Spotlight On: Natalie Wood
One of the most tragic tales in Hollywood history was that of the short life of Natalie Wood. Her acting career began while she was a child and landed a high profile role in the holiday classic Miracle on 34th Street. From there her career was launched into the stratosphere as she became sought after by a number of legendary directors from John Ford to Robert Wise to Nicholas Ray. Wood built a filmography loaded with some of the greatest films in history. In real life her combination of beauty and charisma famously assured she had no shortage of potential suitors but it was her two marriages to Robert Wagner which became the stuff of Hollywood legend. Despite a legendary career, Natalie Wood is tragically most remembered for her controversial death aboard Wagner’s yacht the Splendour at the young age of 43. Despite a filmography filled with masterpieces, one can not help but wonder what we were robbed of due to her untimely death. With a recent HBO documentary as well as a day devoted to her in this year’s TCM Summer Under the Stars it is fitting that we at the House of Geekery shine the spotlight on Natalie Wood.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947): One of the many great Christmas classics of the 1940’s which still finds a strong audience when December rolls around. Miracle on 34th Street happens to feature a young Natalie Wood as Susan, the young daughter of Macy’s manager Doris. It is in this famed department store that Susan discovers that their Santa Claus, Mr. Kris Kringle, is in fact the REAL Santa Claus. As a child making her acting debut, it could have been daunting for Wood to work with the greats of this ensemble like: Maureen O’Hara, Thelma Ritter, and Edmund Gwenn. Instead the young actress thrived in this position proving she was made for the spotlight.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955): The ultimate film about reckless youth with all confusion and consequences that come with it. Playing Judy, she is the popular and beautiful young woman who falls for the brooding newcomer Jim, played by James Dean in his definitive performance. While she resists him at first, Jim comes through for her during the fateful “Chickie Run”. After this begins to fall for the troubled young man and finds a good heart beneath it all. While they have a short-lived period of time together in an old mansion, inevitably the problems of the real world and grown-ups bursts into their world. Auteur director Nicholas Ray was hesitant about casting Wood in this role. But the actress campaigned hard for this part and according to Hollywood lore proved in a real life auto accident she had the guts for it. Her heartfelt performance led to the actress receiving her first Academy Award nomination.
The Searchers (1956): The film many argue is the greatest western of all-time featured Wood in a small role at the film’s climax. However, in those few minutes of screentime she absolutely stole the show. Years ago, Debbie was kidnapped by the Commanche driving the surly antihero Ethan Edwards and his companion Martin to scour the unforgiving west looking for her. When they finally find her, it is not at all the way Edwards wanted. Spending all this time with the tribe meant Debbie has grown up living their ways and has taken on their culture. For a bitter racist like Edwards he would rather see her dead than “a squaw” and were it not for Martin she would be. It was a brief role at the end of the film but she was absolutely crucial in the haunting bittersweet ending of the Searchers. Debbie was now a young woman who has discovered everything she knew to be a lie and Natalie Wood nails the performance perfectly. She brings the prejudices of the film’s main character to the forefront, shocking the audience with what actions Ethan may take.
Splendor in the Grass (1961): To all outsiders it seemed Wood’s career was on the decline, that was until the legendary director Elia Kazan cast her in the lead of this period piece. She played Deanie, the thoughtful girlfriend to Warren Beatty’s football playing Bud. While they try to maintain their virtue the increasing pressures of sex, family, and the evolving times takes a toll on what they have. Deanie’s sole desire is to be with Bud, but his priorities lie elsewhere which drives the young woman into a downward spiral. In this film Natalie displayed a new maturity and rich talent, which had escaped unnoticed until now. After a slew of acclaim for her performance, Natalie Wood was back on top.
West Side Story (1961): One of the all-time great movie musicals featured Wood in arguably the greatest performance of her career. As Maria the sister of the leader of the Sharks, she falls hard into a forbidden romance with her brother’s rival Tony of the Jets. In the midst of a flashy gang war these two teens find a way to keep their love hidden as long as they can but it is inevitably discovered. The role of Maria was one the actress seemed to stumble into by accident. But this proved to be a wonderful accident as for many West Side Story stands as Natalie Wood’s definitive film. In order to bring her A-game to the musical the actress put in a grueling 16 hours of choreography practice to meet the demands of the production.
Sex and the Single Girl (1964): In the early 60’s, Dr. Helen Gurley Brown wrote a best-selling book which encouraged women to strive for independence in the matter of relationships. In 1964, Natalie Wood would portray Brown onscreen, leading a cast filled with top tier stars. Hoping to gain insight into the young successful author, Bob, a writer at a sleazy tabloid interviews her under the guise of his neighbor. Of course in playing this role, Bob ends up falling for Helen. Natalie Wood seized on this role and even among a cast which included the likes of Tony Curtis and Lauren Bacall, she absolutely stole the show with one of her best performances.
Brainstorm (1983): This sci-fi/horror film would the final onscreen appearance from Natalie Wood as she passed away shortly after filming her major scenes. In this film she plays Karen the soon to be estranged wife of scientist Dr. Michael Brace played by Christopher Walken. In the lab they work in, a new device has been developed which can transfer the brain wave patterns of individuals. Naturally something this powerful gains a lot of unwanted attention due to the power it possesses. While entertaining, this film will sadly be remembered for the fact that Natalie Wood went out yachting with her co-star Walken and her husband Robert Wagner and meant her untimely death. Naturally the release of the film was held up, as MGM weighed its options, but ultimately they realized enough of the film had been produced to complete Brainstorm. This allowed movie fans to get one more film with the iconic actress.