound studios needed to be built large enough to self-contain their massive sets and when one studio wasn’t enough, two were connected as in RKO’s 1935 film “Top Hat” which required the adjoining studio that was utilized to create its fantastical Art Deco world (catch up on “Top Hat “here). 

As Daisy enters the soundstage, a set is being assembled with stairs that seem to go on to infinity, which is back-lit with soft pink and lavender lighting. In meeting Melora (Katharine Bard), Swan’s restrained wife, we later find that within a seemingly innocent 30-second conversation, Melora has easily extracted all the information necessary regarding Daisy’s personal life.  During her screen test, the scene opens with a set reminiscent of the PBS show “Electric Company,” surrounded in darkness with Daisy dressed as a dirty-faced juvenile, singing her signature song, “You’re Gonna Hear From Me.” 

Daisy’s estranged older sister Gloria (Betty Harford), is commissioned as Daisy’s guardian and first greets Daisy at her home along with Mr. Swan (Christopher Plummer) who is present to announce Daisy’s contract. One silent observance of Daisy’s mother and Swan quickly learns all the information he requires. When we later see Daisy sitting on a sprawling set of stairs, lonely, in a mansion, listening to her relative’s excited reactions as they watch a publicity reel in a nearby room, it is obvious that Daisy has been taken advantage of, as her earnings have been managed for her family’s comfort, parallelling Wood’s real life, as she became her family’s breadwinner at the ripe old age of 8.

 Swan: As incredible as it seems, I’m going to make something of you.

 Daisy: What?

 Swan: Money. 

In first entering Swan’s office, it is clear something very disappointing is about to take place, and as Daisy’s sister nervously explains that she has signed papers for their mother’s admission to a mental health facility, Swan reviews documents, stone-faced and impenetrable to Daisy’s emotional and subsequent physical outburst. In order to keep Daisy’s new persona in line with public tastes, Swan reveals that Daisy’s mother must be declared officially dead. To this we see Melora’s expression transform into sincere emotion as she looks at her husband in disbelief. So begins Swan’s subliminal implants and purposeful mental unraveling of an impressionable young starlet.

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Natalie Wood

It doesn’t take long to feel Daisy’s restlessness in her new role, and when she meets Wade (Robert Redford), a spoiled reluctant actor under Swan’s command, his California sun-kissed good looks, celebrity, and free-spirited charm win Daisy over with ease. 

Swan and Melora continue to groom Daisy.  Daisy is caught in a web of pretension, and insincerity. Deceit surrounds her. Although her mother suffers from degenerating mental incapacity, ironically she is the closest ideal to stability as well as the only individual in Daisy’s life with virtuous intentions. Fortunately, Daisy has yet to lose herself. After Swan forbids her to visit her mother, in an act of defiance, Daisy, scheduled to be at her premiere, instead decides to spend the night on Wade’s boat, only to be awakened to an apology letter with no trace of Wade. Her film debut is an incredible success, and she is given the typical Hollywood star treatment “build-up.”

Daisy runs into Wade months later, where his charm once again overrules her good-senses, and an intimate relationship resumes. When threatened with arrest by Swan due to consummation with a minor, Wade proposes marriage. Cynically, Swan asks “Nothing I said forced you into it?” 

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Robert Redford and Natalie Wood on the set of “Daisy Clover.”

While settling into a dingy room, after the newly-married couple arrives at a pueblo-like motel in the middle of the desert, it is evident that Wade has become antsy, while Daisy revels in romance. Triumphantly declaring herself as “Mrs. Wade Louis,” Wade responds with “Wade Louis, actor, drinker, rich boy, husband…fool,”  lending immediate feedback that the marriage is already over. When Daisy wakes the following morning Wade, once again, is gone. Salt is poured in the wound when Swan’s dismissive assistant, Walter Baines (Roddy McDowell), after recovering Daisy, delivers her to the Swan mansion and asks if there is anything she needs…”Mrs. Lewis.”

A poignant scene follows as we witness how truly delicate Melora’s state is when she unhinges in front of Daisy in a drunken pill-induced breakdown. She reveals her former affair with Wade, his bisexuality, and her sliced wrists, a result of the end of their relationship. 

Plummer’s performance is so passive-aggressively vile you begin to wonder if this is the same man who sang “Edelweiss,” in “Sound of Music.”. He is heartless and detached in his mogul-esque demeanor, and even more unapologetic to his goal. 

He delivers soul-crushing news without tact or emotion. The one and only time his vulnerability shows is when he wakes Daisy from her troubled slumber, the morning after her 24-hour marriage. Swan has clearly been drinking when he discloses his loathing of Wade. Although Wade and Swan’s wife, Melora, had a well-publicized affair, Swan once again reinforces where he truly stands, stating heartily…”I just signed him to three more pictures.”  Ever the opportunist, he lifts Daisy’s limp body in his arms, kissing her at her most vulnerable moment, strategically beginning a Stockholm Syndrome affair, further anchoring his control.

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Christopher Plummer and Natalie Wood in “Daisy Clover.”

Swan’s fury finally explodes toward the end of the film. Exhausted from “playing nice” with his star, who has suffered a mental breakdown after finding her mother deceased and is initially unable to speak, he slaps her in her face, unleashing his rage. It is an attempt to make her vocalize in order to clear her return to the studio, forcing her to finish a film that at this point, is hemorrhaging money, for lack of its missing starlet. For the first time, we see the fear in Daisy’s eyes.

Melora visits Daisy, well aware of the ongoing affair between Daisy and her husband, and holds a casual conversation with her about it as an attempt to wake Daisy from her emotional shock. Clearly she, too, has been coerced and rehearsed just as the studio stable of stars, and when she tells Daisy to “Hang on anyway…like me,” the harsh regret of her alignment with her husband is apparent. In gazing at Daisy, her eyes reveal that she feels especially sorry for this “particular” one…and herself. A deeper look might uncover she is accepting her karma. Her controlled emotion is a defense mechanism, blanketing her remorseful situation. When Wade visits, it’s clear he, too, has been reluctantly manipulated, sent to convince Daisy to return to the studio.

Although Daisy Clover has its bevy of melodrama, there is one scene which comes off unfortunately flawless when Daisy has a mental breakdown.  Apparently, Wood was in between two suicide attempts while filming Daisy Clover, so if this scene seems a little too real, that could be because her emotions were sincerely bubbling near the surface. In fact, when Wood cleaned up her act in 1966 after an attempted overdose, she cleared “professional” house as well, ridding herself of what she felt were toxic relationships.

The Oscar-winning Canadian-born Christopher Plummer, winner of over 16 various awards, was best known for his role in the 1965 film, “The Sound of Music” as Baron Von Trapp. His Shakespearean-like poise kept him in demand in over 90 films and counting. A lover of the theatre, in his first American role where he played opposite James Earl Jones in Othello, the NY Times called his rendition “Quite possibly the best single Shakespearean performance on this continent in our time.”  As of the date of this publication, at 82-years-old, Plummer became the oldest individual to win an Oscar, breaking Jessica Tandy’s record.

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Natalie Wood and Edmund Gwenn -Miracle on 34th Street.

Born in San Francisco the daughter of Russian immigrants, the three-time Academy Award-nominated Natalie Wood, winner of three Golden Globes, debuted with Orson Welles at the young age of 6 in the film, “Tomorrow is Forever” (1946). Her best-known role, as a child, was “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). 

During the filming of a movie, a rigged bridge unexpectedly broke. Natalie suffered a broken wrist and nearly drowned, beginning her self-fulfilling phobia. Her mother, determined to keep her daughter’s reputation as an unproblematic actress, refused her medical attention. In her young adult years she is best known for her films, “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955), “Splendor In The Grass” (1961) and controversially, most notably, her role as Maria, a Latina, in “West Side Story” (1961), remade by Steven Spielberg to be released in December 2020 (kudos to Spielberg for including the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award-winning Rita Moreno, the original Anita in the 1961 version.) Ironically, Wood’s phobia proved to manifest when her life came to an end, a result of drowning in 1981 after she was found missing from her yacht at age 43. Although there is much speculation, the unfortunate circumstances of Natalie Wood’s death remains an unsolved mystery. This month will mark what would have been Wood’s 82nd birthday. 

The irony of this film is that although it may seem inflated, the truth is many Hollywood stars and starlets were forced to reconstruct their past in order to fit the idyllic tastes of the public, as documented by professor and author Jeanine Basinger in her book, “The Star Machine.” The movie may be eccentric; unfortunately, the story is not.  When you find yourself in the mood for a few hours of guilty pleasure, without residual karma, give “Daisy Clover” a chance, you just might enjoy it. But, don’t worry…we won’t tell.

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Constance Cherise is a classic film aficionado and also freelances for Reach her at Review her portfolio here.

About this Author

Constance Cherise

Constance Cherise is a freelance writer and contributor for Turner Classic MoviesSee her work here.