Today’s tragic beauty is a personal favorite of mine and another veteran of TV Girl album cover art. (See “Girls Like Me” 7-inch) You guessed it! Today’s beauty is Natalie Wood.
Natalie Wood was never the most talented actress or the most bankable star, but it didn’t stop her from becoming a sex symbol. Wood didn’t have the unassailable chops or impenetrable cool of her far more iconic co-star James Dean. Her appeal was more human, and was fueled by the tension between her innocent image that always seemed to be covereing up a raw sexuality. Also unlike Dean, she didn’t have the benefit of dying young and leaving behind a flawless track record. Her life and career was pockmarked with romantic and professional failure, and accentuated by the occasional triumphant comeback.
Natalie Wood wasn’t born into stardom, but she was pretty close. She scored her first role at the tender age of 3, in the forgettable Happy Land as “Little Girl Who Drops Ice Cream Cone.”
One of the producers saw potential in the cute and precocious Natalie and said some encouraging words to Natalie’s mother. That was enough to make the entire family uproot and migrate to Los Angeles, changing their last names from Zacharenko to the more Hollywood friendly “Wood” along the way.
Fortunately, that producer remembered Natalie and she landed a series of parts playing lovable and mischievous moppets, culminating in a memorable turn opposite Kris Kringle in the holiday classic Miracle on 31st Street.
Natalie made the transition to teen roles opposite icon-in-the-making James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Though considered a classic of the “Teenage Delinquent” genre, Natalie’s off-screen behavior was far more scandalous than anything that appeared on screen. 16 year old Natalie reportedly landed the role by sleeping with 43-year-old director Nicolas Ray, all while carrying on a simultaneous affair with “Rebel” co-star Dennis Hopper.
Around the time of “Rebel,” the film industry was undergoing tremendous shifts. The studio monopoly on film production began to dissolve and filmmakers and stars became more independent and able to choose more risky projects, kicking off a creative renaissance.
Unfortunately, Natalie Wood was unable to participate in this new era. Signed to contract at the age of five, she was a holdover of the old studio system and contractually obligated to star in an unending parade of critical and commercial flops.
On her 18th birthday, Wood went on a highly publicized date with her childhood crush Robert Wagner, an actor who just happened to share her agent and studio. Her and Wagner became tabloid favorites, which kept her in the public eye despite her continually declining fortunes. She ended up marrying Wagner and co-starring with him in the notorious flop “All the Fine Young Cannibals.”
With her career on the brink of disaster, Wood and Wagner divorced and she staged a comeback, taking on sexually bold roles in critically acclaimed films like “West Side Story” and “Splendor in the Grass,” the latter of which earned her an academy award nomination. But her comeback was short lived. By the mid 1960’s, she was more or less retired, appearing in films only sporadically.
In 1972, ten years after their divorce, Wood remarried Robert Wagner and would remain with him for the rest of her life. In the late 70’s, Wood made strides towards a Hollywood comeback, starring in 1980’s “Last Married Couple in America,” a film which gave Wood the distinction of being the first major female movie star to say the word “fuck” onscreen in reference to sex.
On November 28th, 1981, Wood and Wagner decided to take a vacation from the set of her new film “Brainstorm,” and embarked on a weekend boat trip to Catalina Island alongside co-star Christopher Walken. The circumstances surrounding that night are extremely mysterious, but at 8 a.m. the next morning, Wood’s body was found washed up on shore a mile away from the boat. Neither Wagner, Walken, nor the boat’s captain reported seeing Wood go overboard. The autopsy of her body showed a high alcohol blood level as well as bruises on her arms and face. The official report deemed it an accident, although sinister rumors run rampant to this day. She was 43.