By Alan Hurst

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Natalie Woods tragic death. She was one of the biggest female stars of the sixties and, before that, one of the better child/teen actors of the late forties and fifties. But she is now more famous for the circumstances surrounding her death by drowning in November 1981 than for the impact she had on screen. And that’s unfortunate because in the right role Wood was a terrific actress – emotionally honest, willing to dig deep and ultimately quite heartbreaking. The fact that she could also handle comedy and was a stunningly pretty woman with a delightfully mischievous sparkle in her eye made her even more interesting to watch on screen.

Pushed into acting by her mother who, by all accounts, was one of the most frightening stage mothers of all time, Wood caught the attention of movie audiences with her first major role in Tomorrow is Forever (1946), an old fashioned but moving look at the effects of war with Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert. This was her first speaking part and, with no training, the young Wood managed to convincingly play a German orphan – complete with accent and tears. The next year Wood was in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), a major hit with a delightfully straightforward performance from Wood. There was no cloying sentimentality, and she didn’t resort to just playing cute or tugging heartstrings – this was a good performance from a very young performer still learning her trade.

A series of films followed at Universal, 20th Century Fox and Warner Brothers where she supported some major stars – Gene Tierney, Fred MacMurray, James Stewart, Bette Davis, Bing Crosby, Jane Wyman among others – but nothing had the impact of Miracle on 34th Street. It wasn’t until 1955 that Wood’s career took a major step forward with Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Nicholas Ray’s hyper dramatic dissection of middle-class mores and teen angst. For the first time Wood got to play a character her own age and she flourishes. She, Sal Mineo and breakout star James Dean were all Oscar nominated and if all the intense drama feels dated now, this film had a major impact at the time. What The Graduate (1967) was to the sixties and Saturday Night Fever (1977) was to the seventies, this film serves that role for the fifties. It’s an encapsulation of an era.

Wood next had a small role in The Searchers (1956), a classic western starring John Wayne, and then there were some more run-of-the mill efforts like A Cry in the Night (1956), Bombers-52 (1957) and Cash McCall (1960) with James Garner. The positive thing that resulted from her films of the late fifties was Wood’s elevation to leading lady. She was billed above the title and becoming a major star. She turned 20 in 1958 and marked that with one of her better films – Marjorie Morningstar (1958), a coming-of-age story about young Jewish girl in New York. Wood was very good opposite Gene Kelly as the idealistic Marjorie.

Capitalizing on her recent marriage to Robert Wagner, MGM cast the couple in All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), but the film wasn’t very good and failed at the box-office. Wagner and Wood later divorced in the early sixties.

Fortunately Wood’s career received the kick start it needed the following year with two very successful and acclaimed films: Splendor in the Grass (1961) and West Side Story (1961). Under Elia Kazan’s assured direction, Wood gives the best performance of her career in Splendor in the Grass as the young woman grappling with the challenges of growing up, strict parents and her love for a local boy, played by Warren Beatty. Wood probably just missed winning the Oscar, bested by Sophia Loren’s work in the stunning Two Women (1961). Wood’s other film that year – West Side Story – did triumph at the Oscars, winning 10 awards including Best Picture. Wood was a strong and moving Maria in the classic musical, although she was disappointed her own vocals were dubbed by Marni Nixon. The film was a massive critical and box office hit.

Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell in Gypsy

In Gypsy (1962) we did get to hear Wood sing and she was extremely good as the title character, probably the most believable portrayal of that character that we’ve seen. Gypsy was a major Broadway hit, but the film version was hindered by a bulldozing performance by Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose, whose vocals were dubbed. Mama Rose is one of the great characters in musical theatre and deserved to be played by someone who could do justice to the score. Judy Garland was one of those under consideration and she would have been ideal – and a great partner for Natalie Wood.

The next year found Wood again among the nominees for the Best Actress Oscar for her work in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), an adult drama and one of Wood’s most moving and natural performances as a salesgirl and the pregnant girlfriend of musician Steve McQueen. The silly sex comedy Sex and the Single Girl (1964) followed with Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall and then she had another big hit with The Great Race (1965), a gargantuan real-life cartoon about an impossible car race around the world. It was a very entertaining slapstick farce, well directed by Blake Edwards, and Wood is supremely funny working with co-stars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis.

Inside Daisy Clover (1965) was supposed to be a big one for Wood, a story about a tomboy who can sing and gets swallowed up in the Hollywood machinery. The material is ultimately too trashy to work, and Wood tries way too hard to compensate for a poor script. She’s also a little too old to be believable as a teenager, and again her singing was dubbed. The best things about the film are Ruth Gordon’s performance as Wood’s crazy mother and the song “You’re Gonna Hear From Me”, which has since been covered by a number of major singers.

This Property is Condemned was next, an adaption of an old one act play by Tennessee Williams. The movie isn’t vintage Tennessee Williams, but it gives Wood an opportunity to sink her teeth into a Williams heroine, something she had wanted to do since seeing Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). She and co-star Robert Redford really do their best to make the drama work, a story about life on the wrong side of the tracks, but the material and director Sydney Pollack’s pulpy approach ultimately lets them down.

That same year Wood had some nice moments and looked terrific in her mod wardrobe in Penelope (1966), a comedy about a scatterbrained kleptomaniac who robs her husband’s bank, but few people saw it. She was off screen for a couple of years following her marriage to producer Richard Gregson and the birth of her first daughter. She returned to films in Paul Mazursky’s Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), an uber contemporary comedy about fidelity and marriage that was her biggest hit since West Side Story. Wood’s co-stars Dyan Cannon and Elliot Gould walked away with the reviews and the Oscar nominations, but Wood’s profit participation deal made her a very rich woman.

Just in her early thirties, Wood then put her career on hold after having worked steadily in front of the camera for the better of 25 years. She felt it was time to reprioritize and focus on motherhood and her subsequent remarriage to Robert Wagner. That meant the roles that could indeed have further cemented her legacy as an actress went to Jane Fonda, Faye Dunaway and Ellen Burstyn. Among the films she turned down were Bonnie and Clyde (1967), Barefoot in the Park (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby (1968). I could also very easily imagine Wood in such films as Klute (1971), Three Days of the Condor (1975), The Exorcist (1973), but those didn’t happen. When Wood called it quits after the huge box office success of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, her theatrical film career – when she wanted to pursue it – was relegated to such also rans as Peeper (1975) with Michael Caine, Meteor (1979) with Sean Connery and The Last Married Couple in America (1980) with George Segal. None of them scored with audiences or critics. Her final film was Brainstorm (1983), released two years after her death to little business and mixed reviews.

Natalie Wood in The Cracker Factory

Wood’s best work during the decade before her passing was on television. She and Wagner professionally reunited in the TV film The Affair (1973), a run of the mill movie of the week, and they reteamed again in a TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976). Wood as Tennessee Williams’ Maggie was the best thing about the production, but the performance wasn’t on the same level as Elizabeth Taylor’s in the 1958 film. She lacked the urgency and desperation that Taylor gave the character, I think primarily because her co-stars let her down and she didn’t get the energy from them she needed. Wagner was way out of his depth (and too old) to erase memories of Paul Newman’s Brick, and Laurence Olivier was an appalling Big Daddy.

Wood did much better with two 1979 productions. First up was a miniseries remake of the Oscar winning From Here to Eternity. It was a typical miniseries of the day – glossy with a tendency towards melodrama, but Wood was terrific in the Deborah Kerr role as the unhappy army wife involved in an affair. She won a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a TV Drama that year – one of the few competitive acting awards Wood actually won in her career. A few months later she was even better in an adaptation of the best-selling novel The Cracker Factory, portraying an alcoholic housewife who suffers a breakdown and ends up in a mental institution. This is one of the best things Wood ever did – she’s completely believable as the broken woman trying to pull all the pieces of her life back together. There’s a directness that Wood uses that is both funny and very real. This one should have seen her in the running for an Emmy.

When Wood died in 1981, she was getting ready to make her stage debut in a production of the play Anastasia once filming wrapped on Brainstorm. It would have been an ideal role for the Russian-American Wood, playing the mysterious woman who may or may not be the surviving daughter of Tsar Nicholas II. But it was not to be. Instead, Wood became part of the dark lore of Hollywood, destined to be to be an ongoing subject of conjecture and mystery.

Natalie Wood’s essential performance, in order of preference:

  • Splendor in the Grass (1961) – An emotionally bruising performance about parental pressure, burgeoning sexuality and love. Wood’s best performance, she responded well to the skillful guidance of director Elia Kazan. Her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress.
  • Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) – Wood excelled playing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances, and it’s true again here. She’s very strong as the practical centre of the drama, nicely balancing the McQueen’s character who is really a bit of a jerk. A deserved second Best Actress Oscar nomination for Wood.
  • Miracle on 34th Street (1947) – A straightforward sincerity is what set Wood apart from other child actors of the day. There’s an intelligence and lack of artifice in Wood’s performance in this Christmas classic that’s perfect to show the character’s journey to becoming a true believer in Santa Claus.
  • Gypsy (1962) – I’ve seen three different Broadway productions of this fabled, near-perfect Broadway musical, as well as the Bette Midler TV version and the film of the recent British production with Imelda Staunton. Wood is the best Louise/Gypsy bar none. She’s achingly awkward when pushed reluctantly into the spotlight, but her gradual growth in confidence is perfect. Gypsy is usually all about the mother, but here Wood helps restore the balance.
  • The Cracker Factory (1979) – A TV movie with a blistering performance from Wood as an alcoholic who suffers a breakdown. Described recently – and aptly – as a combination Postcards from the Edge (1990) and Girl, Interrupted (1999), this is a funny and harrowing look at one woman’s journey to mental health.
  • This Property Is Condemned (1966) – This one is about a young woman falling for a railroad official (Robert Redford) and wanting to escape the depressed town she’s in, but her mother has other ideas. Somewhat overblown, but Wood’s yearning fits the desperate character perfectly.
  • West Side Story (1961) – A classic adaptation of the ground-breaking Broadway musical. Although you would never get away with casting a non-Latina actress today, Wood is very touching and moving as the Puerto Rican Maria, caught in a tug-of-war between gangs and ethnicities in New York. Although her voice was dubbed by Marni Nixon, Wood does handle her musical moments well and she has a powerful scene at the film’s climax calling out the stupidity of the street violence that is so central to these characters’ lives.
  • Rebel Without a Cause (1955) – A melodramatic look at teen angst in the fifties with James Dean in his breakthrough role. This one allowed Wood to move on to more adult roles and she had a major impact as the girlfriend of Dean – struggling with adolescence, her parents and conformity. Wood received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
  • The Great Race (1965) – Many would disagree with this one being on the list over her work in Inside Daisy Clover or Marjorie Morningstar, but I think Wood is a delight as the lavishly costumed reporter who gets caught up in the cartoon antics of Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon. I don’t think Wood ever looked better on film than she does here and she definitely proves her comedic abilities with the reunited Some Like it Hot (1959) team of Lemmon and Curtis.
  • Tomorrow is Forever (1946) – Wood’s first major role sees the young moppet holding her own opposite Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert as an orphan whose parents are murdered by the Nazis. She mastered a German accent and brought audiences to tears with her compelling and focused performance. Welles once said Wood was so good, she was terrifying.

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