Pretty In The Past: Natalie Wood

More than any other performer of her era, she made Hollywood glamour feel attainable. We could imagine ourselves being Natalie Wood, but we could also imagine why we might not want to.
Publish date:
January 23, 2013
pretty in the past, Natalie Wood

Natasha was 11 when she appeared in the 1949 farming drama The Green Promise. It was her 10th movie and by then she had already made a major impression — with the less ethnic stage name of Natalie — as one of the most talented child actresses of the era in classics like Miracle on 34th Street and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir.

The movie featured a scene where her character had to make her way home through a torrential rainstorm. The script called for her to cross a rickety wooden bridge over a raging, flooded stream of water, only to have it collapse just as she safely made it to the other side. When it came time to film this moment, she was reluctant. The water scared her, but the director — William Russell — insisted that it wouldn’t look right filmed with a double and convinced her mother that she had to do it.

Maria was a true “stage mom” with all of the unpleasant baggage that term now implies. Her family’s livelihood depended on Natasha’s career and she lived in fear of what may happen if her daughter refused to listen to a director and could no longer get roles after developing a reputation for being “difficult”. So she brushed aside her daughter’s fears and ordered her to do it.

Natasha listened to her mother. As the camera rolled, she stumbled through artificial wind and rain powerful enough to register on film. She could barely walk. She stepped on the bridge and saw the swirling torrent of water below her. All she had to do was take a few steps and get to the other side, where — once she was safe — the bridge was set to fall apart. She made her way across it, but then something went wrong. The bridge collapsed too early.

She broke her hand and was nearly pulled into the raging water. She was rescued, but the sequence needed to be finished and Russell still refused to use a double. Natasha did it again. And again. The film is now in the public domain and can be found here. If you skip ahead to the 82-minute mark, you can watch the scene and see how it’s impossible to tell that it’s her crossing the bridge. It could have been filmed with anyone.

For the rest of her tragically short life, Natasha remained terrified of going into the water.

After The Green Promise, her career hit that risky point many child actors face as they enter adolescence. She still worked, but mostly on television and in cheap, low-budget movies. She might have faded away if she hadn’t developed into a very beautiful young woman, which brought her to the attention of a director named Nicolas Ray, who was making a drama about teenagers trying to find a place in a society that both coddled and feared them.

Rebel Without a Cause gave her the attention she needed to pursue better, more adult roles. A year later she hit again with a small but crucial role in The Searchers, another classic that nonetheless allowed her to appear in one of the greatest moments in film history.

By the time she hit her 20s in the early '60s, she had become a major star. In 1961 she gave iconic performances in Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story, then did it again a year later in Gypsy, where she played the part of a young woman who — like her — had been raised by an ambitious mother who sublimated her own dreams of stardom through her two beautiful daughters.

The truth was that Natasha wasn’t really a great actress. Unlike the best performers, you could often see her straining to hit her characters’ emotional peaks — her effort was apparent onscreen, breaking the fantasy and making us aware of the real young woman playing the part.

But it didn’t matter.

Hollywood is never short of pretty young women, so it takes something more than mere gorgeous features to have the kind of impact Wood did in her ultimately short career.

Natasha/Natalie is a perfect example of a performer whose fame had less to do with talent than with the special qualities she brought to the screen. Her brown-eyed, dark Russian beauty made it easy for our eyes to go to her, but they stayed for a special, almost-haunted aspect that made us want her to succeed and be okay. More than any other performer of her era, she made Hollywood glamour feel attainable. We could imagine ourselves being Natalie Wood, but we could also imagine why we might not want to.

Following another zeitgeist capturing role in Paul Mazursky’s 1969 Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, a comedic take on the effect the sexual revolution was having on married couples, Natasha decided to step away from the screen and focus on being a mom. Like Audrey Hepburn before her, it’s surprising to see just how few films she made during the major part of her career, considering the impact she still has today.

Ironically, it seems likely that this might not have been the case if she were still alive. When she began working in earnest in the mid-70s, she had trouble recapturing her past success. Films like Peeper, Meteor and The Last Married Couple in America all flopped at the box office and did more to highlight her weaknesses than her strengths. Chances are if she had made it past her 43rd birthday she might have gone the way of Faye Dunaway — a faded icon whose past-greatness is often forgotten in the face of her present-day irrelevance.

But that’s all conjecture, because Natasha didn’t make it past her 43rd birthday and the details of what happened that late November night in 1981 are still being discussed and investigated today.

When I see pictures of the woman known to the world as Natalie Wood, it’s impossible for me not to see that frightened girl in the wind and rain, trying to pull herself up to safety from the rushing waters underneath a fallen bridge. It’s impossible for me not to see the middle-aged woman whose worst nightmare came true the night she slipped into the dark waters off Santa Catalina Island.

Sometimes when we look at a picture or watch a movie it becomes easy to forget that the people we are looking at were once real — that these moments were actually created with flesh and blood. These dreams did not create themselves fully formed out some mystical ether. Whenever I watch a movie starring Natalie Wood, I am reminded of this, because I know the truth behind the façade — her entire history is there each second on the screen.

A young girl forced to risk her life to take care of her family. A haunted young woman filled with insecurity, doubt and fear, who will someday become an aging actress struggling to recapture past glory. A woman terrified of the water destined to one day die in its grasp.

Her face is beautiful and her eyes are deep and enchanting, but it is her smile that affects me most. I look at it and it always breaks my heart.