Fay Wray, the Canadian-born actress who achieved immortal fame in the paw of King Kong, died on Sunday, August 8, 2004. The announcement was made by close friend of the actress; no cause of death was given.
Born in 1907, Wray had a substantial film career in the 1930s, including several highly regarded films. In the 1940s, she retired to marry and raise a family, then resumed her acting career in the 1950s, appearing in several films and even an early television series (Pride of the Family) in 1953. She left acting again in the 1960s and 1970s. Her last credit, according to the Internet Movie Data Base, was a co-starring role in Gideon’s Trumpet, a 1980 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV movie starring Henry Fonda, Jose Ferrer, and John Houseman.
As sometimes happens in acting careers, Wray became famous for a role in a single film that eclipsed the rest of her career. In the original version of King Kong (1933), the played Ann Darrow, the out-of-work actress who accepts a dubious offer of work from adventure filmmaker Carl Denham (Robert Armstrong) to go to a mysterious South Seas island. There, Darrow is kidnapped by the local villagers and sacrified to their god, who turns out to be a fifty-foot tall gorilla. Despite his fearsome savagery (killing numerous prehistoric beasts and dozens of people), Kong falls in love with the blond beauty, which leads to his capture and eventually to his (quite literal) downfall.
Her fame in this role earned Wray the perhaps dubious distinction of being the film world’s first true Scream Queen (a designation applied –for obvious reasons — to actresses who played victims or potential victims in horror films). Kong was not the only film in which she exercised her lungs. She also co-starred with Lionel Atwill in a trio horror films during this period: Dr X (1932)l; The Vampire Bat(1933), also with Melvyn Douglas, and Dwight Frye; and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, remade in 1954 as House of Wax). And in 1932 she starred with Joel McCrea and Leslie Banks in The Most Dangerous Game, the best screen version of Robert Connell’s short story about a madman on a lonely island who hunts human prey. With its mysterious, foggy island setting, a cast that includes Kong-actors Robert Armstrong and Noble Johnson, and with Kong-director Ernest Schoedsack behind the camera, Game makes an interesting companion piece to King Kong.
Wray wrote her autobiography in 1988; she was working on a sequel at the time of her death. In 1989 she won the Women in Film’s Crystal Award. In 2003 she received the Palm Beach International Film Festival’s Legend in Film award. And she has a star on the Hollywood walk of fame at 6349 Hollywood Blvd.
King Kong received unfortunate remake treatment from producer Dino De Laurentiis in 1976, with Jessica Lange in the Wray role. The film is being remade again, this time by director Peter Jackson (Lord of the Rings), with Naomi Watts as the giant ape’s blond love interest. Reportedly, Jackson had been trying to interest Wray in doing a cameo. Wray herself had gone through a period of resenting the way her association with the original film had overshadowed the rest of her career, but she came to terms with her fame in the 1960s, thanks to Kong’s continuing reputation as one of the most memorable classics of cinema.