Nationality: American. Born: Natasha Virapaeff, later Gurdin in San Francisco, California, 20 July 1938. Education: Attended studio schools and public schools. Family: Married 1) the actor Robert Wagner, 1957 (divorced 1962), one daughter; 2) the producer Richard Gregson, 1969 (divorced 1972), daughter: Natasha; 3) remarried Robert Wagner, 1972, son: Courtney. Career: 1943—film debut at age five in Happy Land; 1953–54—in TV series The Pride of the Family; 1979—in TV mini-series From Here to Eternity. Died: Drowned, off Santa Catalina Island, California, 29 November 1981.
Films as Actress:
Happy Land (Pichel)
Tomorrow Is Forever (Pichel); The Bride Wore Boots (Pichel)
Miracle on 34th Street (The Big Heart) (Seaton) (as Susan Walker); Driftwood (Dwan); The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (Mankiewicz) (as Anna)
Scudda-Hoo! Scudda-Hay! (Herbert) (as Bean McGill)
Chicken Every Sunday (Seaton); Father Was a Fullback (Stahl); The Green Promise (Russell)
No Sad Songs for Me (Maté); The Jackpot (Walter Lang); Our Very Own (Miller); Never a Dull Moment (Marshall)
Dear Brat (Seiter); The Blue Veil (Bernhardt)
Just for You (Nugent); The Rose Bowl Story (Beaudine)
The Star (Heisler)
The Silver Chalice (Saville)
One Desire (Hopper); Rebel without a Cause (Ray) (as Judy)
A Cry in the Night (Tuttle); The Searchers (Ford); The Burning Hills (Heisler); The Girl He Left Behind (Butler)
Bombers B-52 (Douglas); Marjorie Morningstar (Rapper); No Sleep till Dawn (Douglas)
Kings Go Forth (Daves)
Cash McCall (Pevney)
All the Fine Young Cannibals (Anderson)
West Side Story (Wise and Robbins) (as Maria); Splendor in the Grass (Kazan) (as Wilma Dean Loomis)
Gypsy (LeRoy) (title role)
Love with the Proper Stranger (Mulligan) (as Angie Ronnini)
Sex and the Single Girl (Quine) (as Helen Gurley Brown)
The Great Race (Edwards) (as Maggie DuBois)
Penelope (Hiller) (title role); This Property Is Condemned (Pollack) (as Alva Starr); Inside Daisy Clover (Mulligan) (title role)
Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (Mazursky) (as Carol Sanders)
The Candidate (Ritchie); I'm a Stranger Here Myself (Helpern—doc) (as herself)
The Affair (Cates—for TV)
Peeper (Hyams) (as Ellen Prendergast)
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Moore—for TV) (as Maggie)
Meteor (Neame) (as Tatiana); The Cracker Factory (Brinckerhoff—for TV)
The Last Married Couple in America (Cates) (as Mari Thompson); Willie and Phil (Mazursky)
Brainstorm (Trumbull) (as Karen Brace)
On WOOD: books—
Wood, Lana, Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister, New York, 1984.
Nickens, Christopher, Natalie Wood: A Biography in Pictures, New York, 1986.
Crivello, Kirk, Fallen Angels: The Lives and Untimely Deaths of 14 Hollywood Beauties, Secaucus, New Jersey, 1988.
Harris, Warren G., Natalie and R. J.: Hollywood's Star-Crossed Lovers, New York, 1988.
Parker, John, Five for Hollywood, Secaucus, New Jersey 1991.
On WOOD: articles—
Current Biography 1962, New York, 1962.
Kempton, Murray, "Natalie Wood: Mother, Men and the Muse," in Show (Hollywood), March 1962.
Obituary in New York Times, 30 November 1981.
Fieschi, J., obituary, in Cinématographe (Paris), December 1981.
Obituary in Films and Filming (London), February 1982.
Lewis, K., "Natalie Wood," in Films in Review (New York), December 1986.
Stars (Mariembourg), December 1989.
* * *
Natalie Wood's death in 1981 at the age of 43 brought to an abrupt end one of the most enduring careers in cinema history. Often referred to as "Hollywood's youngest veteran," she had worked in films almost continuously since her first screen appearance at the age of five in Happy Land. With apparent ease, she negotiated the occupational minefields which for most of her contemporaries had spelled disaster. She made a fluent transition from child actress to teenage star, survived the studio system, and achieved a metamorphosis from lightweight starlet into serious actress. Since she was never considered a great actress—in fact, it was customary among industry observers to poke fun at her limitations—her staying power poses an intriguing conundrum.
As a child, Wood tended to play minor roles in films featuring established stars. Although she was pretty and pert, she was seldom, if ever, expected to outshine the chief luminaries. Sometimes she served merely as a foil; at other times, as in Miracle on 34th Street, she was pivotal to the plot but not required to carry films on her own merits. This early career as a scene-stealer rather than as a star may have eased her transition to older parts. The public grew accustomed to her face but it did not learn to idolize her or to expect too much. Her transition to older roles was also facilitated by a change in her screen persona. As a child, she could be bratty or sweet, but she was always lively and confident. As a teenager and young adult, she was tentative, insecure, and vulnerable. In this way, Wood offered audiences a new screen identity and it was one with which female audiences of her own age group could readily identify. In Rebel without a Cause, a watershed in her career development, she, along with James Dean, perfectly captured the unfocused restlessness of a generation.
After an undistinguished phase as Warner's resident love interest, Wood's star status gained immeasurably from the popular success of West Side Story. It was Splendor in the Grass, however, which first earned her respect as an adult actress. As a young woman whose sexual impulses are constrained by society's moral imperatives, she struck a recognizable chord with the moviegoing public. The part earned Wood her second Academy Award nomination (the first was for Rebel without a Cause). Love with the Proper Stranger (her third Oscar nomination) was her finest achievement. Her performance was notable for its dramatic range and for the depth of feeling conveyed by nonverbal technique. It was also another film which probed a contemporary moral dilemma—the choice between a precarious independence and marriage for convenience's sake.
Her screen image as a vulnerable, put-upon female endured in films such as Inside Daisy Clover and This Property Is Condemned, but it found decreasing popular and critical favor. At the height of her fame, seemingly aware of the need to diversify, Wood branched out into comedy. In this new incarnation, however, she was only intermittently successful. Her best comedy performance was in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, a brilliant satire on the 1960s obsession with self-discovery and sexual freedom. Unfortunately, her comedic talent was never again harnessed to good effect. During the 1970s her film appearances were infrequent and unexceptional, and she turned increasingly to television. In this medium, as in cinema, her record was uneven. Although she was widely lambasted for her performance in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, she drew critical praise for her portrait of a manic-depressive housewife in The Cracker Factory. At the time of her death, she was planning to make her stage debut in a production of Anastasia.
Throughout her career, Wood seemed more at ease when she was one step removed from the limelight. In Inside Daisy Clover, the only film in which she was the principal focus of attention, she seemed uncomfortable with her responsibilities. In the much underrated Gypsy, she was more convincing as the mousy daughter sitting on the sideline than as the brassy burlesque artist occupying center stage. Her ability to survive in an industry notorious for its casualties owed something to this capacity for self-effacement. All her life, she seemed content to support rather than to compete with her fellow actors. Equally important to her longevity as a film actress was her willingness to diversify. She was also helped by the perennial youthfulness of her looks. If Natalie Wood often failed to shine, she nevertheless brightened many moments in cinema history. Her legacy is a memorable series of portraits which threw penetrating light on the changing mores of her generation.