Wood, Natalie (1938-1981)

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Wood, Natalie (1938-1981)

Natalie Wood will always be remembered as the beautiful, sad little girl who learned to believe in Santa Claus in The Miracle on 34th Street (1947). In that movie, she was flanked by such outstanding talents as Edmund Gwenn and Maureen O'Hara, yet she held held her own. Later, Wood proved her talents as an adult, starring in such notable films as Rebel without a Cause, West Side Story, and Splendor in the Grass.

Born Natasha Virapaeff on July 20, 1938, to poor Russian immigrants, Wood was destined to become a star. Her mother was a classic stage mother, aggressive, obstinate, insistent, and convinced that others should recognize her daughter's beauty and talent. Although five-year-old Natalie failed to impress at her first screen test, her mother nevertheless convinced producer Irving Pichel to give her a part in his 1943 film Happy Land. In 1946 she had a small part in Tomorrow Is Forever, with veteran stars Claudette Colbert, Orson Welles, and George Brent, and one year later she starred in Miracle on 34th Street, launching her legendary career.

Quickly becoming a seasoned performer, Wood made several films each year throughout her childhood. With Rebel without a Cause, she showed audiences that she was also capable of more complex roles in an Academy Award-nominated performance, and this promise was borne out in Splendor in the Grass (1961) in which she played a young woman whose parents' attempts to suppress her burgeoning sexuality result in her madness. It was also in 1961 that she starred in the hugely successful West Side Story, completing her transition from child star to hardworking adult actress. Critics consider her performance in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) her finest.

Although her career was successful, Wood's personal life was frequently troubled. She married Wagner for the first time in 1957, but the couple divorced only five years later. In her search for love and stability, she engaged in a number of high-profile romances with such stars as James Dean, Elvis Presley, Dennis Hopper, and most notably, Warren Beatty. Her title role in the movie Inside Daisy Clover (1965) is considered to be somewhat autobiographical, with its portrayal of a young girl pushed so hard by her mother into becoming a singer that she loses control and blows up her own house. Daisy Clover's attempt at suicide is comical, but Natalie Wood's was not. After a failed marriage and a number of failed romances, she decided to end her life. Fortunately, her attempt failed.

Wood continued working, but her career after 1963 was less distinguished. She tried her hand at comedy, most notably in the 1969 sex farce Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, and later worked in television. In 1972, she remarried Wagner, and as the decade progressed, the couple came to symbolize that rare phenomenon, a truly successful Hollywood marriage. One of the many tragedies of the entertainment industry is that Natalie Wood died so soon after finding the stability and love for which she had searched her whole life. On Thanksgiving weekend 1981, Wood was killed while sailing with her husband and actor Christopher Walken, with whom she was making a film. The boat had been purchased after the remarriage and named the Splendour to commemorate their love and happiness. The coroner's report states that she was accidentally drowned while attempting to either enter a dinghy tied to the boat or to stop the dinghy from banging against the bigger boat. She was dressed in a nightgown, a down jacket, and slippers. Reports indicated that Wood, Wagner, and Walken had been drinking, as had the boat's skipper, but the actual circumstances surrounding the event remain unclear.

—Elizabeth Purdy

Further Reading:

Harris, Warren G. Natalie Wood and R.J.: Hollywood's Star-Crossed Lovers. New York, Doubleday, 1988.

Wood, Lana. Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister. New York, Portway, 1986.