Natalie Wood would have turned 78 last week. A child star turned successful adult actress, she occupies a unique place in the history of the motion picture industry and in American Culture. She started her career as a precocious, polished creation of the studio system. She co-starred with some of the studio’s most legendary names; She played Barbara Stanwyck’s daughter in 1942’s The Bride Wore Boots and co-starred with Bette Davis in 1952’s The Star. Her struggles to breakout of her child start status and to be viewed as a viable leading lady coincided with the breakdown of the studio systems. As the moguls that had for so long dominated every aspect of the industry started to lose their grip. Firstly, losing an anti-trust law suit that broke their hold on distribution, then the De Havilland law ended the studio’s despotic rule of its stars.
From this emerged a new kind of Hollywood and a new kind of star. Brando, Dean and Clift emerged as the next generations leading men. It was in this climate that Wood came of age and would perform some of her most famous roles. However, without the paternalistic tyranny of the studios a new more intrusive celebrity culture emerged and Wood was one of its first victims, experiencing intense scrutiny over her marriages to Robert Wagner. Her untimely death from drowning, in what some consider suspicious circumstances, sealed her fate as one of Hollywood’s most iconic tragedies. But, what is the legacy of Natalie’s Wood filmography mean now?
Born Natalia Zacharenko in San Francisco in 1938, Wood was soon noticed by the film studios after the family moved Santa Rosa. She made her film debut just shy of her fifth birthday in Irving Pichel’s Happy Land. What came next would now be considered a classic Hollywood tale. She was soon snatched up by the studios, eager to have a pretty new child star. She was soon brought in to the efficient star creating machine, her profile was raised, an image was forged and most importantly of all her name was changed: Natalie Wood. There have been accusations that Wood’s mother was something of a ‘Hollywood Mom’, living out her own frustrated dreams through her daughter’s success. That she was willing to put pursuit of stardom above her daughter’s needs. Stardom did, however, follow. Wood was soon cast as German orphan in Tomorrow is Forever opposite Marlene Dietrich. She also later co-starred in the classic The Ghost of Mrs Muir alongside legendary Hollywood siren Gene Tierny.
However, it is Miracle on 34th Street that truly represents the pinnacle of Woods early career. A staple for the Christmas season, Natalie plays a young girl convinced an elderly man is in fact Chris Cringle himself. I believe it is in this film that you can truly see why Wood was successful both as a child protégé of the star systems and as a respected adult actress.
A struggle them commenced. Natalie now a teenager wanted to try out for mare challenging and morally grey roles. But, this encored push back from the studio who wanted to keep hold of her wholesome image, teaming her up with another clean cut heart throb (and as it turned out deeply closeted) Tab Hunter. But, with tenacity Wood finally got her way, after she was involved in a car crash, bosses became convinced she could in fact hold the public’s affection while embracing a slightly more ambiguous image. It was a timely shift. The studio system was winding down and a new crop of actors were bursting onto the screen challenging traditional acting methods and the whole notion of ‘what is a star’. Marlon Brando is no doubt the most revered of these new crop of actors, however, the most iconic of them all, would star in a film that would change Natalie’s career, shifting from teeny bopper starlet to leading actress in this newly emerging Hollywood: James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause
Her two most famous roles in this new period of her career were as Judy in Rebel Without a Cause and Maria in West Side Story. It is in a sense ironic as both films are dominated by the performances of two of her co-stars: James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel and Rita Moreno and George Chakiris in West Side Story respectively. While there can be no doubt of the electricity of all four of those performances, Wood is the glue that holds both films together. In Rebel she often anchors scenes with Dean and Mineo, her effective straight man performance allows them to shine. Judy is quietly as much of a rebel. In West Side Story Maria’s love for Tony drives the entire plot and sweet and soft performance is endearing without ever being cloying and proves a fine balance next to the more passionate performances of Moreno and Chakiris. Dubbed by the stunning vocals of the late Marni Nixon it’s a classic performance in one of Hollywood’s greatest musicals- the politics of Hollywood whitewashing aside. Which no doubt decreases the quality of the film for modern audiences and is indicative that much has changed in Hollywood in the past fifty years.
Later in her career, Wood took time off to look after her children, but, eventually returned to acting with several film and television appearances. However, dogged interest in her personal life remained. Her second marriage to Robert Wagner again drew attention. It was attention that would last until her untimely death from drowning, after she fell off a boat she was on with her husband and their friend Christopher Walken in November 1981. It’s an event that still draws suspicion, rumour and conspiracy theories. These were fanned even more when the case was reopened in 2014, when the captain of the boat claimed he lied during the original investigation. Wood’s death has entered into Hollywood legend – the last victim of the supposed ‘Rebel Curse’ that saw all three young leads of the film die young in unnatural circumstances (Dean famously died in a car crash before Rebel was even released and Mineo was sadly murdered in New York in the 1970s). It seems both a shame and somehow fitting that an actress so involved in two great ages of Hollywood would find immortality via the most awful trope of Hollywood actors – an untimely death.