If you have ever seen such classics as Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, Gypsy, and many more, you would have been mesmerized by the beauty, grace, and talent that was Natalie Wood.
With her doe-like brown eyes, her slight, petite frame, and her ability to showcase real, intense emotions, Natalie was breathtakingly captivating to watch on screen.
Wood was born in San Francisco, California in 1938 to Russian immigrant parents. Her mother, Maria, was a harsh and disciplined woman, and was also incredibly emotionally, psychologically, and verbally abusive and manipulative.
She was right about one thing, however. Her mother would often tell her she would die of drowning and dark water, which unfortunately foreshadowed Natalie's tragic end.
With a mother so obsessed with fame and riches for her daughters, Natalie, her actress sister Lana, and their other sister Olga, departed for Los Angeles.
Her First Film Role
Natalie Wood's first little break into the industry was the 1943 film Happy Land, in which she caught the eye of director Irving Pichel. Two years later, he contacted Wood's mother, asking for Natalie to appear in Tomorrow is Forever in 1941, opposite Orsen Welles and Claudette Colbert.
Welles immediately picked up on her talent, describing her as being "so good, she was terrifying."
Natalie truly rose to stardom in the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street, which propelled her to become one of the top child stars in Hollywood, and even gave her a spot on a float in the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade every year.
Rebel Without A Cause
Wood made the transition from child star to adult star when she acted alongside James Dean and Sal Mineo in Nicholas Rey's Rebel Without A Cause, one of my personal favorite films of all time.
Working so close to directors and actors who were immersed into Method Acting helped her begin to hone her craft and become a true artist.
However, it was also during this time that she began to truly get the attention of America, and became distracted by the pressure to look and behave perfectly to appeal to masses. She signed a contract with Warner Bros., and producers recommended she act in many horrible films in which she played the boring girlfriend role over and over. Warner Bros. also recommend she marry her childhood idol, Robert Wagner, a move made more for publicity than for love.
Before the age of twenty, and after appearing in nine films that majorly flopped, including one called All the Fine Young Cannibals, Natalie's film career was officially over. It seemed her "private" life splashed all over the news was making more waves than her acting career.
A Second Chance
Director Elia Kazan of On the Waterfront, however, understood Natalie's full potential.
In 1961, he gave her the opportunity to redeem herself with Splendor in the Grass, a story about a young girl (Wood) who falls in love with a young man (Warren Beatty), but who is afraid of having sexual relations for fear of judgement. She goes mad upon hearing about his relationship with a more "loose" woman, and is carried off to a psych institution. This film earned her a Best Actress Oscar Nomination.
Immediately following Splendor in the Grass, Wood appeared in the classic West Side Story, in which she showcased immense talents in acting and dancing. This meant that Natalie Wood was back. It became the highest grossing film in 1961.
Wood divorced Wagner and began to date many famous men in Hollywood (including the handsome Warren Beatty), giving the tabloids quite a field day. She finally settled and married Richard Gregson, a British producer, but divorced him in 1972, when she found out he was cheating on her with his secretary.
Following West Side Story, Wood went on to appear in Gypsy, Love with a Proper Stranger director Steve McQueen, Sex and the Single Girl, Inside Daisy Clover with Robert Redford, The Great Race with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, and This Property Is Condemned, again with Robert Redford.
Natalie Wood was offered a part in Bonnie & Clyde starring opposite Warren Beatty, but began to pull away from Hollywood as she suffered a nervous breakdown. She decided against filming and being separated from her therapist.
Romance blossomed again between Natalie and Robert Wagner, as they reconnected for the second time.
When Art Reflects Life
Natalie's last big hit was Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a film depicting two couples exploring the world of "swinging." Movie critic Pauline Kael of The New Yorker had this to say:
I think it’s almost impossible to watch Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice without wondering how much the actors are playing themselves. Natalie Wood is still doing what she was doing as a child — still telegraphing us that she’s being cute and funny — and she’s wrong. When she tries hard, she just becomes an agitated iron butterfly.
Wood's career consisted of characters that were either mad, destructive due to their over-sexual nature, or a mixture of the two. Perhaps Natalie could embody these characters to a tee, clearly a reflection on her actual life; the tumultuous relationships and the pressure from Hollywood caused her to turn to alcohol and rely on prescription drugs to calm her down.
Natalie's Untimely Death
Wood's relationship with Wagner began to deteriorate again, and she turned to Christopher Walken, her costar on Brainstorm.
In November 1981, Wood, Wagner, and Walken took a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island, CA aboard the 'Spendour.' With the boat's captain Dennis Davern taking care of the steering, the three actors drank and took prescription pills.
According to Davern, when docked that night, Wagner confronted Walken about having a relationship with Natalie, causing Walken to run to his stateroom cabin and shut himself in there all night.
Davern heard Natalie and Robert begin to argue, and wanting to give them privacy, he turned up the music in the bridge. Suddenly quiet, Davern peeked his head out to check on the couple. Wagner told Davern to look around the boat, as Natalie had suddenly gone missing.
Natalie's body was found a mile away from the yacht November 29, 1981 with the dinghy drifting nearby. She had a BAC of 0.14%, with two types of medication in her bloodstream, and her body was covered in bruises that are suspected to have been given to her before she was even in the water.
No one seems to know what really happened to Wood that night, but Wagner denies any activity involving her death.
Wood has left behind two lovely daughters, movies depicting the pain and strength of being a young woman, and an incredible life story.
Her legend might be tragic, but she was a lot more powerful than we may give her credit. She dealt with the pressures of being a wanted woman in Hollywood, and gave her all in every performance. She is a personal inspiration, and I hope to someday have as much talent as this stunning beauty did.