What I See When I Look at Cherie Currie

     Foxes (1980) opens with a shot of a bare foot hanging off of a bed. After panning up the body of a sleeping young woman, the camera travels throughout her room, charting the detritus of adolescent life; pink plastic curlers, makeup, half-eaten Twinkies, Clearasil, and pictures of John Travolta and KISS. Four girls are entwined in sleep. It is a peaceful scene, filled with both the immediacy and nostalgia of youth. It is a fleeting moment of calm and a testament to the intimacy of adolescent bonds. The moment is shattered by an alarm clock radio, a token of reality calling the girls back from dreams and illusion. Three of the girls wake up and grudgingly set their sights on the fourth girl, still in a deep sleep. “Oh Christ. We gotta wake up Annie,” one girl says, exasperated. They begin to discuss the girl: she had been out late last night, was she drinking or on Quaaludes? “She was sick all over some guy’s car,” a girl mentions. They set the radio next to her head, raising the volume. Still she sleeps. They grab a glass of water, sprinkling some on her face. She continues to sleep. Jeanie, played by Jodie Foster, throws the remaining water on her face. She awakens and sleepily addresses the girls gathered around her. This will be the last moment that she is in repose for Annie is a force, an agent of chaos. She is kinetic energy. Wherever there is screaming, giggling, crashing, or breaking, there is Annie.

     Foxes is the story of four adolescent girls, dealing with all of life’s dysfunctions, while living in an intoxicating but unforgiving landscape, one that dwarfs them both physically and emotionally. Parents are dismissive and absent at best, jealous or abusive at worst. The girls find solace with one another, as they dream of finding a house for themselves, creating the home that they never had. Annie is played by Cherie Currie. Though not the protagonist of the film, she is the fixed point around which everyone and everything orbits. Throughout Foxes, Annie refuses to be contained. She rushes from dirtbag older men to drugs and beer, searching for that quiet, that stillness, that sense of contentment with herself. Despite, or maybe because of, her chaos, the girls become the main support in her life, as they all daydream of making a world all their own, where they are together and they are safe. Annie is simultaneously a warning and a lesson and an ode to reckless youth. She is a fictional character, but she is also Currie’s own youth in an all-girl teenage rock band and she is also a part of my youth.

     When Currie was fifteen years old, she auditioned for and became the lead singer of The Runaways, a group that included a young Joan Jett. They sang about rebellion and desire, and being a teenager in an era when rock and roll reigned supreme. There was a simplicity to their songs, but also a vitality and immediacy. There was a thrill in hearing young women defy expectation, reveling in a hedonistic world that was usually only accessible to women as groupies. Currie had power. She would strut around the stage in a corset daring people to look at her, proclaiming her viciousness, discarding convention. It was a confrontation with her own sexualization. It was brazen. It put her in control. The band was only together for a short time, but the repercussions of the world that Currie was thrust into would affect her for years to come. There was rampant drug addiction, alcoholism, and stories of sexual assault. It was a brutal world that Currie was forced to navigate alone. But the energy, the sense of caustic abandon, that Currie brought to The Runaways was the energy that she would later bring to the character of Annie.

     I think about Annie often because a part of me was her—the part that hurtled towards destruction without really wanting it or knowing why, the part that was feeling and reacting to the depths of an unarticulated rage inside of me by seeking to destroy it. In my early twenties, I was careening daily, hourly from one bad habit to another, drinking until I was senseless, feeling my life whirling into chaos, feeling as if I was powerless to stop it. I became a chore to the people around me, I became the person who had to be taken care of. My emotions and self-loathing were driving everything. I would repress all of it until I exploded—breaking things, lashing out at people, passing out, falling down, or wandering off in the middle of the night. My memory is spotty at best, but what is forgotten has been filled in with shame and guilt. Guilt that I had no right to be this way. I was a relatively well-adjusted young woman who had lived a life of comfort and stability up until this point. I was a healthy, fairly attractive twenty-year-old with no responsibilities, but I hated myself and so I went out. I went to parties, I went to bars, and I did whatever I could to forget myself for a moment. What started out as a little healthy rebellion careened out of control in a way that I couldn’t understand because I was never sober enough to question the events of the previous night or the thoughts running through my head. Always having been shy, I was now riddled with anxiety, and things became dark and messy and it all spiraled long before I could articulate what it was that was wrong. It descended into chaos before I realized that I could stop it and then finally I did. 

     So, when I think about Annie and Cherie Currie, I also think of my younger self. When I think about Annie, I can’t help but think about the walls that we put up in order to appear strong when, in truth, we are so painfully vulnerable. I think about how those walls, those inadequate coping mechanisms, alongside the fear of being seen and its twin loneliness, can come to dictate a life so completely. I think of carelessness, of the thrill and danger of rushing into chaos with the utter calm of a person intent on making their inner turmoil a physical presence. I think about how life can so quickly become dictated by rage and sadness, to the point that nothing else can get in. So Annie is special to me. Annie feels like me. When I see her head lolling about, when I see her murmuring inaudibly, her eyes hazy and unfocused, I see a former version of myself. I see a girl longing for stability, clarity, and the warmth and safety of her friends (a feeling I didn’t know for I had become so emotionally isolated). I feel the pain that she radiates, the pain forcing her to ricochet from one amusement to another in order to outrun herself. I want her to find peace because I know what it is to want that peace, even though you have no idea what it might look like, even though you appear to actively disdain it. I see a girl trying to define herself within the world, just as I too was wondering who I was or who I could be. I see the senseless recklessness of my own youth, but I also see my own survival, the triumph over my rage. I see how different I am from my former self, how much I’ve grown, but I also see how important it is to never hide from this former self. It will always be a part of me; that hurt, pain, and fear that was so scary to me also made me learn so much about myself and it should never be forgotten. Annie helps me remember this. 

Natalie’s Tigers and the Isolation of Stardom

     The girl reclines on a poolside lounge chair reading a script. Having paused, she raises her head. She is deep in thought. It seems a relatively commonplace photograph of a starlet: a young woman in repose while also at work. It illustrates the promise of Hollywood; of stardom, wealth, and ease. The image of effortlessness belies the labor of acting, of fame. There is, of course, one unusual element: the girl is surrounded by stuffed animal tigers. The girl is Natalie Wood—the child actress turned ingénue turned well-respected actor turned icon of tragedy. It was not uncommon for Wood, a young woman at the time, to be photographed clutching her tigers to her body or placing them around her as she performed various tasks. When I saw these photographs for the first time, I became fascinated with what they could mean within the history of Wood’s life as well as the larger history of Hollywood itself. They are playful and fun, but they are also dark and upsetting, a meditation on loneliness and trauma passed off as lightness, as the mere childishness of a charming young woman. 

     The troubled child star has long been a cliche, but, as with many cliches, there is a kernel of truth to it. Natalie was an example of this. From a young age, her mother, armed with sheer determination and a fortune teller’s assertion that her daughter was destined for greatness, moved the family to Los Angeles to pursue Natalie’s career as an actress. The mother, domineering at best, abusive at worst, pushed Natalie to approach men that she believed could better her career. Natalie’s career became the predominant concern of the family and everything else, including the other children, was neglected. In this atmosphere of intense scrutiny, even Natalie was neglected. If she was not satisfied with the emotional resonance of a take, Natalie’s mother was known to force her into moments of emotional distress, reminding her of traumatizing events in her life in order to make her cry. According to biographer Suzanne Finstad, it was then that the boundaries between reality and fiction began to blur for Natalie. Never allowed to spend time with children her own age, Natalie never developed a sense of self outside of the characters that she played. Her identity became wrapped up in the stories that defined her work. She became unable to discern reality from fantasy, life from movie-making. And so singularly focused was the mother on living through her daughter’s successes, that she failed to see the girl in front of her.

     Later, as a young woman, Natalie was subjected to many of the horrors that have long been a staple of Hollywood. On the set of Rebel Without a Cause, her director, Nicholas Ray, positioned himself as a mentor to his young stars and used the excess of time spent with Natalie, who was then sixteen, to initiate a sexual relationship. He was forty-three years old and the affair was unquestioned—an accepted secret on the set. 

    As she grew older, she knew that sustaining her career meant navigating the tricky transition period from child star to mature actress. As such, she was seeking roles that would showcase her range and ability. She had, once again, been put in a position where she had to prove herself. One night, Natalie had a meeting in the hotel room of a famous and well-respected actor. He told her that he had a possible role for her. He had been an idol of hers since childhood. She went to the hotel room and he raped her, telling her that if she ever spoke about it, he would end her career. She would never publicly name her attacker, but she would be forced into his presence at parties and movie premieres. Natalie had been robbed of her choices, her options, and her agency. The studio surely would have protected him and discarded her; she was, after all, only one of thousands of potential starlets. This trauma is what actually lived behind the illusion of elegance that Hollywood projected of itself. Natalie was just one of the many women sacrificed to bolster the illusion—pain and suffering became the price of that specific artificial beauty.  

     Natalie Wood’s story is an exercise in extremes; a childhood sacrificed for a heightened, superficial world, a world that she had been forced into by a mother who was anything but nurturing. It soon became the only reality she knew. Her life and her identity were never truly her own and she struggled with them for the remainder of her life. She was forced to endure a long succession of people who preyed upon her and they were often the very people who were supposed to protect her. Hers is also a story that serves as proof that the Hollywood dream is no more than a fabrication, a glimpse of beauty that can come crashing into a life with unrelenting force. She was the image of the ideal, the non-threatening girl next door. Armed with large, expressive eyes, she became an image of sweetness without substance, of a body without a self. She became Hollywood’s dream of itself, all of its aspiration, its hopes of grandeur and triumph. But much like Hollywood, there was a hidden reality, a darker reality—a collection of secrets lying below the surface. And Natalie Wood is that reality. She is the history of Hollywood, in all its worst impulses and all its most egregious violations. 

     When I see these photographs I think of this other story, the one that took place far away from the glamour, the lights, and the artifice. At first glance, they might signal the remains of a whimsicality, of a sweet girlishness. But to me they seem to be so much more than that. They demonstrate darkness and frailty, the need to be comforted and seen, the ways we cope or fail to cope, and the basic necessities of existence that, in an attempt to seem strong or invincible, are often deemed unimportant. I see a beautiful girl trying her hardest to find some lasting solace, some companionship. But I also think that these photographs are an indispensable part of her legacy. To me, they offer a more intimate glimpse into her life than any other photograph taken of her. A far cry from production stills or studio sanctioned dates, these images show isolation. They show a person dealing with the trauma of their life in any way possible, grasping for peace. They show a person. A real person. Not an actress and not a role, but the one thing that Natalie Wood had wanted to be so badly for her entire life.

Finstad, Suzanne. Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography. New York, Broadway Books, 2020.