July 20, 1938 – Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko:
“The only time a woman really succeeds in changing a man is when he is a baby.“
The pallbearers at her funeral included: Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, Elia Kazan, Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck and Frank Sinatra.
She had many gay friends throughout her life and Wood happily acted as a beard by dating bisexual director Nicholas Ray, and also a beard for gay actors Nick Adams, Raymond Burr, James Dean, Tab Hunter and Scott Marlowe, plus Broadway dancer and choreographer Howard Jeffrey. She is also a part of gay history because of her support of writer Mart Crowley who wrote the play The Boys In The Band (1968). Crowley worked for several television production companies before meeting Wood on the set of Splendor In The Grass (1961). Wood hired him as her assistant, primarily to free him to work on his famous gay-themed play. Crowley became part of Wood’s inner circle of friends that she called “the nucleus”, whose main requirement was that they pass a “kindness” test.
She began her career in film as a child and became a successful Hollywood star as a young adult, receiving three Academy Award nominations before she turned 25 years old. She was really the first movie star of the Rock ‘n’ Roll generation.
Her first film was Happy Land (1944) when she was four years old, and her first starring role was when she eight, opposite Maureen O’Hara in the top classic Christmas film Miracle On 34th Street (1947). At 17 years old, her performance in Rebel Without A Cause (1955) earned her an Oscar nomination. She made all sorts of films: comedies, dramas, westerns, romances, and the musicals West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962). Wood received Academy Award nominations for her performances in Splendor In The Grass (1961) and Love With The Proper Stranger (1963).
Wood grew up at Warner Bros., where, because she was a minor, she went to school full time, receiving a straight A average.
Wood’s films were profitable. She was immensely popular with fans, but her acting was often criticized. In 1966, Wood was given the illustrious The Harvard Lampoon Worst Actor of the Year Award. She was the first performer in the dubious award’s history to accept it in person. Still, she had that something extra that made her a movie star; audiences were drawn to her.
Director Sydney Pollack, who directed Wood in This Property Is Condemned (1966), wrote:
“When she was right for the part, there was no one better. She was a damn good actress.“
My favorite of her performances are in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966), both with Robert Redford and both bringing Wood Golden Globe Award nominations. In both films, set during the Great Depression, Wood played small-town teens with big dreams. After the release of the films, Wood suffered emotionally and went into therapy. She turned down the lead role in Bonnie And Clyde (1967) because she did not want to be separated from her analyst.
After some time away from the biz, Wood returned to work with Dyan Cannon, Robert Culp and Elliott Gould in Paul Mazursky‘s sly Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), a sex comedy that is really a comment on the moral earnestness in American society.
After becoming pregnant in 1970, Wood went into semi-retirement. She acted in only four more films during the remainder of her life. She made a brief appearance as “Natalie Wood” in The Candidate (1972), her third movie with Redford.
My friend Gavin Lambert, who adapted his 1963 novel Inside Daisy Clover (about a streetwise teenager who becomes a movie star) to the screen, wrote a terrific biography Natalie Wood: A Life (2004). In the early 1970s, he told me that he thought Wood was a very good actor, and could never figure why her talents didn’t register with critics. Lambert:
“The only thing I can think of is what George Cukor said about Vivien Leigh, that she was underestimated because of her beauty. People adored Natalie, but she never really got her due.“
In the book, Lambert said her husband, Robert Wagner, cooperated with him, providing details for the first time about her death. It was a tense time during their marriage, when Wood, Wagner and Christopher Walken, who was making the film Brainstorm, were on the yacht off the coast of Catalina Island. All three had been drinking and Wood left the two men, who had been arguing over the direction of her career, to go back to her stateroom. When Wagner went down half an hour later, he found her missing and the boat’s dinghy gone. A Coast Guard search followed, and she was later found dead floating in the water. Lambert attributes her death to an accident, and so did the coroner’s report.
Lambert wrote that he had hoped Walken would cooperate with the book, but he declined to do so.
Lambert paints a picture of an alternately fragile and strong-willed woman, a daughter of Russian emigrants, whose childhood ended when she went to work in Hollywood. From then on, she helped support her entire family. He wrote that her hugely ambitious mother was “close to certifiable”.
Wood was an intriguing symbol in the 1950s. She was an all-American sweetie pie, yet underneath she showed darker threads in many of her performances. Her roles dealt with daring issues for the era, such as teenage sex and abortion. We think of the 1950s as conservative, but there was a lot of subversion going on. Wood represented that.
Wood was no Marilyn Monroe or Ava Gardner; her beauty wasn’t dazzling. She had charisma, but not like Audrey Hepburn. There was something unobtrusive and undemanding about her work on screen.
Lambert wrote that Wood had attempted suicide more than once. She had affairs with several actors, including Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, Elvis Presley, Steve McQueen and Jerry Brown, who was then California’s Secretary of State. She was married three times, first to Wagner, then to agent Richard Gregson, and then to Wagner again.
Wood was also realistic about her career options as she outgrew the ingenue roles. Lambert relates in his book that she was invited to dinner by Barbara Stanwyck, who seemed “bitter and lonely”; Wood told Lambert:
“I will never to end up like that.“
Lambert writes that had she lived, she would have turned to the theatre. She had optioned a book about Zelda Fitzgerald, because she desperately wanted to play her.
In spring 2017, witness statements re-energized the investigation into her drowning and her death was recently reclassified as “suspicious”.
Accounts from Dennis Davern, the captain of the boat, claim he witnessed an explosive, alcohol-fueled fight between Wood and Wagner immediately before her disappearance. The Los Angeles Sheriff Department issued a statement:
“A witness provided details about hearing yelling and crashing sounds coming from the couples’ stateroom. Shortly afterwards, separate witnesses identified a man and a woman arguing on the back of the boat.“
Investigators said that bruises noted on Wood’s autopsy report suggested she may have been struck.
Wagner has not spoken to investigators since they reopened the case and he remains a “person of interest”.
“I think it’s ridiculous. It’s obscene to suggest that Wagner could have harmed her. There isn’t a human being on the face of the earth that he worshiped and adored more than Natalie. He was besotted with her, and she with him in her own way. People outside of show business don’t understand that when you’re doing a film or play you sort of become like a barnacle. You gravitate onto somebody and the two of you just yada-yada about the project until everyone around you feels either left out or bored to death. They say, ‘For God’s sake, don’t talk about that anymore’. Natalie formed that sort of association, as I did too, on every project. You just talk about it morning, noon, and night, whether you’re sexually involved or not, you’re just constantly talking about it. When I was doing Hart To Hart with R.J. and not her, we’d constantly talk about how to make the script better. That was the same with Walken and her about Brainstorm. Wood’s death was an accident.“
Douglas Trumbull, the director of Brainstorm, quit directing movies after Wood’s death in 1981. In 2013, he explained that the uncertain circumstances surrounding her death were the main reason for this decision.
It makes me sad that she left this world as a tabloid headline.