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The Life and Career of Natalie Wood

NATALIE WOOD first caught the public eye as a child actress in Miracle on 34th Street.

However, what distinguished her career from that of many other child stars was her successful transition to adult roles. She’s particularly known for her roles in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) and West Side Story (1961).

She was also frequently in the media limelight as she grew into a beautiful young woman. People were fascinated by her glamorous image, and her various romantic relationships, particularly those with Warren Beatty and Robert Wagner.

THE GENESIS OF A STAR

Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938 in San Francisco, California, the second child of Russian migrs Nikolai and Maria Zakharenko. The family later changed their name to Gurdin.

When she was barely four, her ambitious mother arranged for her to meet with director Irving Pichel, who was filming Happy Land (1943) in Santa Rosa, California, the town they were then living in. Pichel gave Wood a bit part in the movie.

Hoping to further her child’s career, her mother moved her family to Los Angeles. In 1945, that paid off when young Natalie was cast as a German orphan opposite Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in another Pichel film, Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). She was only seven at the time.

Her breakthrough, though, came from the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street. Her performance as Susan Walker, the little girl who doubted Santa Claus, cemented her status as a top Hollywood child star. As a child actress, she was very much in demand, appearing in films opposite such well-known names as James Stewart, Bette Davis and Bing Crosby. At home, though, apparently things weren’t so rosy, with her mother driving her career, and her father indulging in drink.

FIRST OSCAR NOMINATION

Wood was one of the few child stars to go almost seamlessly from child roles to teenage and adult roles. This was no doubt in large part due to her winning the role of Judy, a rebellious high school student looking for love, in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a film which also had James Dean, Sal Mineo and Dennis Hopper. That performance which earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Rebel made her a sought-after star, every teenage boy’s dream. Her beauty, and the reports of her romances with such eligible men as Nick Ray, co-star Dennis Hopper, Raymond Burr, and even Elvis Presley, made her the envy of many young girls.

ROBERT WAGNER

And then she met Robert Wagner. Her first date with him was on her eighteenth birthday. About a year later, he proposed, and on December 28th, 1957, they married in Scottsdale, Arizona. They became one of Hollywood’s hottest young couples, frequently featured in magazines. They also acted together, in the 1960 movie All the Fine Young Cannibals.

THE HEIGHT OF HER CAREER: THE YEARS 1961-1963

Under contract with Warner Brothers, Wood was given mainly not-so-memorable roles the 1950s – small parts in big films and romantic leads in forgettable teen films – a frustrating situation for the young actress.

And then Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass came along. Wood fought for and won the role of Deanie Loomis in that 1961 film in which she starred opposite 23-year-old Warren Beatty. It was another turning point for her. Her perfomance earned her Best Actress nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards.

That was also the year she took on the role of Maria in the movie West Side Story (1961), garnering much praise for her sensual, commanding performance. Hot on the heels of Splendor and West Side Story, Wood turned in a stirring performance as Gypsy Rose Lee in the film Gypsy (1962), a story of a daughter struggling to come out from under the shadow of her managing mother, a story that in many ways parallelled that of Wood’s own relationship with her mother.

Wood received her third (and final) Academy Award nomination and another Golden Globe nomination for the 1963 film Love with the Proper Stranger. This story of two people who finds real feelings for each other after a one-night stand and an attempted abortion was controversial for its time.

MARRIAGE BREAK-UP AND ROMANCE WITH WARREN BEATTY

In the midst of all that success, Wood’s marriage collapsed. In 1961, after three and a half years of marriage, she separated from Robert Wagner. Wood began seeing Splendor co-star Warren Beatty while she was filming West Side Story. They were seen everywhere together, from the Cannes Film Festival to the Oscars. They started living together while she was filming Gypsy (1962). But by the time her divorce from Wagner came through in 1963, her relationship with Beatty had fizzled out.

In the mid 1960s, she starred in a couple of films which helped launch Robert Redford’s career – Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966). Unfortunately, Inside Daisy Clover was a box-office flop, and earned her a tongue-in-cheek Worst Actress Award from the Harvard Drama Society. It is probably indicative of her personality that she went to Harvard to accept the award in person, something no one else had done before.

FINDING BALANCE

By the time she was in her late twenties, Wood was an established Hollywood star. She had earned three Oscar nominations and made movies regarded as classics. However, her films were not doing well, and she had just as little success on the personal front. Engagements were announced with businessmen Arthur Lowe and Vladimir Blatnik, and she was linked with Frank Sinatra, David Niven Jr., and David Lange, but none of these relationships stayed the course. She succumbed to her frustrations, and attempted suicide in 1965, overdosing on sleeping pills.

It was time to take a break from Hollywood, and that was what she did, staying away for three years. She tried therapy, she attended classes at UCLA, and pursued various interests. And she found love with British talent agent Richard Gregson, marrying him in May 30, 1969.

Wood went back to film when Paul Mazursky persuaded her to take on the role of the progressive Carol in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969). Wood agreed to appear in the film on a percentage deal. When the film turned out to be a success, she earned quite a large sum of money. And thus the 1960s ended on a high note for Wood.

ROBERT WAGNER AGAIN

In 1970, Wood fulfilled one of her dreams, giving birth to her first child Natasha. But eleven months after Natasha was born, Wood’s marriage to Gregson collapsed when she found out that he was having an affair. It was then that Robert Wagner reappeared in her life. They found themselves still attracted to each other, and on July 16th, 1972, she and Wagner remarried on a boat off the coast of Malibu, California. Two years after her wedding, in March 1974, she gave birth to her second daughter, Courtney Brooke. Wagner’s daughter from another marriage, Kate, also spent much time with them. This was a settled time for Wood, as she found much satisfaction in the roles of wife and mother.

MAKING HER MARK IN TV

In the 1970s, although she did make a few theatrical films, she preferred working for TV, and her best work in that period was in that medium. She received Emmy nominations for the remake of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976), and the TV mini-series “From Here To Eternity” (1979). She also won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for that mini-series.

TRAGIC DEATH

In 1981, after Thanksgiving, Wood and her husband took their boat, the Splendour, out on the waters off Catalina Island. Accompanying them was her co-star in a scifi film she was then working on, Brainstorm. She disappeared from the boat sometime during the night, and her body was found the next morning after a search by the authorities. She had drowned.

There has been much speculation over the years on the events surrounding her death, as little is known except for the fact that sometime after midnight on Saturday, November 28th, Wood said goodnight to her husband and left him talking to Walken on the deck, and that was the last time they saw her. The pallbearers at her funeral were Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Elia Kazan, Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Fred Astaire. Her body is buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery.

Brainstorm was released in theaters two years later. Younger sister Lana Wood, also an actress, would later make an ABC TV special on her life, The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004).