Who Was Natalie Wood?
Natalie Wood was a child star the world truly watched grow up. Going from an innocent child in the 1940s to an angst-ridden teenager of the 1950s to a sexy adult woman living through the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Natalie Wood seemed to epitomize an entire generation's coming-of-age. The daughter of Russian immigrants, Natalie made her film debut when she was only five years old. She continued working steadily up until adulthood, only slowing down after her first child was born.
Unfortunately, it is Natalie's untimely death at the age of 43 that often takes precedence when talking about this talented star. In 1981, Natalie mysteriously disappeared from the yacht she and her husband, Robert Wagner, owned while they (and her friend Christopher Walken) were vacationing in Catalina. It was later discovered that she had somehow fallen into the water and tragically drowned. Since then, many theories have been made about what lead up to Natalie's death. However, this luminous star's life was worth so much more than her devastating death. It's the movies she left behind that represent her true legacy. That is exactly what we are going to focus on today.
A Note on This List's Order
I chose the order of my Natalie Wood top 10 by considering each film's importance in Natalie’s overall career, the size/importance of her role in them, and their overall popularity today as evidenced by their ratings on sites like IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Naturally, feel free to watch them in any order you like (this is merely a recommended top 10). You might watch them in the order listed here, chronologically (like I did), or in a way that corresponds with your own movie tastes.
Top Ten Natalie Wood Films
- West Side Story (1961)
- Splendor in the Grass (1961)
- Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
- Love with the Proper Stranger (1963)
- Gypsy (1962)
- Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
- This Property Is Condemned (1966)
- Kings Go Forth (1958)
- Sex and the Single Girl (1964)
- Brainstorm (1983)
1. West Side Story (1961)
Often considered one of the greatest movie musicals ever made, West Side Story stars Natalie in one of her most famous roles. Based on the Broadway musical of the same name (which is itself an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet), the film features an iconic score composed by Leonard Bernstein with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim.
Set in the 1950s, the story centers around two rival NYC teen gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. The Jets are all American-born, while the Sharks are all Puerto Rican immigrants, a fact that only serves to intensify their rivalry. Natalie plays the role of Maria, the younger sister of the Sharks’ leader, Bernardo (George Chakiris). When Maria attends her first high school dance in America, she meets and immediately falls for an American boy named Tony (Richard Beymer). Unfortunately, Tony, also, happens to be a former member of the Jets and, despite having left the gang, his lifelong friendship with the Jets’ leader, Riff (Russ Tamblyn), guarantees that he'll always be considered an honorary member. The star-crossed lovers secretly find ways to see each other but, with so much hatred and violence around them, does their burgeoning love even have a chance?
This incredibly influential film ended up winning an astounding 10 Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor & Actress (for George Chakiris as Bernardo and Rita Moreno as Bernardo’s girlfriend, Anita). Although a lot of attention is often paid to the fact that Natalie does not do her own singing in the movie, she's actually not the only one in the cast to have their singing dubbed.
The film’s music supervisors were incredibly exacting so, the majority of the leads ended up having at least one of their songs dubbed for one reason or another, including Richard Beymer, Rita Moreno, and Russ Tamblyn. (Tamblyn's solos in "The Jet Song" were, actually, dubbed by Tucker Smith, who plays Riff's second-in-command, Ice.) The decision to dub Natalie’s singing voice wasn’t made until after filming was completed. Singer Marni Nixon was belatedly brought in to redo Natalie's vocals after the filmmakers decided that they ultimately wanted a stronger soprano for Maria's solos. However, you can still hear Natalie’s real singing voice in the film’s final moments, during Maria’s final reprise of the song “Somewhere.”
2. Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Directed by Elia Kazan and written by playwright William Inge, Splendor in the Grass features Warren Beatty in his film debut and a heartbreaking performance by Natalie that earned her a well-deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Set in the 1920s, Natalie stars as Wilma Dean Loomis (nicknamed “Deanie”), a sweet Kansas teen who is advised by her mother not to lose her virginity to her rich boyfriend, Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty). Although Deanie is secretly tempted by her feelings for Bud, she dutifully heeds her mother’s wishes with the expectation that she and Bud will get married one day, anyway. Actually, Bud is so enamored with Deanie that he wants to marry her right away.
Unfortunately, his very successful father, Ace Stamper (Pat Hingle), has other plans for his only son. Rather than marry Deanie now, Ace advises his son to wait for marriage until after he graduates college. In the meantime, he suggests that Bud should just satisfy his lustful urges on girls with “looser morals”. Pressured by his father’s expectations and concerned about possibly “corrupting” Deanie, Bud chooses to follow his father’s advice, eventually breaking up with Deanie and starting a sexual relationship with another girl from school. This turn of events completely shatters poor Deanie’s world. Now, it seems that no matter how hard she tries, Deanie has become so trapped by the advice and expectations of others that her mind may not be able to take it anymore.
Splendor in the Grass takes its title from the William Wordsworth poem, “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” which is quoted more than once throughout the film. Pat Hingle who plays the role of Bud’s father, Ace Stamper, actually had a very serious accident right before filming began, falling 54 feet down the elevator shaft in his apartment building. The fall broke his hips, knees, ankles, and ribs. It would take over a year for him to recover fully but, despite his injuries, Hingle decided that he still wanted to play his role in Splendor in the Grass. So, an explanation for Ace Stamper’s limping walk was written into the film.
3. Rebel Without A Cause (1955)
Directed and co-written by Nicholas Ray, Rebel Without A Cause stars Natalie opposite the iconic James Dean in his most famous role. The film begins with 3 Los Angeles teens being brought into the juvenile unit of a police station for various infractions. The new kid in town, Jim Stark (James Dean), is drunk and underage, Judy (Natalie) was found wandering the streets past curfew, and the seemingly quiet John “Plato” Crawford (Sal Mineo) has just murdered a litter of puppies. Through listening to each of the three teens give their statements and watching their guardians arrive to take them home, it becomes clear that they each have their own unique problems at home that they are quietly suffering from. Unhappy with their own families, these three misfits slowly discover that they may be able to form a new family with each other but, one of them may be even more emotionally damaged than they all thought.
Rebel Without A Cause was unique at the time for focusing on “juvenile delinquents” from middle-class suburban homes, rather than lower-class urban neighborhoods. The film’s title was, actually, taken from Robert M. Lindner’s 1944 nonfiction book, Rebel Without A Cause: The Hypnoanalysis of a Criminal Psychopath. Warner Bros had originally bought the book with the intention of making a movie that would be more directly related to the source material but, by the time Rebel went into production in the 1950s, the only thing that remains of the original book is its title.
Unknown to many at the time, Natalie, actually, ended up having a brief affair with director Nicholas Ray during the film’s production (apparently, even telling her friends that she thought she might be in love with him). Although Natalie was never romantically involved with James Dean, she was completely fascinated by him, as well, and the two were almost inseparable throughout filming. Sadly, Dean died in a car accident only a month before the film was to be released. A bust of James Dean now sits outside of the Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles (where some of this film’s most memorable scenes were shot and set) in honor of Rebel Without A Cause.
4. Love with the Proper Stranger (1965)
Love with the Proper Stranger stars Natalie as Angie Rossini, a young Macy's salesclerk in NYC who becomes unexpectedly pregnant after a one-night stand with a musician named Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen). Once Angie realizes that she’s expecting, she manages to track down Rocky to tell him the news. She assures him that she has already decided on an abortion and merely hopes that he can help her find someone to perform the procedure. Considering that Rocky barely even remembers Angie, he's understandably a bit thrown but, he promises to help in any way he can.
In truth, the primary reason Angie wants an abortion is just to prevent her family from ever finding out that she’d gotten pregnant in the first place. Angie still lives at home with her meddling, overprotective family and her brothers are constantly trying to set her up with men they’d like her to marry. They are currently obsessed with pairing her up with a soft-spoken chef named Anthony (played by Tom Bosley in his screen debut). Although Angie keeps assuring Rocky that she doesn’t really need his help “taking care” of the situation, she may need more help than she’s entirely willing to admit.
One of the highlights of Love with the Proper Stranger is just watching Natalie interact with the legendary King of Cool, Steve McQueen. The character of Rocky is much more understated than the brash roles McQueen was normally known for and the chemistry between him and Natalie is engaging.
Behind the scenes, Natalie loved working on this sweet dramedy, calling it the “most rewarding experience” of her career. The film, also, marked Natalie’s first experience working with legendary costumer Edith Head. She would go on to work with Edith Head in six more films, making her the one star Head designed for the most. Natalie even collaborated with Head to design her wedding dress when she married her second husband, Richard Gregson.
5. Gypsy (1962)
Based on the Broadway musical of the same name (which was itself based on the autobiography of famed burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee), Gypsy tells the true life story of Rose Louise Hovick (Natalie), known only as Louise to her family. Under the name Gypsy Rose Lee, Louise will eventually grow up to become the most famous striptease artist in America but, growing up, she lives in the shadow of her talented younger sister, June. Louise and June’s domineering stage mother, Mama Rose (Rosalind Russell), is determined that her youngest daughter become a big vaudeville star and will do anything to make sure that dream comes true (regardless of how either of her daughters feel about it).
Like West Side Story, Gypsy features lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. But this time, the melodies are courtesy of composer Jule Styne (best known for his work on Funny Girl). Unlike West Side Story, Natalie was finally allowed to perform all of her own singing in Gypsy. Her song, “Little Lamb” was even recorded live on the set. Unlike Louise and Mama Rose’s somewhat strained relationship onscreen, Natalie and Rosalind Russell became very close during filming. Russell had, actually, worked with the real June years earlier (better known under her stage name June Havoc, by then), when she appeared in the 1942 film My Sister Eileen. The real Gypsy Rose Lee, also, visited the set of Gypsy and even helped to coach Natalie on her striptease numbers.
6. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is a movie tailor-made for the swinging ‘60s. Featuring a score composed by the legendary Quincy Jones, this comedic satire stars Natalie alongside Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon, and Robert Culp as the titular quartet. It tells the story of “sophisticated” married couple, Carol and Bob Sanders (played by Natalie and Robert Culp), who spend one weekend at a New Age retreat.
While at the retreat, the couple becomes completely entranced by the group’s open philosophies. So, they make a vow to start integrating these new teachings into their life from now on. Once they return home, Bob and Carol enthusiastically tell their best friends, Ted and Alice Henderson (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon), all about their new outlook on life. But, Ted and Alice are just completely baffled by their friends’ sudden new obsession.
A few weeks later, Bob returns from a business trip and confesses to Carol that he had a one-night stand. To his surprise, Carol stands by their new ideology and forgives him for his transgression, even asking for specifics about what happened. But, when Carol later mentions Bob’s affair to Ted and Alice, their knowledge of the affair, actually, seems to cause a bigger upset in their marriage than it does to Bob and Carol’s.
The success of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice opened the door for other mainstream movies to deal with more taboo topics, such as wife swapping, swinging, and infidelity. When negotiating her salary for the film, Natalie decided to take a gamble on a percentage of the gross (something she had regretted not doing for West Side Story years earlier). That gamble paid off by earning her $5 million over the course of 3 years.
A year after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice was released, Natalie gave birth to her first child, Natasha. This prompted her to go into semi-retirement to focus on her family, only appearing in films sporadically from then on.
7. This Property is Condemned (1966)
Based on a Tennessee Williams one-act play of the same name, This Property Is Condemned was directed by Sydney Pollack and stars Natalie opposite Robert Redford. The film’s script was, actually, co-written by a young Francis Ford Coppola. Although Coppola would later find more success as a director, this screenwriting job marked his very first experience working on a major Hollywood film.
Set in Depression-era Mississippi, the movie tells the story of Alva Starr, a pretty little flirt who dreams of escaping the small town she grew up in to start a new life in the big city of New Orleans, LA. When a handsome stranger named Owen Legate (Redford) comes to stay at her mother’s boardinghouse, Alva begins to think that he might be her ticket out. But, unfortunately, Alva’s scheming mother has other plans for her eldest daughter.
Filming for This Property Is Condemned actually started without a completely finished script, which resulted in some of the scenes having to be improvised on the spot. Natalie and Robert Redford had first worked together on the film Inside Daisy Clover a year earlier so, by the time they made this film, they were already good friends. Redford would even be Natalie's best man at her second wedding.
Unfortunately, Tennessee Williams ended up being very disappointed in the finished film, to the point that he even threatened to have his name removed from the credits. However, Natalie, Redford, and Pollack all seemed quite pleased with how the film turned out in the end.
8. Kings Go Forth (1958)
Based on the novel by Joe David Brown, Kings Go Forth is one of the few movies to, actually, be set during Operation Dragoon, colloquially known as the “Champagne Campaign” of WWII. The operation earned its nickname from the unique dichotomy soldiers experienced from going on dangerous missions in the field and then commuting back to Nice, France for parties and champagne.
The film stars Frank Sinatra as 1st Lt. Sam Loggins, a US Army soldier in an artillery observation unit stationed in the foothills of the Alps. While on leave in Nice, Sam meets the lovely Monique Blair (Natalie), the French-raised daughter of two American expatriates. After going on a few dates, Sam starts to fall for Monique but, Monique has a secret that she insists he must know before their relationship goes any further.
It turns out that the reason Monique’s parents moved to France in the first place was to raise their daughter away from the racial bigotry they had faced in America as an interracial couple (Monique’s mother is “white” and her now-deceased father was “black”). Discovering Monique’s mixed-race status forces Sam to face his long-held prejudices and he, also, discovers that he might have competition for Monique’s affections in the form of his unit’s newest recruit, Sgt. Britt Harris (Tony Curtis).
Despite the fact that Kings Go Forth does feature a number of scenes that take place on the front, this film is really more of a romantic melodrama than a war movie. Frank Sinatra, actually, recorded a romantic ballad called “Monique” that was based on Natalie’s character in the film. Unfortunately, only the instrumental version is ever heard in the actual movie.
The iconic Dorothy Dandridge had, actually, been very interested in playing the role of Monique and she was initially considered. However, the filmmakers decided that they wanted Monique’s ancestry to remain a secret to initial audiences until the moment it's revealed to Sam. Dandridge’s racial designation was too high profile to keep the film’s covert messaging against racial prejudice an unexpected surprise.
9. Sex and the Single Girl (1964)
Inspired by the non-fiction self-help book of the same name, Sex and the Single Girl stars Natalie as a fictional version of the book’s real-life author, Helen Gurley Brown. In the film, Helen is a psychologist who has just published a best-selling self-help book called Sex and the Single Girl. But, when a tabloid magazine writes an article casting doubt on her real-life relationship experience, Helen is not only offended personally, she’s actually losing patients because of it.
Meanwhile, one of the writers working at that very same tabloid, Bob Weston (Tony Curtis), wants a follow-up interview with Helen about the article. Naturally, Helen completely stonewalls him. So, Bob decides to get the material for his article in a more underhanded way. Assuming the identity of his low-key married neighbor, Frank Broderick (Henry Fonda), Bob makes an appointment at Helen’s office in the hopes of manipulating her into giving him fresh dirt for his article. He's particularly interested in getting her to admit whether or not she really is a virgin (as the damning article suggested she might be).
This lighthearted sex comedy reunited Natalie with her Kings Go Forth co-star Tony Curtis, making it the second of three movies the two made together. One running gag throughout this film involves characters describing Bob as “looking like Jack Lemmon”. This is a tongue-in-cheek reference to Tony Curtis’ most famous role in the classic comedy Some Like It Hot, which Curtis starred in alongside Jack Lemmon.
10. Brainstorm (1983)
Brainstorm not only marks a rare foray into the sci-fi genre for Natalie, it's also her last onscreen appearance. The film was released a couple years after her untimely death in 1981. It stars Christopher Walken as Michael Brace, a scientist who has just invented a direct neural interface that allows a person’s memories to be recorded and experienced by others.
Natalie plays the role of Karen, Michael’s estranged wife who has, also, been working on the project in a design capacity. Naturally, Michael and his longtime research partner, Lillian Reynolds (Louise Fletcher), are ecstatic that their passion project is finally working. Michael is even able to use the interface to help heal the bond between himself and Karen, making their relationship stronger than it’s ever been.
When the military becomes interested in the interface, Michael, Lillian, and Karen begin to realize that this new technology could be used for much darker purposes than they ever intended. Then, when Lillian dies of a sudden heart attack while wearing the neural interface, disagreements about what to do with the tape she has recorded will bring tensions to their boiling point.
In preparation for the almost transcendental qualities of Brainstorm’s plot, director Douglas Trumbell sent the majority of the cast and crew up to the Esalen Institute in Northern California, which is known for its various New Age educational classes and workshops. When Natalie died near the end of filming, the studio considered scrapping the film entirely. But, Trumbell insisted that enough of the film was completed that it could (and should) be finished.
The remaining script was rewritten slightly to account for Natalie’s absence and Natalie’s younger sister, Lana, was used as a stand-in for her few remaining scenes. A couple unnecessary scenes involving water were also removed from the film, out of respect for Natalie’s death by drowning. After the stressful experience of working on Brainstorm, Trumbell vowed never to direct a Hollywood film again. To this day, the movie remains his last theatrically-released feature film.
Honorable Mention: Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
Although Maureen O’Hara and Edmund Gwenn are the real stars of this film, I couldn’t finish a Natalie Wood Top Ten without mentioning this perennial Christmas classic. Featuring Natalie in her most famous role as a child star, Miracle on 34th Street is a beautiful film that every person who celebrates Christmas simply must see.
Natalie plays the role of Susan Walker, an intelligent, down-to-earth child who has been brought up by her single mother, Doris (Maureen O’Hara), to reject all fantasies or fairy tales. As part of her job working at Macy’s, Doris is in charge of organizing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and when the Santa she initially hired to close the parade shows up drunk, she hires a new Santa (Edmund Gwenn) last minute.
He ends up being such a huge success that she decides to hire him to be the Santa at Macy’s NYC store, as well. Introducing himself as Kris Kringle, it soon becomes clear that Kris truly believes that he is the real Santa Claus. It's possible that spending time with Kris might even persuade the cynical Susan to believe in Santa Claus.
Even though Miracle on 34th Street is obviously a Christmas movie, originally, the film was released into theaters in May because, at the time, it was believed that more people went to the movies during the spring and summer seasons. Because of this out-of-season timing, the movie’s Christmas themes were heavily (and creatively) downplayed in promotions. A trailer was even specially made that featured virtually no footage from the film whatsoever. Luckily, the movie ended up being so popular, it actually stayed in theaters until Christmastime!
Miracle on 34th Street ended up winning 3 Academy Awards: Best Screenplay, Best Original Story, and Best Actor for Edmund Gwenn. Natalie was only 8 years old during filming and really came to believe that the gentle Edmund Gwenn was the real Santa Claus (it wasn’t until the wrap party afterwards that she finally saw him out of costume and realized he was just a fellow actor). She, also, became very close with Maureen O’Hara, who affectionately called her by her Russian nickname, "Natasha", while Natalie called her "Mama Maureen."
If you would like to learn more about the lovely Natalie Wood, you can check out the books, Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life (2016) by Manoah Bowman and Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography (2020) by Suzanne Finstad. I would, also, recommend watching the 2020 documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind.
© 2021 Lindsay Blenkarn