Fay Wray died Sunday at the age of 96. Roger Ebert once described the time the actress met Hugh Hefner, nearly four decades after she had starred opposite the ape in King Kong. "I loved your movie," Hefner told her. "Which one?" she replied.
Wray might occupy a unique place in film history. Like Hefner, hardly anyone remembers the other hundred-odd flicks she appeared in. But hardly anyone remembers the name of her character in Kong either: It's always "King Kong and Fay Wray," the fictional gorilla and the actual actress. Who else has absorbed a role so completely but only played it once?
Kong was made in 1933 by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, directors who had first made their mark with Grass and Chang, a pair of sometimes stunning but terribly patronizing documentaries about "primitive" cultures. As Eric Barnouw wrote in Documentary, his history of the genre, Grass is a movie about a long, arduous migration of 50,000 people in which "the final emphasis was not on what they had endured but—in a brash display of egotism—on the heroic accomplishment of the film makers." In Chang, authentic footage mixed freely with staged scenes, an approach that sometimes takes contemporary audiences by surprise but was typical of the documentaries of the era. It wasn't a big step from there to King Kong, where Cooper and Schoedsack could savor their obsession with the primitive without any interference from reality; cast completely into the world of fantasy, they were free to introduce any images they pleased.
And so we had the dinosaurs, and the chanting mob of tribesmen, and of course Kong, that gigantic stop-motion simian. But the most important image was Wray, the woman who caught the eye not just of the audience but of Kong himself.
The surrealist critic (and later screenwriter) Jean Ferry offered an admirably concise summary of the film in 1934. "King Kong," he wrote, "is the grandiloquent story of an enormously tall ape who seizes a white woman; he is recaptured and, taken to New York, escapes from the theater where he is on exhibition. He makes off, carrying the woman to the very top of the world's highest building, where he is vanquished by a squadron of planes." Needless to say, it wasn't this story that gave the movie its iconic power—and it certainly wasn't the acting or the script. It was that dreamlike series of fantastic images, most of them featuring Kong, Wray, or both.
The modern viewer watching King Kong might be put off by the holes in the plot and the gaps in the special effects; or, worse, he might accept them, condescendingly, as problems that are only obvious to us sophisticated cineastes of today. In fact, many moviegoers noticed them in the '30s as well. Ferry complained that he had seen the film (which he loved) with an audience that had greeted it with "howls of derision and contempt." He himself conceded that the picture was filled with "flagrant…absurdity"—indeed, that was part of what he admired about it. He offered a list of eight such insults to logic, of which my favorite is the last: "King Kong perpetually changes size; one minute his hand is big enough to seize an underground train, the next it only goes round the torso of a woman we see waving her arms and legs about." The result, he argued, was a movie with the logic of "the dream in which, pursued by too pressing a danger, we create the elements of our salvation…without being able to escape." It crossbred those childhood terrors with something more mature but no less primal: the monster's lust for Fay Wray.
In the words of Robert Anton Wilson:
Can't blame the big ape
I, too, went a bit goofy
Over Fay Wray once
"The movie," the actress once declared, "affects males of all ages." One can only guess what it did for Hefner.
In 1936 Joseph Cornell reedited a reputedly awful (I haven't seen it) Hollywood potboiler, East of Borneo, into a powerful, dreamlike short called Rose Hobart. Put simply, he removed the plot, the dialogue, and the acting—removed everything but a succession of mysterious images, most of them featuring the actress cited in Cornell's title. King Kong became a classic the same way. In their memories, millions of viewers excised everything wooden or laughable about the movie, until all that was left were those visions of Wray and Kong, of beauty and the beast.
It might seem unfair to reduce someone's life to a handful of half-remembered scenes from a 70-year-old monster movie. Wray starred in many other pictures, some of them quite good. (I liked her best in The Mystery of the Wax Museum, a pre-Code horror film that feels far more modern than its famous '50s remake, House of Wax.) She was married three times, and she bore several children. "In later years," The New York Times' obituary reports, "she also wrote plays that were produced in regional theaters." I don't know a thing about those plays. Perhaps they're wonderful.
But the Fay Wray we know is not the Fay Wray who just died. The Fay Wray we know isn't really a person at all. She's a strip of celluloid, a beam of light, an enormous image on a screen; a few minutes of memories; a screaming starlet grasped by an impossible ape. Such are the building blocks of immortality.