Sunday, 27 May 2012

                 Anatomy Of A Stage Parent

What is a stage parent? More importantly, what separates a parent who simply wants the best for their offspring and who want them to achieve what they couldn't, and the ones who want to live vicariously and keep the lifestyle and wealth that their child earns? I'm not a psychologist but I think I have an idea of what strays from normal ambition to perverse domination and exploitation. Child star and later adult character actor Jackie Coogan (1914-1984), filed suit against his mother and stepfather in 1935 for his money that he earned in his childhood acting career and he was awarded only a relatively small sum. Soon thereafter, the Coogan Act was formed - trust funds set up for child actors to protect their earnings. 

These examples from the classic Hollywood era are interesting looks into the dynamic between the star child and the stage parent.

 It's impossible to talk about stage parents without mentioning Natalie Wood (1938-1981), and her mother, Maria Gurdin.  Before the child was even born her mother had apparently been told by a gypsy that her second daughter would be world-famous, and Natalie certainly fit well into Maria's plans. Natalie was her mother's darling, the golden girl - and the youngster would learn that there were both advantages and downsides to that position.  Maria had desperately sought the spotlight herself - and it was through Natalie that she was finally able to achieve some semblance of that dream.  While as a young girl, Natalie had the perks of being a child star, she missed out on the normalcy of childhood, something that she would come to regret later, causing her to ensure that her own children would have the kind of important and natural experiences of growing up that she had missed out on.  When her father's drinking became so out of control that he was unable to hold down jobs for any length of time, Natalie became the family breadwinner, and Maria kept her under tight control. And in something that was very common in these types of households, the other parent and the rest of the children were often pushed into the background.  Natalie rebelled, but inevitably, the strong bond she felt toward Maria and her obligation and loyalty for her family was never far from her mind. Many believe that it was Maria who instilled in Natalie her fear of water, in addition to several other phobias.

 However, as is often the case with parent-child relationships, Natalie was emotionally dependent upon her mother, and despite strains and tensions over the years, never cut her completely out of her life.  She did enjoy acting but at times became worn out from the pressure and publicity.  In her late twenties, she took some time off for herself to relax and explore other interests. Being a wife and mother overjoyed her, but she still loved acting and wanted to return to work, if at first only on a part-time basis. It can be argued that Maria pushed her into acting but Natalie had a natural gift that Maria may have tried to take credit for, but was her daughter's and only her daughter's alone. Natalie's death shattered Maria, who had lived for and through her daughter so much that she seemed to have a hard time separating her own identity from Natalie's. In a rather poignant and sad twist of fate, Maria Gurdin suffered from dementia and Alzheimer's disease in her last years, and perhaps her mind found refuge in the past, reliving those memories of her star child.

  It's also fascinating, in retrospect, to see how Natalie (and some of the other actresses that will also be written about in this post), a few times played roles in her career that had parallels with her own life and parental relationships. Rebel Without A Cause (1955), Splendor In The Grass (1961), This Property Is Condemned (1966) and especially Gypsy (1962) in which she played the title role in burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee's fictionalized and dramatized life story,  may explain why Natalie felt such affinity for these characters. She identified with their struggles, their joys, sorrows, pain and triumphs.  And her performances always ring true.  It may have hit too close to home but she was proud of her work and what it meant to her. 

 Sandra Dee (1944-2005) never managed to escape her mother, Mary Douvan, and even after her mom's death she remained a prisoner of her mother's manipulation and cushioning. Sandy was the focus of Mary's life, and would remain so until her mother's death in 1988.  But Mary ultimately did her child more harm than good. Not only did she live vicariously through her daughter's movie career, but she prevented her from learning how to make decisions for herself or face the realities behind the walls of the house or the studio.  Even Sandra's marriage to Bobby Darin was not able to liberate her from her mother's domination.  But Mary also was guilty of what we now see as one the ultimate acts of parental betrayal - she allowed and turned a blind eye to her second husband's sexual abuse of her daughter. This man, Eugene Douvan, died just before Sandra's acting career took her to Hollywood.

 Sandra's feelings about her stepfather were ambivalent - on the one hand he subjected her to horrendous abuse, but at the same time he gave her boundaries and allowed her to fit in with kids her own age. Mary wanted the perfect little princess who would never grow up, and the only way for Mary to survive the harsh reality of situations was to pretend that it wasn't happening, no matter what it might cost her daughter. Sandra, as a result of this emotional trauma, developed eating disorders and later alcoholism, which, even the fluffiest of magazine pieces and publicity at the time, is hinted at and glossed over. Sandra's son Dodd Darin, his book biography Dream Lovers: The Magnificently Shattered Lives Of Bobby Darin And Sandra Dee, also notices some disturbing things in the fan magazines - Eugene quoted as saying, "I married you just to get Sandy", and another desperately sad and telling theme - Sandra had no real friends outside of the studio. Mary may have been so lonely that she latched onto her daughter as a way of feeling loved and needed, which may explain why she tried to cater to Sandy's every whim. Unfortunately, Mary did not seem to comprehend that she was not helping her daughter, she was making her into an emotional cripple.  Sandra said herself that Mary was the best girlfriend in the world, and the worst mother. Dodd stated he found it nearly impossible to imagine his mother and grandmother apart from one another.  Mary also was in denial about Sandy's problems and to Dodd's knowledge, never took responsibility for her role in the situation. But I do believe that Mary loved her daughter, but her behavior strayed far from a healthy norm. Sandra, to the day she passed, struggled to learn the simple things the rest of us take for granted - shopping, cooking, writing checks, taking care of mundane daily tasks.  It cannot be denied that Mary's influence played a large role in what happened to Sandra.

 Sandra, too, appeared in a few films that emphasized the complexes and tensions of mother-daughter relationships. The Restless Years (1957), A Summer Place and Imitation Of Life (both 1959) not only showed that Sandra could play drama as well as comedy, but one gets the feeling that the emotion she displayed was very real.  Although in Imitation Of Life, her character's problem is the opposite of Sandra's real life situation, you can feel the anger, resentment, pain and longing when she confronts her mother.  The tears do not feel staged or rehearsed, and her words ring true. Whatever Sandra was feeling when she acted those scenes, she conveyed it to the audience in subtle facial expressions and then with compelling words that still have an impact over fifty years later.

Tuesday Weld (b. 1943), who was a fellow classmate of Sandra's in New York, was forced to become the family breadwinner at age three after the death of her father.  Her child model earnings helped to support herself, her mother Yosene Ker Weld, known as Aileen, and two older siblings. Inevitably, this pressure became too much for the little girl to handle. At the age of nine she suffered a nervous breakdown, one year later she had begun drinking heavily, and then before she was twelve, she had lost her virginity and was having relationships with older men. When she was thirteen, a romance ended badly and she attempted suicide. One can only imagine what a whirlwind of emotion and strife this would be for an adult, and Tuesday had this dumped on her plate before she was even a teenager. Despite the turmoil, she made her film debut in the low-budget film Rock Rock Rock! (1956), and became interested in the idea of an acting career. After finding some television work in New York, Tuesday and her family moved to Los Angeles and she began appearing in more films.  However, she continued her interest in older men and wild behavior, causing the press to both scold and admire her for her rebellious attitude.  After her mother tried to control her personal life, Tuesday apparently shot back, "If you don't stop bothering me, I'll quit acting . . .  and then there won't be anymore money for you, Mama."  Tuesday moved out of her mother's house when she was sixteen and bought her own residence.

 While they remained in occasional contact over the years, Tuesday and Aileen never seemed to have truly repaired their relationship. Tuesday resented her mother for taking her childhood away, and for some years even claimed that Aileen was dead, even though it was untrue. Tuesday's roles in Lord Love A Duck (1966) and in particular, Pretty Poison (1968) seem to have some interesting parallels with her personal life in that regard. Tuesday, however, resisted the trappings of stardom and turned down many key films, including Lolita (1962), which she later dismissed by saying, "I didn't have to play Lolita, I was Lolita." She managed to break free of her mother and lived and continues to live on her own terms.  For that she deserves admiration and praise, and her truly offbeat but fascinating body of work has resulted in a large cult following.

Italian actress Pier Angeli (1932-1971) and her mother Enrica had a close relationship that was both emotionally dependent and tension-filled. Pier also, in her late teens, helped support her family when she began acting in films, first in Italy and later in Hollywood, where she was signed by MGM.  Her innocent European charm made her a hit with the fan magazines and her mother's protective influence seemed endearing and proper in the early 1950s.  Her fraternal twin sister Marisa Pavan also became an actress, but she had a much more independent personality that allowed her to live more freely, while Pier was her mother's ideal daughter whom she felt was a way for her to live the dreams that she hadn't been able to have for herself.  Always chaperoned and carefully guarded, many young men, eager to just be able to have a date with the delicately beautiful young woman accepted this rule, although they had very little choice in the matter.  When Pier began seeing the unconventional and rebellious young method actor James Dean, Enrica's radar went into crisis mode and she did anything she could to break up the relationship.  Eventually, her plan worked and Pier agreed to marry singer Vic Damone who fit Enrica's credentials as a husband for her daughter. It was a decision that would have unforeseen and devastating consequences for all involved.

 The marriage lasted a few years and produced a son, but it was a mismatched and doomed union from the start. Damone was jealous and Pier loved being the center of attention and enjoyed innocent flirting.  It has been speculated that the marriage was a violent one and when it ended, Pier and Damone spent several years in a very public custody battle over their child. Pier's career never fully recovered from her decision to break her contract with her studio, which in effect blackballed her and she returned to Europe, where her film work did not have the same momentum as it had when she had left not even ten years before.  Her second marriage was also a mistake, except for the son that came from it, and the protectiveness that had shielded her in her younger years now became a liability as she found the reality of life hard to cope with. Returning to Hollywood in 1971, she hoped to resume her career but her phone wasn't ringing with offers. Then on the morning of September 10, a friend that she was staying with her found her unconscious. In a bizarre and heartbreaking coincidence, as the paramedics tried to revive her, her agent called offering her a guest spot on a television show. Pier never regained consciousness, and her death was ruled a suicide, although some people, including myself, believe that it was an accidental overdose. She had reunited with her son and she was looking forward to an outing with him that day. Enrica was devastated by the loss of her daughter, and like many stage mothers, was prone to exaggeration, and Pier's death made it easier to spin events of her life in the direction she wanted.  Perhaps Pier's onscreen vulnerability was what made her so trusting and didn't allow her to see when other people didn't have her best interests at heart.

Magarita Carmen Cansino aka Rita Hayworth (1918-1987), the beloved Love Goddess of Hollywood, was put into dancing school from when she could walk, and as she would recall afterward, she had no choice. Her father, Eduardo Cansino, had been a hit in Vaudeville dancing with his sister Elisa as The Dancing Cansinos.  After he married Ziegfield Follies dancer Volga Hayworth and produced three children, Eduardo opened a dancing school but the depression made it difficult to earn a living.  He decided to revive the Dancing Cansinos and have Rita, who was twelve years old at the time, as his dancing partner. Putting his child in less than honorable and secure places such as gambling boats makes one wonder why he didn't just select one of his students, one who was older and experienced.  There has been speculation that Rita was molested and beaten by her father at this time, since much of the time her mother was not with her and she was not allowed to have any real friends. In fact, her father eventually had her taken out of school and lied about her age so that she wouldn't have to attend. While the allegations of abuse can't really be verified, there is no doubt that young Rita was exploited and subjected to an environment that a child should not be a part of. She was not allowed to have a normal life, and later, the publicity machine in Hollywood would strangely portray her relationship with her father and her past as his dancing partner in a romantic and even erotic way.

 When Hollywood beckoned, Eduardo still tried to control his daughter and her career, but when she met Edward Judson, the man who would become her first husband, she found herself in yet another relationship with a controlling man. Her fourth husband Dick Haymes was also a rather nasty figure who reportedly physically abused her. Judson treated her like a child and sought to launch her career rather than living a life of happy matrimony.
Men were attracted to the beautiful young woman, and while her screen persona conveyed her as a sexy siren, they were surprised to learn how quiet and shy she was in real life.  Rita was at odds with her screen image, as her most often quoted statement suggests - "Men fell in love with Gilda, but woke up with me." It has been said that many of the great sex symbols were abused in childhood, and that later in life they seek security and love in relationships with men, and they tend to attract men who have less that noble intentions.  Rita, according to her daughter Princess Yasmin Khan,  was not close with her father later on. She resented that he put so much pressure on her when she was a child and placing a burden on her that no child should have to carry. When she died in 1987, after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease, it's comforting to think that this all too human but gentle woman finally found the peace that she deserved.

Veronica Lake (1922-1973), born Constance Marie Ockelman,  known around Hollywood in her brief stardom days as The Girl With The Peekaboo Bang, had a viper of a stage mother to contend with.  After Veronica's drinking and martial problems caused her career to go on the downslide in the late 1940s, Constance Trimble Ockelman sued her daughter for financial support, leading to more unsavory headlines. Many now believe that Constance used Veronica as a meal ticket, and threw her away when the money dried up. The fact that she expected her daughter to support her is not only outrageous but ridiculous.  She entered her daughter into beauty pageants while she was still underage, and after using Veronica for financial gain and security, turned against her and didn't even bother to attend the funeral of her only child. So much for motherly love.

To add insult to injury, Mrs. Okelman later told author Jeff Lenburg that Veronica was a paranoid schizophrenic, with absolutely no proof of any kind of official diagnosis or any documentation to support this. Perhaps this was a way to slander her daughter's memory and portray herself as a victim, and to get a last little bit of limelight for herself. In any case, despite Veronica's turbulent life and problems with alcohol and depression, she did not deserve to be treated that way by her own mother. And it wouldn't surprise me that she had a hard time having a healthy relationship with her own offspring as a result. This lady was in very bad shape at the end of her all-too-brief life, and the fact that her mother treated her the way that she did, even after her death, is just so painful and outrageous to think about.  I can't fathom how Mrs. Okelman was even capable of maternal love and affection, and it wouldn't come as a shock at all to learn that Veronica seldom got either from this stage mother from you know where.

I will finish this off by saying I don't claim to know all the details, and while there's nothing wrong with having ambitions for your children, there needs to be a healthy balance in there. Your child's safety, interests and needs have to come first.  They need to feel loved, protected, nurtured and especially, allowed to be a child. All of these girls were deprived of that in some fashion, and all of them suffered as a result and it severely affected their sense of self-worth, their emotional security and their future relationships. Children are a gift, and being a parent is a privilege, not a right. Parental love is a critical element in a person's life, and it needs to be given and shown without any strings attached and without conditions.

1 comment:

  1. thank you. natalie wood is my all time favorite actress. thank you for your research which shows her mother in a different light than which she is usually portrayed in.
    didn't pier leave a note? i have heard that she did. i will check into this further. keep up the great work.