By Maureen Lee Lenker
It’s time for another Night Owl TV birthday celebration. This Thursday, July 20, Natalie Wood would have been 79. The classic film star tragically drowned when she was only 43 in November 1981, but it’s likely she would still be with us today had she not met such an untimely end.
Natalie Wood was a rarity in Hollywood – a child star who transitioned relatively seamlessly into more grown-up teenage roles and finally emerged a fully-fledged adult movie goddess in her own right. She possessed an earthiness, tenderness, and soulfulness that made her the ideal star to bridge the gap between the 1940's and 50's and the emerging sexuality and edginess that dominated the films of the 1960's. She caused quite a stir in her private life, with her highly publicized relationship with Warren Beatty and an on-again, off-again marriage to Robert Wagner. But more than anything else, it’s her screen image that endures today – whether it’s the childlike innocence of Miracle on 34th Street or the burgeoning womanhood and sexuality of Splendor in the Grass. Wood was a one-of-a-kind actress and beauty, whose reputation for kindness off-screen rivaled that of her heartbreaking onscreen portrayals. Here’s to Natalie and the wish that we all could have had more films from her.
5. The Searchers (1956)
Widely considered one of the greatest Westerns ever made, The Searchers only falls so low on this particular list because Wood’s role in the film is so small (she does not appear until the one hour and 51-minute mark and has only ten minutes of screen time). She plays Debbie Edwards at age 15, a young girl who is kidnapped by Comanches and becomes the subject of her Uncle Ethan’s (John Wayne) multi-year search that lends the film its title. He is determined to find her alive, and his racist, monomaniacal obsession drives him throughout. Wayne gives a tour-de-force performance as Ethan Edwards, but it’s Wood’s Debbie that lends the film its heart. She has become integrated into the Comanche tribe by the film’s conclusion – so much so, that we fear Ethan will murder her to complete his revenge against the Comanche. Her terror and her confusion in this situation makes you root for her, despite her only having been an idea for most of the film. If you can finish the movie without a lump in your throat, you might not be human. Wood was still in high school when she made the film, but she demonstrated an intuitive acting ability that set her on the path to adult stardom.
4. Rebel Without a Cause (1956)
Rebel Without a Cause is remembered as James Dean’s film – the movie that shot him to stardom and made him a cinematic icon despite having only starred in three films. But it’s just as much Natalie Wood’s picture—her startlingly honest portrayal of the emotionally confused Judy officially marked her break from child stardom. She earned her first Oscar nomination for the part. As Judy, Wood grapples with feelings of sexual desire in a prim society and struggles to reconcile this with her father’s attitude towards her. She plays well off Dean’s revolutionary Method acting approach, and sparks fly between them in this tale of romance between two mixed up kids. Wood had to fight for the part as director Nicholas Ray believed her innocent, wholesome image wasn’t right for Judy’s wild teenage antics. Wood got into a car accident while out with Dennis Hopper and Ray turned up at the hospital. After hearing the doctor call her a “goddamn juvenile delinquent,” Wood yelled out, “Did you hear what he called me, Nick?! He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?!” She did and joined Sal Mineo in being the rare actual age appropriate teenager in a film about youth culture.
3. Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
For many, Miracle on 34th Street was their first introduction to Natalie Wood. Only eight years old when she starred as Susan Edwards, Wood made a splash as a little girl forced to grow up too fast by her divorcee mother who doesn’t want her daughter believing in fairy-tales. She is enchanting as a little girl who is torn between obeying her mother and wanting to believe in the magic of Christmas. Wood herself believed that Edmund Gwenn was really Santa Claus until she saw him out of costume at the wrap party. She was relatively new to films and formed a tight bond with her onscreen mother Maureen O’Hara. O’Hara later wrote, “I have been the mother to almost forty children in movies, but I have always had a special place in my heart for little Natalie. She always called me Mamma Maureen and I called her Natasha, the name her parents had given her."
2. Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Wood had one of her most explosive roles and greatest acting challenges in the part of “Deanie” Loomis in Splendor in the Grass. Written specifically for the screen by renowned playwright William Inge and directed by Elia Kazan, the film was destined for success before it even started production. Set in Kansas in 1928, the film addresses themes of sexual repression, love, desire, heartbreak, and madness through the relationship of Deanie Loomis and Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty). The film also marked Beatty’s film debut, and he and Wood began a relationship while filming. Wood demonstrated a new level of acting prowess onscreen, pushed by Elia Kazan to strip away her glamorous image and take a more natural approach. She earned an Oscar nomination for her efforts.
1. West Side Story (1961)
Is Natalie Wood’s casting in West Side Story problematic? Undeniably. She required vocal dubbing, and her skin was darkened with make-up so that she might believably portray a Puerto Rican woman. But regardless, Maria remains her most indelible and unforgettable role. Wood is the Juliet in this musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet that translates Shakespeare’s drama to racial gang wars on the streets of New York City. And she is exquisite – she lends Maria a breathless innocence that makes you believe she is in the throes of first love (at first sight). She also imbues Marie with a deep tenderness and feeling that makes it impossible for us not to feel her grief at the tragedies she encounters throughout the film. Her final scene in the film is one of the most powerful ever put to celluloid – even hearing a single line or seeing an image from it is enough to send this writer into tears at the memory of it.
Natalie Wood went on to make an assortment of other memorable films, but these five have undoubtedly enshrined her in Hollywood history.