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Happy Birthday, Natalie Wood!

Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938 in San Francisco, California. She was nicknamed "Natasha" by her parents, Nikolai and Maria, two Russian immigrants living on the edge of poverty and who could barely speak English. In her youth, Maria had dreamed of becoming an actress and when her precious Natasha was born, she began to transfer those ambitions to her youngest daughter. She would frequently take the girl to the movies and by the age of three, "Natasha sat through two-hour films without moving."

My mother used to tell me that the cameraman who pointed his lens out at the audience at the end of the Paramount newsreel was taking my picture. I'd pose and smile like he was going to make me famous or something. I believed everything my mother told me.
(Natalie Wood)

With Welles in Tomorrow Is Forever
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Nikolai took up American citizenship as Nicholas Gurdin and moved the family to the nearby town of Santa Rosa. Two years later, a 20th Century Fox production unit arrived in Santa Rosa to shoot exterior scenes for Irving Pichel's Happy Land (1943), starring Don Ameche and Frances Dee. When Pichel issued a casting call for extras, Maria Gurdin rushed there with the almost five-year-old Natasha, who was instructed to curtsy for the director and perform a little song-and-dance number for him. She did exactly as she was told and Pichel was so impressed by her that he offered her a small, non-speaking part in Happy Land as a little girl who drops an ice-cream cone.

Enchanted by Natasha's happy and mischievous personality, Pichel promised to contact the Gurdins if another part came along that suited their daughter. The director kept his promise and in the summer of 1945, he called Maria to ask her to bring Natasha for a screen test for his new film, the war drama Tomorrow Is Forever (1946), starring Orson Welles, Claudette Colbert and George Brent. Suprisingly enough, she flunked the test, as she was unable to cry on cue as her character required. The ambitious Maria then barged into Pichel's office and charmed him into letting Natasha have a second test. To make the girl cry on cue, Maria instructed her to remember the day when their dog was run over by a car. Once again, she did as she was told and she got the part, along with a new name: Natalie Wood. Her emotional performance as a German orphan broke audiences' hearts and turned the eight-year-old Natalie into a star. Soon, she was being described by LIFE magazine as "Hollywood's latest wonder child" and every major studio was looking to sign her to a long-term contract.

Publicity still for Miracle on 34th Street
After the success of Tomorrow Is Forever, Fox hired the gifted newcomer to play Gene Tierney's daughter in Joseph L. Mankiewicz's The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). The studio liker her so much that they kept her on to make a modest holiday-themed comedy named Miracle on 34th Street (1947), where she played the skeptical Susan Walker, a precocious little girl who learns to believe in Santa Claus. Contrary to the studio's expectations, the film was a hit and the pig-tailed Natalie quickly became one of the top child stars in Hollywood.

In the ten-year period between the ages of four and fourteen, Natalie made nineteen films, most of which weren't particularly memorable, but gave her the opportunity to work with major stars like Fred MacMurray in Father Was a Fullback (1949) and Never a Dull Moment (1950), James Stewart in The Jackpot (1950), Margaret Sullavan in No Sad Songs For Me (1950), Jane Wyman and Joan Blondell in The Blue Veil (1951) and Bette Davis in The Star (1952). As she moved into the so-called "awkward age," Natalie found that suitable parts for her changing physical appearance were becoming increasingly difficult to get. After portraying the teenage daughter of Paul Hartman and Fay Wray in ABC's short-lived situation comedy The Pride of the Family (1953-1954), the sixteen-year-old Natalie Wood was desperate for grown-up roles.

With James Dean on the set of Rebel
The adult part she was longing for came right afterward, when she appeared on the live anthology series General Electric Theatre (1953-1962), hosted by Ronald Reagan. The half-hour teleplay was an adaptation of Sherwood Anderson's I'm a Fool and starred an intense 23-year-old actor named James Dean, who gave Natalie her first on-screen kiss. Weeks later, Natalie learned that Dean's next project was a groundbreaking film called Rebel Without a Cause (1955). Its lead female character was an alienated, thrill-seeking teenager desperate for love and right away she knew it was the perfect part for her.

Natalie was ecstatic about what she considered to be her first real adult role, but her excitement was cut short when James Dean was killed in a car crash just four weeks before the release of Rebel Without a Cause. Natalie, who had been inseparable from Dean ever since they met, was devastated by his death and for years afterward she wore a gold love bracelet that he once gave her on one ankle. Ironically, Dean's premature demise helped make Rebel Without a Cause an instant hit, catapulting  the 17-year-old actress to a new level of fame which culminated with an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Suddenly, Natalie became her generation's idealized teenager: "girls copied her hairstyle, makeup and clothes. Boys put her on a pedestal as the ideal sweetheart."

R.J. and Natalie on their wedding day in 1957
In an attempt to capitalize on Natalie's appeal after the success of Rebel Without a Cause, Warner Bros. signed her to a seven-year contract and paired her with another popular teen idol, the 24-year-old Tab Hunter. The studio had hoped to build them into a regular team, but the failure of The Girl He Left Behind (1956) and The Burning Hills (1956) quickly ended that idea. Bored with her work, Natalie threw herself into the off-screen role of a celebrity party girl and soon she was being linked with high-profile boyfriends like Elvis Presley.

On her 18th birthday, Natalie went on a studio-arranged date with a dashing 26-year-old actor named Robert Wagner, who had appear in such films as Jean Negulesco's Titanic (1953) and Henry Hathaway's Prince Valiant (1954). R.J., as he was known to his friends, had also been the object of Natalie's girlish fantasies since she first saw him on the Fox studio lot at age eleven. The two glamorous young stars soon fell madly in love and married a year later, on December 28, 1957. Finally escaping her mother's control, Natalie set out to recreate her life and the press followed her every move. Following in the path of Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh and Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds, R.J. and Natalie became the couple millions of single girls, new brides and bored housewives focused their hopes and dreams on.

With Gene Kelly in Marjorie Morningstar
Behind her smiles for the camera, however, Natalie remained frustated with her film career. It seemed that the studio didn't know what to do with her next and used her as "marquee dressing" in the CinemaScope aviation drama Bombers B-52 (1957), with Karl Madden and Marsha Hunt. After appearing opposite Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis in the box-office flop Kings Go Forth (1958), Natalie persuaded Jack Warner into letting her have the lead role in Irving Rapper's melodrama Marjorie Morningstar (1958), which she felt was ideal for her.

Based on the Herman Wouk's best-selling novel of the same name, Marjorie Morningstar was the story of an upper-middle-class college student who falls in love with an older man while working at a summer camp. Co-starring Gene Kelly in one of his last film roles, Marjorie Morningstar opened to unenthusiastic reviews and poor box-office results, leaving Natalie to stuggle over her identity as both an actress and an individual. Adding to her frustations was her loan out to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to star opposite Wagner in a project she hated, Michael Anderson's All The Fine Young Cannibals (1960), which was savaged by critics and rejected by audiences. Still feeling pressure from herself and her mother to succeed as an actress, Natalie began to feel that her chances were running out.

As Maria in West Side Story
Although Hollywood declared the 22-year-old Natalie Wood "washed up" as an actress, the prestigious director Elia Kazan still wanted her in his latest film, the drama Splendor in the Grass (1961), in which she played a girl torn between her family and her sexual attraction to a rich boy, played by Warren Beatty in his motion picture debut. The film was a critical and financial success and brought Natalie her second Oscar nomination.

That same year, Natalie won the coveted role of Maria in Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's West Side Story (1961), based on the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, which in turn was inspired by William Shakespeare's play Romeo and Juliet. West Side Story was a huge challenge for Natalie, who had no professional experience as a singer and a dancer and was crushed to learn that her singing voice would be dubbed by the soprano Marni Nixon. She also struggled with her Puerto Rican accent and disliked working with her male co-star, Richard Beymer, as well as with Robbins, who insisted on rehearsing with her 16 hours a day and on weekends to try for the perfection he demanded from his performers. Despite the shortcomings, West Side Story received overwhelmingly positive reviews and became the second biggest money-maker of the year, eventually garnering ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. 

In a publicity still for Gypsy
While Natalie's career was quickly recovering, her marriage to Robert Wagner was falling apart. The couple's relationship became increasingly strained and after one final argument in June 1961, she left him. Three months later, she began dating Warren Beatty, which led to the speculation that he had been responsible for the break-up. Although Warren and Natalie often argued, the passion in the relationship eased her pain from her failed marriage. After her divorce from R.J. became final in April 1962, she started choosing roles that fitted her new, more worldly outlook on life.

Natalie's first film role after the divorce was Mervyn LeRoy's Gypsy (1962), in which she played real-life stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, who struggled to escape the control of her domineering stage mother (played by Rosalind Russell), another character she strongly identified with. The following year, Natalie earned her third Academy Award nomination for her role as a salesgirl who gets pregnant by, and then falls in love with, a musician, played by Steve McQueen, in Robert Mulligan's drama Love With the Proper Stranger (1963). After two strong dramatic performances, Natalie struggled when she turned to comedy and her work in films like Richard Quine's Sex and the Single Girl (1964) and Blake Edwards' The Great Race (1965) was poorly received by critics. As her films continued to fail critically, and often commercially, not even her closest friends, like Robert Redford, who appeared with her in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966), realized that she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Natalie and baby Natasha
By the mid-1960s, Natalie's fiery romance with Warren Beatty had come to an end and her public and private images were becoming harder to reconcile. Finally, the pressure was too much and in November 1966, the 28-year-old took an overdose of sleeping pills and was rushed to the hospital. Thanks to a combination of daily therapy and determination, Natalie pulled out of her depression and bought herself out of her contract with Warner Bros. At this point in her life, she realized that what she wanted more than a big salary or even a great role was a family of her own.

After marriyng the British producer Richard Gregson in May 1969, she accepted the role of a suburban housewive turned sexual swinger in Paul Mazursky's social satire Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), with Robert Culp, Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon. Although the film gave Natalie her first hit in years, her career was no longer a priority: she discovered that she was pregnant and could not be happier. Following the birth of her daughter Natasha in September 1970, she went into semi-retirement, determined to give the girl a happy and normal childhood. Months later, however, her marriage suddenly collapsed when she found out that her husband was having an affair. They separated in 1971, eventually divorcing in April 1972. Just as her divorce from Gregson was being finalized, Natalie rekindled her relationship with R.J., after a chance meeting in early 1972. They remarried just five months later and welcomed a daughter, Courtney, in 1974.

In From Here To Eternity
In the 1970s, Natalie appeared in only four threatrical films, including the comedy-mystery Peeper (1976), starring her former boyfriend Michael Caine, and the disaster film Meteor (1979), with Sean Connery, both of which were critical and commercial failures. She found more success in television, receiving high ratings and critical acclaim for The Cracker Factory (1979) and especially the miniseries From Here to Eternity (1979), which won her a Golden Globe for Best Actress.

After starting the 1980s with another flop, the sex comedy The Last Married Couple in America (1980), Natalie found a film role she believed could restore her status as a top Hollywood actress: the character-driven science-fiction drama Brainstorm (1983), co-starring Christopher Walken. During filming, however, Natalie's anxious side resurfaced, as she struggled with the chaotic, often improvised production and worried how old she looked opposite Walken, who was five years her junior. During a break in shooting around Thanksgiving of 1981, Natalie and R.J. cruised to Catalina Island on their yacht and took Walken along. On the night of November 28, Natalie became increasingly intoxicated after dinner and while R.J. and Walken were engaged in a political debate, she went off by herself. When R.J. retired to his room, he was surprised to find that Natalie was not there or anywhere else on the boat. A desperate search of the coast began, but when the Coast Guard finally found her at 7:45 a.m. of November 29, it was already too late. At the age of 43, Natalie Wood was dead, taken by the deep, dark waters she had feared all her life. 

As Natalie's friends and family mourned, filmmakers strugged to finish Brainstorm and two years would pass before the film was finally released. Although reviews were generally poor, many moviegoers were glad to see a final glimpse of Natalie's radiant beauty. Almost 32 years later, her shocking death is still a topic of morbid speculation and gossip from the press. Ruled as an accidental drowing in 1981, the cause of her death has recently been changed to "drowing and other undetermined factors", as no one was ever able to establish the circumstances of how she ended up in the water. Maybe one day we'll learn the truth behind the mystery of Natalie Wood.

You know what I want? I want yesterday.
(Natalie Wood, shortly before her death)


__________________________
SOURCES:
Natalie: A Memoir About Natalie Wood by Her Sister by Lana Wood (1984) | Natalie and R.J.: Star-Crossed Love Affair of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner by Warren G. Harris (1988) | Natalie Wood: A Life by Gavin Lambert (2004) | Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad (2001) | Natalie Wood: Child of Hollywood (2003)

Comments

  1. Such a sad life... She was an adorable little girl. I love her as Susan Walker.

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