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A TALL, DARK LEADING MAN? FAY WRAY WAS THINKING CARY GRANT, NOT KING KONG

When I interviewed Fay Wray in 1999 for Time Out New York, she wondered aloud if she would live to be 100. She wasn't counting on it, but you could tell that she kind of liked the idea. On August 8, she died in her Manhattan apartment at the age of 96. I hope--and suspect--this vivacious, classy lady had a great time right up to the end. --GUY FLATLEY

Norma Desmond was right. They did have faces then. And none was more luminous than that of the heroine of “The Wedding March,” Erich von Stroheim’s 1928 silent screen gem about the doomed affair between Mitzi, a virginal working-class girl and a sybaritic, financially strapped member of the decadent Viennese aristocracy (played by Von Stroheim). The eyes of the ethereal beauty, as she stands in the crowd and watches the man who seduced her leave St. Stephen’s Cathedral with his wealthy bride at his side, are enormous and tearful, and they articulate with poignant clarity all the things her voice cannot say.

Yet it was not silence that made actress Fay Wray famous; her high-C shrieking in “King Kong,” five years later, put her on the movie map. “When the producer, Merian Cooper, told me I was going to have the tallest, darkest leading man in Hollywood, I thought he meant Cary Grant. Still, I knew right away that ‘Kong’ was going to be a hit,” Wray recalls, sitting in a splendid skyscraper apartment with a view of Manhattan that would have driven the Hairy One ape.

Her blue eyes displaying a youthful zest, this 91-year-old veteran of more than 80 movies is dressed in a svelte James Riva creation for a soiree in Soho later that evening. And she is picture-perfect. “Over the years, ‘King Kong’ just grew and grew,” she continues, “attaching itself firmly to my consciousness. I couldn’t escape it. Finally, I decided I might as well accept it and be glad of it.”

These days, Wray is overjoyed by Film Forum’s decision to begin its Von Stroheim series on Friday with the “The Wedding March,” her favorite movie by far and one of which she has almost total recall—from the moment of her first meeting with the master to the day Paramount stopped the cameras on the over-budget production, ending the story long before Von Stroheim (seen at right with his leading lady) had intended.

At the time, Fay was a teenager who’d recently dropped out of Hollywood High to help support her family by making two-reel Westerns at Universal. An agent who saw promise in the starlet took her to meet the formidable actor-director at his studio. “The agent, a very nice woman, sat at one end of his desk, and I sat directly across from Von Stroheim in a big armchair,” Wray recalls. “Then he got up and began pacing back and forth as he told me the story of ‘The Wedding March.’ There was an extraordinary intensity about him. When he finished, he came around the desk and said to me, ‘You think you could play the part of Mitzi?’ I couldn’t even shake his hand; I just put my face in my hands and cried. Mr. Von Stroheim, who was partial to people with high emotional content, turned to the agent and said, ‘Oh, I can work with her!’ Then the two of them walked off and left me alone in the room. But I didn’t feel lonely, because I knew I was now in the hands of a great artist.”

And when he wasn’t bellowing at his extras, he was a surprisingly sensitive artist, too. “Von Stroheim was a gentle, religious person—there was a priest on the set every day,” she remembers. “And he loved it when Mrs. Von Stroheim would bring their little boy onto the set. I do think I was lovely in the film, and that was because I was in love with doing it. If only I could have done three or four more films with him. Oh, that would have been so beautiful! But everything just stopped. I’m sure he was very troubled when Paramount decided not to finish the film, but he didn’t talk to me about it. I do know that Mitzi became a nun, and the character Von Stroheim played joined the service and saw her again when he stopped at the nunnery for some refreshment. But I forget what happened next—isn’t that wild? Wouldn’t you think I’d pay a lot of attention to something like that?”

What the actress will never forget or lose is her love for movies. “As a little girl sitting in the dark of a theater,” Wray says, “I came to believe in magic. Magic could happen in life, because I saw it happen on the screen. It was the truth, and I wanted to become part of that truth. And I did.”