The Legend of Natalie Wood

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“Natalie Wood never really existed. The actress with that name was a creation of her mother, a disturbed genius known by various first names, usually Maria…The person inside ‘Natalie Wood’ was lost for years, even to herself.”

So began Suzanne Finstad’s disturbing and poignant biography Natasha (Wood was born Natasha Gurdin).    

Although Natalie Wood played her share of neurotic characters onscreen, her essential appeal was that of a glorified girl-next-door, a perfect young lady. Unlike her sisters in child-acting, Elizabeth Taylor and Judy Garland, Natalie lacked a certain quality of abandoned excess—she wasn’t, in the end, camp. She didn’t acquire iconic status before or after her death, because of her seeming normalcy; her personality was distinctive (jittery, slightly manic; she was a modern Miss) but not unique enough for pop mythology. Nor was her private life (the “public” private life) as charismatically messy as that of Liz and Judy. Natalie’s ugly death stunned Hollywood and the world because it was so uncharacteristic of her perceived image. Nothing so lurid should have happened to Natalie Wood.

But the story behind the perfect façade was ugly, lurid, and heartbreaking. Especially in the beginning. Raised by a disturbed fantasist of a mother, who breastfed her at the cinema (little Natasha at age three was trained to sit silently through two-hour films without moving), Natasha was groomed from the cradle to be an actress, a star. For Maria Gurdin, nothing else existed but that image. For Natasha, soon re-christened Natalie Wood, her entire life would be alternate enslavement to her mother’s fantasy, and a desperate battle to escape and find herself—whoever that was. Raised in a household steeped in her mother’s hysterical Russian superstition, her father’s violent alcoholism enduring, with an eternal smile the destruction of her childhood, Natalie Wood suffered greatly. It was her mother who instilled in Natalie her morbid fear of “dark waters”—the dark waters in which she would horribly drown in 1981.

Outwardly perfect, inwardly conflicted, she had a natural affinity to perform, but did not know how “programmed” she actually was. When she understood what had happened to her, it was too late.

Perhaps the saving grace of Natalie’s life was that she did not, unlike Elizabeth Taylor, become a star instantly. Taylor made only a couple of movies before National Velvet catapulted her to world attention. Elizabeth was also already beginning to develop the voluptuous body that would push her image in glamour and adult roles, while emotionally she was still a child. Natalie—tiny, exquisitely proportioned, and small bosomed, was allowed to remain a child onscreen.

Natalie made 17 films as a child and teenager, well-known, eventually, but not yet a star. What is striking about her early work is that she (like Taylor) is unmistakably the adult Natalie Wood, even in her earliest roles. She is also an effortless performer (unlike Taylor, who was rather saccharine during her brief tenure as a child actor). Later, Natalie’s work was not always quite so effortless. She took it seriously. Too seriously. There could be an artificial, slightly mechanical quality to her performances.

She made her first great mark on film in Rebel Without a Cause as the rebellious, hysterical teenager who bonds with broody James Dean and misfit Sal Mineo. It was a powerful performance, the first of her three Oscar nominations.

From then on her studio, Warner Bros., promoted her as the ultimate datable American girl. With her pixie haircut and her tight Capri pants she was a fan magazine favorite, even if most her films were forgettable (The Girl He Left Behind, The Burning Hills, A Cry in the Night, Kings Go Forth, Bombers B-52). She had an important role in John Ford’s The Searchers but her acting was not lauded.

Her publicity was fairly innocent. The behind-the-scenes story of Natalie’s adventures, before the age of consent, were enough to fill a therapists notebook for years: the realization that she had forfeited normalcy triggered a bitter rebellion. For a while she was Lolita on the fast track to hell. Losing her virginity at 15 to a young dairy farmer she wanted to marry (he tried to kill himself when the affair ended), she was famously promiscuous by 16 (one of her many conquests at the time included Frank Sinatra), and used shockingly by her Rebel Without A Cause director Nick Ray. (Today, such an affair between a 16-year-old and her adult director is a scandal that could never be kept secret. Ray—and Frank Sinatra for that matter—would have had to join Roman Polanski in Europe.) She was brutally, savagely raped by a famous movie star. Her mother, whom one detractor called “basically a pimp,” thought the attack was not so bad, it was, after all, perpetrated by a “star.” This rapist is still alive. A revered member of the Hollywood community. She drank, she smoked, she swore. She dated Elvis and worshipped James Dean. One lover at this time found her teen sexual expertise “very sad.” Though it was not so sad that he didn’t sleep with her. But rebellion didn’t comfort Natalie; she wanted only to please—her mother, her public, her expectations of herself, which were intolerably high. She was, as her friend Robert Blake commented, “riddled by demons.”

As Natalie matured, she made massive efforts to adjust, to find herself. (She also became rather prudish, a traditional bourgeois.) Like Marilyn Monroe, she reached up in life. Unlike Monroe however, Wood was a respected member of the Hollywood “community.” Natalie’s upward climb was not derided. Her great escape came in her work—she was highly disciplined, driven to excel. (So unlike Wood’s glamourous “role model” Elizabeth Taylor, whose attitude toward her career was one of utter ennui—Taylor, a tougher cookie, lived to pleasure herself.)

Still, Natalie’s career in 1960 seemed stagnant—not even Marjorie Morningstar, based on the wildly popular novel, jelled. Nor did her loan-out to MGM for All The Fine Young Cannibals redeem her—although she looked better than ever, and enjoyed working with  then-hubby Robert Wagner. Their romance and marriage had thrilled the fan mags.

It seemed as if Natalie Wood might become one of those gifted child stars who did not make the adult transition. But then she fought for the role of Deanie in Splendor in the Grass. Nobody thought she was right for it, especially director Elia Kazan. Could she cast aside her movie star mannerisms, take off most of her make-up, really “live” the character—a girl who essentially loses her mind in the grip of love and (especially) lust for Warren Beatty? She insisted she could and she did. It would be the second breakthrough performance of her career—intense, lyric, vulnerable—and earned her a second Oscar nomination. (It was also the first of several major films in which Natalie had a contentious, explosive relationship with her on-screen mother. If she never confronted her own mother, in real life, she consoled herself with riveting show-downs in cinema.)

Now was Natalie’s time, and her career soared. Unfortunately her rise coincided with the end of her marriage to Robert Wagner, whose career was not soaring.

Natalie consoled herself with hit after hit—West Side Story (miscast but sweet), Gypsy (the best of all who have played the fabled stripper) Love With the Proper Stranger (her third Oscar nod).

But times were changing and as young as Natalie was, she was considered part of Old Hollywood. Sex and the Single Girl, Inside Daisy Clover, The Great Race, Penelope, and This Property is Condemned did not meet box-office expectations. (Although This Property contains Natalie’s best adult performance, save for the later T.V. movie, The Cracker Factory.) Dissatisfied with her career and Hollywood life, Natalie married Richard Gregson, had a child, Natasha, and withdrew from the hurly burly. She was lured back in 1969 with the contemporary sex comedy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. This was a huge hit and Natalie had a piece of the profits. It made her very rich.

Not so rich was finding out that her hubby was sleeping with her assistant. Natalie ended her marriage the second she found out, changing the locks on her house and throwing Gregson’s belongings into the street.

But the Hollywood fairytale that Natalie’s mother had raised her on was not yet over. Natalie re-connected with Robert Wagner, now well-established as a T.V. star. They fell in love once more, remarried, and had a child, Courtney. Together again, these two beautiful people—once the epitome of teenage love—became the symbol of what was left of Hollywood royalty in Hollywood itself.

Natalie once again put her career aside for mothering and hostessing and being a good wife. But eventually the actress in her could not be stilled. There were some feature films (Peeper, The Last Married Couple in America, Meteor) and T.V. movies, the best of which was 1979’s The Cracker Factory—a completely mature, stripped-down performance; the ultimate grown-up version of all her conflicted heroines. But lovely as she remained, Natalie had entered the dangerous age of her early forties—what was there for her? Despite her relative youth, and the care she took of herself, she was considered a figure of antiquated stardom. And her latest role, in the sci-fi thriller Brainstorm was not turning out as she’d hoped. Natalie found inspiration in the reinvention of her friend Elizabeth Taylor. La Liz had cast off many pounds and many insecurities to star on Broadway in The Little Foxes. It was a triumph. Natalie bought the rights to the play Anastasia. (The screen version in 1956 had delivered an Oscar to Ingrid Bergman—and forgiveness for Bergman’s “sins” a decade previously.)

Natalie was deep into the script—which appealed to her Russian roots—and had posed for publicity photos, eager to begin the Los Angeles run, when she died over Thanksgiving weekend in1981.

No star’s death, since Carole Lombard’s plane crash in 1942, impacted the show business community as did Natalie’s horrible unexpected passing. The shock was palpable. 

James Dean was too young for Hollywood to care, despite the cult that sprang up. Marilyn and Judy were considered lost causes long before they left. But Natalie? Nobody could have envisioned the beloved star found floating off the Catalina coast, a drowning victim.

Rumors persist as to what happened on the Wagner’s yacht Splendor. I don’t think it really matters anymore. It was a terrible accident.

Oddly, tragically, Natalie uttered her own epitaph as Deanie in Splendor in the Grass, quoting William Wordsworth in her final scene: “Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains.”

Natalie Wood left an exquisite legacy—her art, her life—which she attempted to live in realistic terms despite her upbringing—and that wondrous face, so vivid, so beautiful, so unforgettable.

As long as film exists, we can bring back Natalie Wood’s “hour of splendor”—as often as we like. Thank God for
the movies!