I loved watching Inside Daisy Clover with my mom when I was little, but the only part that really stuck with me was Daisy (Natalie Wood) sticking her head in the oven. In fact, it came as a slight shock that an entire story precedes the head-in-the-oven bit. Little did I know that an even bigger and more fabulous surprise was in store for me—Christopher Plummer and Robert Redford also round out the cast! Can you believe it?! What an incredible boon to discover two excellent actors (at their most attractive) in a beloved movie from your childhood!
Inside Daisy Clover is a weird movie to revisit. One of the first things you notice, aside from Natalie Wood being so cute and likable, is that she’s seriously over-acting. It’s 1936 and Daisy is only 15. She lives alone with her dotty mother (a.k.a. The Dealer or Old Chap), played by Ruth Gordon in a role that actually got her an Oscar nomination. Daisy’s father “took a powder” and her sickening older sister is off and married. It’s no wonder Daisy is rebellious and mad at the world, but Natalie Wood is way over the top. She speaks and moves in such an exaggerated manner that it’s not always possible to believe Daisy is boiling with anger, frustration, and sheer will. Sometimes she’s just an actress who’s trying too hard.
Daisy spends her summer days selling autographed pictures of celebrities in a little booth, and dreaming of stardom. Soon enough she gets her wish. After sending in a recording of her singing, Daisy captures the attention of Raymond Swan of Swan Studios (Christopher Plummer). Before you know it, they’re grooming her to be “America’s little Valentine” and she’s got a five year contract with the studio. As excited as she is, she finds life within the confines of the studio system stifling and infuriating. She’s the type of girl who likes to cut off large chunks of her hair at random, so her cute-as-a-button image is hard for her to stomach. Worse yet, Raymond doesn’t want the truth to get out about Daisy’s mother, so she’s placed in a sanitarium and Daisy’s sister becomes her legal guardian.
Luckily, Wade Lewis (Robert Redford) steps into the picture at this point. He’s handsome and charming, and one of the only people who can call everyone “dear heart” without sounding insincere or nauseating. Like Daisy, he’s a rising star who finds the studio system restrictive and absurd, and he mockingly refers to Mr. Swan as the Prince of Darkness. Finally someone who gets it! It is Wade who orchestrates a Christmas Day picnic for Daisy’s mother at the sanitarium, but just when things are looking up, the other shoe drops. Raymond gets wind of their visit, and fearing publicity, forbids Daisy to visit her mother at all. He does so with a pleasant smile on his face and a lilt in his voice.
Here I must pause to rave about Christopher Plummer. Not only does he look dapper and suave, he is brilliant. Robert Redford may have walked away with a Golden Globe for his role, but he was just being his usual sparkly self. Christopher Plummer was putting in a performance, and having a darn good time with it. At first Raymond Swan is all business—rather formal and slightly sinister—but after Daisy has her heart broken, we see a whole different side to him. He visits Daisy early one morning looking all tousled (rawr!) and possibly a little drunk. He gives a lively speech about the wiles of Wade Lewis, and how the Prince of Darkness couldn’t warn her because no one ever believes him. And then, then he scoops her into his arms and kisses her! All of a sudden this rather wooden character has come alive with self-awareness and passion.
Things are pretty much downhill for Daisy Clover after this point. She’s still obligated to put on a happy face and sing sappy songs, but the pressure is getting to be too much. While redoing the vocals for a truly obnoxious song (“the circus is a wacky world, how I love it”) she finally snaps and goes a little nuts. Honestly, I think if I had to hear her sing that line one more time I would have gone insane too. Daisy takes to bed in a little beach house and refuses to speak, even when Wade bops her on the head with a rose and pronounces her officially alive.
It’s not long before Mr. Swan’s patience is waning—he’s got pictures to produce and money to make. He pays Daisy an ostensibly cordial visit before nastily informing her that she’s bluffing. “You’re as sound as a roach,” he snarls, threatening to fire the nursing staff. With no one to care for her, she’ll just have to get out of bed or starve. “If you starve, I’ll sue you,” he warns in that creepily cheerful tone. Ooh! And he gives her another one of those unwanted kisses. Wow, that was icky and sexy all at the same time.
Finally we come to the head-in-the-oven scene, which by itself is reason enough to watch the movie. As Daisy tries to off herself, she’s constantly interrupted by visitors, ringing phones, and a burned hand (oops, turned the burner on by mistake). It’s such a comedy of errors that you’ll never again contemplate suicide with quite the same sense of personal tragedy and melodrama. Finally our feisty heroine throws up her hands, walks out of the house with a cup of coffee, and strolls down the beach to face the world. She barely flinches when the house explodes behind her, and when a passerby asks what happened, she simply replies, “Somebody declared war!” You go, Daisy Clover!