One of Hollywood's most beautiful actresses, Natalie Wood was also one of the few performers who successfully made the transition from child star to adult star. Her incredible natural beauty often prevented critics from taking her seriously as an actress, but her three Oscar nominations speak for her talent.
Natalie Wood was born Natasha Gurdin on July 20, 1938, in San Francisco to a Russian father and a French mother. As a child Natalie spoke several languages and studied dance. (Her mother, Maria, had been a ballerina.) Natalie made her screen debut at age four in the 1943 movie Happy Land,
which director Irving Pichel was filming in the family's hometown of Rosita, California. Several years later he cast her to play a German refugee in Tomorrow Is Forever
Miracle on 34th Street
Without a doubt Natalie's best-known childhood movie was the 1947 classic Miracle on 34th Street
, for which she was paid $1,000 a week. She also appeared briefly in an early 1950s television series, Pride of the Family
. During her teen years, Natalie blossomed as an actress. Her role opposite the enigmatic James Dean
in the 1955
movie Rebel Without a Cause
won her an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress. The movie was a brilliant evocation of disaffected American teenagers in the 1950s and remains a screen classic.
Natalie's allure in the movie was not lost on a young Elvis Presley, who in 1956
could be seen squiring Miss Wood around his hometown of Memphis on the back of his motorcycle. The following year Natalie married actor Robert Wagner, whom she called RJ. They were divorced only a few years later, but the couple re-married in 1972
Appearing in the 1961
movie Splendor in the Grass
with Warren Beatty, Natalie projected repressed sexuality so skillfully that she won her second Oscar nomination. That same year she starred as Maria in the film version of West Side Story,
but singer Marni Nixon was called in to overdub her singing voice. In the 1960s Natalie was often stereotyped in films as a vulnerable, putupon woman. Her skill at projecting this image garnered her a third Oscar nomination in 1963
for Love with the Proper Stranger.
But Natalie knew that she had to change Hollywood's preconceptions of her, and she took on an entirely different persona to star in the controversial 1969 sex farce Bob & Carol
This movie endures as a record of the kind of sexual experimentation and permissiveness that were in vogue during the 1960s. The year of the movie's release, Natalie married producer Richard Gregson and gave birth to a daughter, Natasha. She and Gregson divorced three years later. Critics often commented that Natalie seemed happiest as a supporting character rather than as a star in her own movie. She was insecure about her talent and expressed great surprise when a mutual friend told her that the legendary actor Laurence Olivier spoke positively about her work. For most of the 1970's, Natalie kept away from the sound stage, but she appeared in television adaptations of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
and From Here to Eternity.
After she had remarried Robert Wagner in 1972, Natalie seemed content to be raising their brood: Wagner's daughter Kate from his marriage to Marion Marshall, her daughter Natasha, and the Wagners' own daughter, Courtney. When a friend worried aloud about all the time she was losing in her acting career, Natalie simply said, "Hell, I don't really care. I've been a movie star longer than Joan Crawford." By the end of the decade, she was once again on the big screen, appearing in two critically lauded movies, Willie and Phil and The Last Married Couple in America.
Natalie and RJ often sailed with friends on their 60-foot yacht, Splendor. On November 29, 1981, Natalie Wood drowned in a mysterious accident near the boat. While there were whispers about a drinking problem and suicide, her close friends noted that she was looking forward to making her stage debut in a Los Angeles production of Anastasia a few months later.