Some movie stars fought their way to the top, some probably slept their way to the top. Fay Wray, who died Sunday at 96 in Manhattan, screamed her way to the top.
And it was really a top: the top of the Empire State Building in the classic 1933 "King Kong," at the end of which she dangled in the paw of a giant ape until a fleet of "aeroplanes" arrived to drop the hammer.
But you can't really call a Fay Wray scream just a scream. It was too rich, dense, urgent, primal -- too complete. It wasn't just noise, it was agony and fear and hopelessness, it carried with it the tragic conviction that civilization was an illusion, and it was driven forward largely by the possibility that Mr. Right would turn out to be a 40-foot-tall monkey. You'd scream too, though probably without as much eloquence, beauty or class.
Fear makes most people ugly and stupid. That was one part of the magical Wray way: When she screamed, she was still beautiful. At full-decibel yelp, she managed somehow to conjure a whole universe of human frailty into the orchestration of a lovely face, irises widened to f/1, tender throat a-tremble, delicate little cluster of fingers rising fitfully to cupid lips. The eyes, the eyes, the eyes: huge, glistening, radiant with the approach of the hideous. Not even Edvard Munch, with his famous, eternal screamer on the bridge, quite got the whole sense of human horror that Wray delivered when she let fly one of her cloud splitters.
Yet the scream did not keep her a star. It only kept her an icon, which was of limited use to her, but quite helpful as a touchstone or a metaphor for the rest of us.
She was born in Alberta, Canada, in 1907 but grew up in Los Angeles. She was one of the first generation of pretty young girls who tried to get into the movies by hanging around, beginning in 1919 in small parts. Something like stardom arrived in 1928 when she was cast in Erich von Stroheim's "The Wedding March," and for a while she was up there with the best, starring opposite Gary Cooper, William Powell, Fredric March and Ronald Colman.
Those were all tall, dark, handsome leading men, but urban legend asserts that a producer-director said to her in 1933, "You shall have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood." She didn't know he was talking about a monkey.
The film made her and wrecked her. She never lived it down and even had a laugh at its expense in titling her autobiography "On the Other Hand," a play on her famous ride above the sidewalks of New York in the monkey's paw. After "Kong," in the casual cruelty that is so much a part of the Hollywood method, the parts got smaller, then went away. She retired in 1942, came back for a few years in the '50s, then left pretty much for good after "Dragstrip Riot" in 1958.
Still, it's a legacy. Most famous line: AIIIYYYYYYYYYYEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!