Wood, c. 1960
July 20, 1938
San Francisco, California, U.S.
|Cause of death||Drowning and other undetermined factors|
|Body discovered||Off Santa Catalina Island, California, U.S.|
|Resting place||Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery|
|Other names||Natasha Gurdin|
|Education||Van Nuys High School|
|Children||Natasha Gregson Wagner
|Relatives||Lana Wood (sister)|
Natalie Wood (born Natalia Zacharenko; July 20, 1938 – missing November 28, found November 29, 1981) was an American film and television actress. She is known for her screen roles in Miracle on 34th Street, Splendor in the Grass, Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers, and West Side Story. She first worked in films as a child, then became a successful Hollywood star as a young adult, receiving three Academy Award nominations before she was 25 years old.
Wood began acting in movies at the age of four and, at age eight, was given a co-starring role with Maureen O'Hara in the classic Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street. As a teenager, her performance in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She starred in the musical films West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962), and received Academy Award for Best Actress nominations for her performances in Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). Her career continued with films such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969).
After this, she took a break from acting and had two children, appearing in only three theatrical films during the 1970s. She was married to actor Robert Wagner twice, and to producer Richard Gregson. She had one daughter by each husband: actress Natasha Gregson Wagner and Courtney Wagner. Her younger sister Lana Wood is also an actress.
Wood starred in several television productions, including a remake of the film From Here to Eternity (1979) for which she won a Golden Globe Award. During her career, her films represented a "coming of age" for both her and Hollywood films in general.
Wood was born Natalia Zacharenko in San Francisco, to Russian immigrant parents Maria Stepanovna (née Zoodiloff, Russian: Мария Степановна Зудилова; 1912–1996) and Nikolai Stepanovich Zacharenko (Russian: Николай Степанович Захаренко; c. 1912–1980). As an adult, she stated, "I'm very Russian, you know." She spoke both English and Russian with an American accent. Her father was born in Vladivostok and he, his mother, and two brothers, immigrated to Montreal, Quebec, and later to San Francisco. There, he worked as a day laborer and carpenter. Her paternal grandfather Stepan worked in a chocolate factory in Russia and was killed in street fighting between Red and White Russian soldiers in 1918. Natalie's mother originally came from Barnaul, southern Siberia, but grew up in the Chinese city of Harbin. She described her family by weaving mysterious tales of being either gypsies or landowning aristocrats. In her youth, her mother dreamed of becoming an actress or ballet dancer. She was raised as a Russian Orthodox Christian and remained in the church.
Biographer Warren Harris writes that under the family's "needy circumstances", her mother may have transferred those ambitions to her middle daughter, Natalie. Her mother would take Natalie to the movies as often as she could: "Natalie's only professional training was watching Hollywood child stars from her mother's lap," notes Harris. Wood would later recall this time:
My mother used to tell me that the cameraman who pointed his lens out at the audience at the end of the Paramount newsreel was taking my picture. I'd pose and smile like he was going to make me famous or something. I believed everything my mother told me.
Shortly after Wood's birth in San Francisco, her family moved to nearby Sonoma County, and lived in Santa Rosa, California, where Wood was noticed during a film shoot in downtown Santa Rosa. Her mother soon moved the family to Los Angeles and pursued a career for her daughter. Wood's younger sister, Svetlana Gurdin (the family had changed their surname) — now known as Lana Wood — also became an actress and later a Bond girl. She and Lana had an older half sister, Olga Viripaeff, who died in May 2015. Though Natalie had been born "Natalia Zacharenko", her father later changed the family name to "Gurdin" and Natalie was often known as "Natasha", the diminutive of Natalia. The studio executives at RKO Radio Pictures, David Lewis and William Goetz, later changed her name to "Natalie Wood".
Wood made her film debut a few weeks before turning five during a fifteen-second scene in the 1943 film Happy Land. Despite the brief part, she attracted the notice of the director, Irving Pichel, who remained in contact with Wood's family for two years when another role came up. The director telephoned Wood's mother and asked her to bring her daughter to Los Angeles for a screen test. Wood's mother became so excited at the possibilities that she overreacted and "packed the whole family off to Los Angeles to live," writes Harris. Wood's father opposed the idea, but his wife's "overpowering ambition to make Natalie a star" took priority. According to Wood's sister, Lana Wood, Pichel "discovered her and wanted to adopt her."
Wood, then seven years old, got the part and played a German orphan opposite Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). Welles later said that Wood was a born professional, "so good, she was terrifying." After Wood acted in another film directed by Pichel, her mother signed her up with 20th Century Fox studio for her first major role, the 1947 Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street; the film made her one of the top child stars in Hollywood. Within a few months after the film's release, Wood was so popular that Macy's invited her to appear in the store's annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
Film historian John C. Tibbetts writes that for the next few years following her success in Miracle, Wood played roles as a daughter in a series of family films: Fred MacMurray's daughter in Father Was a Fullback and Dear Brat, Margaret Sullavan's daughter in No Sad Songs for Me, James Stewart's daughter in The Jackpot, Joan Blondell's neglected daughter in The Blue Veil, and the daughter of Bette Davis' character in The Star. In all, Wood appeared in over 20 films as a child.
Because she was a minor, Wood's formal education took place on the studio lots wherever she was contracted. California law required that until age 18, actors had to spend at least three hours per day in the classroom, notes Harris. "She was a straight A student", and one of the few child actors to excel at arithmetic. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), said that "In all my years in the business, I never met a smarter moppet." Wood remembered that period in her life, saying, "I always felt guilty when I knew the crew was sitting around waiting for me to finish my three hours. As soon as the teacher let us go, I ran to the set as fast as I could".
As a child actress, Wood received media attention. By age nine, she had been named the "most exciting juvenile motion picture star of the year" by Parents. At age twelve, Wood was judged Child Star of the Year by the Children's Day National Council of New York.
In the 1953–54 television season, Wood played Ann Morrison, the teenage daughter in the ABC situation comedy, The Pride of the Family. She successfully made the transition from child star to ingenue at age 16 when she co-starred with James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Nicholas Ray's film about teenage rebellion. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She followed this with a small but crucial role in John Ford's The Searchers (1956).
Wood graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956. Signed to Warner Brothers, Wood was kept busy during the remainder of the decade in many 'girlfriend' roles that she found unsatisfying. The studio cast her in two films opposite Tab Hunter, hoping to turn the duo into a box office draw that never materialized. Among the other films made at this time were 1958's Kings Go Forth and Marjorie Morningstar. As Marjorie Morningstar, Wood played the role of a young Jewish girl in New York City who has to deal with the social and religious expectations of her family, as she tries to forge her own path and separate identity. She also had detractors. Film critic Pauline Kael referred to her as "clever little Natalie Wood ... [the] most machine-tooled of Hollywood ingenues."
Wood's characters in Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers (1956, a classic western directed by John Ford) and Marjorie Morningstar (1958) began to show her range of acting style widening considerably, observes Tibbetts. Her former "childlike sweetness" was now being combined with a noticeable "restlessness that was characteristic of the youth of the 1950s." After Wood appeared in the box office flop All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), her career was salvaged by her casting in director Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961) opposite Warren Beatty, which earned Wood Best Actress Nominations at the Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTA Awards.
Wood's career was in a transition period, having until then consisted of roles as a child or as a teenager. She was now hoping to be cast in adult roles. Biographer Suzanne Finstad notes that a "turning point" in her life as an actress took place upon seeing the film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): "She was transformed, in awe of director Elia Kazan and of Vivien Leigh's performance ... [who] became a role model for Natalie." "Her roles raised the possibility that one's sensitivity could mark a person as a kind of victim," noted Tibbetts.
In 1961, after a "series of bad films, her career was already in decline", notes Rathgeb. Kazan himself writes that the "sages" of the film community declared her "washed up" as an actress, although he still wanted to interview her for his next film:
When I saw her, I detected behind the well-mannered 'young wife' front a desperate twinkle in her eyes ... I talked with her more quietly then and more personally. I wanted to find out what human material was there, what her inner life was ... Then she told me she was being psychoanalyzed. That did it. Poor R.J., I said to myself. I liked Bob Wagner, I still do.
Kazan cast Wood as the female lead in Splendor in the Grass, and her career rebounded. He felt that despite her earlier, innocent roles, she had the talent and maturity to go beyond them. In the film, Warren Beatty's character was deprived of sexual love with Natalie's character, and as a result turns to another "looser" girl; Natalie's character, likewise, couldn't handle the issue, but ended up in a mental institution. Kazan writes that he cast her in the role partly because he saw in Wood's personality a "true-blue quality with a wanton side that is held down by social pressure," adding that "she clings to things with her eyes," a quality he found especially "appealing."
Finstad feels that despite Wood's never receiving training in Method acting techniques, "working with Kazan brought her to the greatest emotional heights of her career. The experience was exhilarating but wrenching for Natalie, who faced her demons on Splendor." She adds that a scene in the film, as a result of "Kazan's wizardry ... produced a hysteria in Natalie that may be her most powerful moment as an actress." Actor Gary Lockwood, who also acted in the film, felt that "Kazan and Natalie were a terrific marriage, because you had this beautiful girl, and you had somebody that could get things out of her." Kazan's favorite scene in the movie was the last one, when Wood goes back to see her lost first love, Bud (Beatty). "It's terribly touching to me. I still like it when I see it," writes Kazan.
In 1961, Wood played Maria in the Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise musical West Side Story, which was a major box office and critical success. Tibbetts notes similarities in her role in this film and the earlier Rebel Without a Cause. Here, she also plays the role of a restless adolescent reflecting the "restlessness of American youth in the 1950s", expressed by youth gangs and juvenile delinquency, along with early rock & roll. Both films, he observes, were "modern allegories based on the 'Romeo and Juliet' theme, including private restlessness and public alienation. Where in Rebel she falls in love with the character played by James Dean, whose gang-like friends and violent temper alienated him from his family, in West Side Story she also enters into a romance with a gang member and his threatening world of outcasts, also alienated from their families and the law.
Although the singing parts were sung by Marni Nixon, West Side Story is still regarded as one of Wood's best films. Wood did sing when she starred in the 1962 film Gypsy. She co-starred in the slapstick comedy The Great Race (1965), with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Peter Falk. Her ability to speak Russian was an asset given to her character Maggie DuBois, justifying the character's recording the progress of the race across Siberia, and entering the race at the beginning as a contestant. In 1964, Wood was nominated for her third Academy Award nomination for Love with the Proper Stranger, making Wood, 25 at the time, the youngest actress to ever net three Oscar nominations. Wood held the record for exactly 50 years until 23-year-old Jennifer Lawrence received her third nomination in 2014.
Although many of Wood's films were commercially profitable, her acting was criticized at times. In 1966, she won the Harvard Lampoon Worst Actress of the Year Award. She was the first performer in the award's history to accept it in person and the The Harvard Crimson wrote she was "quite a good sport".
Director Sydney Pollack was quoted as saying about Wood, "When she was right for the part, there was no one better. She was a damn good actress." Other notable films starring Wood were Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966), both of which co-starred Robert Redford and brought subsequent Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress. In both films, which were set during the Great Depression, Wood played small-town teens with big dreams. After the release of the films, Wood suffered emotionally and sought professional therapy. During this time, she turned down the Faye Dunaway role in Bonnie and Clyde because she did not want to be separated from her analyst.
After three years away from acting, Wood co-starred in the hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), a comedy about sexual liberation. According to Tibbets, this was the first film in which "the saving leavening of humor was brought to bear upon the many painful dilemmas portrayed in her adult films".
After becoming pregnant with her first child, Natasha Gregson, in 1970, Wood went into semi-retirement and acted in only four more theatrical films during the remainder of her life. She made a very brief cameo appearance as herself in The Candidate (1972), reuniting her for a third time with Robert Redford. She also reunited on the screen with Robert Wagner in the television movie of the week The Affair (1973) and with Laurence Olivier and husband Wagner in an adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976) broadcast as a special by NBC. She made cameo appearances on Wagner's prime-time detective series Switch in 1978 as "Bubble Bath Girl" and Hart to Hart in 1979 as "Movie Star". During the last two years of her life, Wood began to work more frequently as her daughters reached school age.
Film roles Wood turned down during her career hiatus went to Ali MacGraw in Goodbye, Columbus; Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby; and Faye Dunaway in The Towering Inferno. Later, Wood chose to star in misfires like the disaster film Meteor (1979) with Sean Connery and the sex comedy The Last Married Couple in America (1980), although her performance in the latter was praised, and considered reminiscent of her performance in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. It was also in Last Married Couple that Wood broke ground by being an actress with a clean, middle class image, yet using the "F" word in a frank, marital discussion with her husband (George Segal). She found more success in television, receiving high ratings and critical acclaim in 1979 for The Cracker Factory and especially the miniseries film Here to Eternity, with Kim Basinger and William Devane. Wood's performance in the latter won her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in 1980. Later that year, she starred in The Memory of Eva Ryker, which proved to be her last completed production.
At the time of her death, Wood was filming the science fiction film Brainstorm (1983), co-starring Christopher Walken and directed by Douglas Trumbull. She was also scheduled to star in a theatrical production of Anastasia with Wendy Hiller and in a film called Country of the Heart, playing a terminally ill writer who has an affair with a teenager, to be played by Timothy Hutton. Due to her untimely death, both of the latter projects were canceled and the ending of Brainstorm had to be re-written. A stand-in and sound-alikes were used to replace Wood for some of her critical scenes. The film was released posthumously on September 30, 1983, and was dedicated to her in the closing credits.
Wood's two marriages to actor Robert Wagner were highly publicized. Wood said that she had had a crush on Wagner since she was a child, and on her 18th birthday she went on a studio-arranged date with the 26-year-old actor. They married a year later on December 28, 1957, a marriage that met with great protest from Wood's mother. In an article in February 2009, Wagner recalled their early romance:
I saw Natalie around town but she never seemed interested. She was making Rebel Without a Cause and hanging out with James Dean; I was with an older crowd. The first time I remember really talking to her was at a fashion show in 1956. She was beautiful, but still gave no hint about the mad crush she had on me. I later found out she had signed with my agent simply because he was my agent. A month later, I invited Natalie to a premiere on what turned out to be her 18th birthday. At dinner, we both sensed things were different. I sent her flowers and the dates continued. I remember the instant I fell in love with her. One night on board a small boat I owned, she looked at me with love, her dark brown eyes lit by a table lantern. That moment changed my life.
Wood and Wagner separated in June 1961 and divorced in April 1962.
On May 30, 1969, Wood married British producer Richard Gregson. The couple dated for two and a half years prior to their marriage, while Gregson waited for his divorce to be finalized. In 1970 they had a daughter, Natasha. They separated in August 1971 after Wood overheard an inappropriate telephone conversation between her secretary and Gregson. The split also marked a brief estrangement between Wood and her family, when mother Maria and sister Lana told her to reconcile with Gregson for the sake of her newborn child. She filed for divorce, and it was finalized in April 1972.
In early 1972, Wood resumed her relationship with Wagner. The couple remarried on July 16, 1972, five months after reconciling and three months after she divorced Gregson. Their daughter, Courtney Wagner, was born in 1974. Wood's sister, Lana Wood, recalls this period:
Her marriage was considered to be one of the best in Hollywood, and there is no question that she was a devoted, loving—even adoring—mother and stepmother. She and R.J. had begun with love and built from there. They had overcome each other's problems and had reached an accommodation with time, and the changes time brings. As with anybody else who has settled into making a long marriage work, they were far more determined than most people to make it work ...
They remained married until Wood's death seven years later on November 28, 1981.
During the making of the film Brainstorm, Wood drowned while on a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island. Many facts surrounding her drowning are unknown because the way she entered the water was never discovered. She was with her husband Robert Wagner, Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, and the boat's captain, Dennis Davern, on the evening of November 28, 1981. Wood's body was discovered by authorities at 8:00 AM on November 29, one mile away from the boat, with a small inflatable dinghy found beached nearby. According to Wagner, when he went to bed, Wood was not there. The autopsy report revealed that Wood had bruises on her body and arms as well as an abrasion on her left cheek.
Later, in his book Pieces of My Heart, Wagner acknowledged that he had a fight with Wood before she disappeared. The autopsy also found that Wood's blood alcohol level was 0.14%, and there were traces of two types of medication in her bloodstream: a motion-sickness pill and a painkiller, which increase the effects of alcohol. Following his investigation, Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi ruled her death an accident by drowning and hypothermia. According to the coroner, Wood had been drinking and may have slipped while trying to re-board the dinghy.
Wood was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery. Scores of representatives of international media, photographers, and members of the public tried to attend Wood's funeral; however, all were required to remain outside the cemetery walls. Among the celebrity attendees were Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, Elia Kazan and Laurence Olivier. Olivier flew from London to Los Angeles to attend the service.
The case was reopened in November 2011 after the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, publicly stated that he had lied to police during the initial investigation and that Wood and Wagner had a fight that evening, and alleged that Wagner was responsible for her death.
After nine months of further investigation, Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, amended Wood's death certificate and changed the cause of her death from accidental drowning to "drowning and other undetermined factors." The amended document includes a statement that the circumstances of how Wood ended up in the water are "not clearly established". The coroner's office has been instructed by detectives not to discuss or comment on the case.
On January 14, 2013, the Los Angeles County coroner's office offered a 10-page addendum to Wood's autopsy report stating that some of the bruises on her body may have been sustained before she went into the water and drowned, but that could not be definitively determined. Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter has speculated that Wood was particularly susceptible to bruising due to synthroid she was taking.
Douglas Trumbull, director of Brainstorm, quit directing after Wood's death in 1981. In 2013, he explained that the uncertain circumstances of her death were the main reason for this decision. He has since decided to return to filmmaking.
Wagner has denied any involvement with Wood's death.
Several songs were written about or mention Wood, including "Natalie Wood" (1980, written by Jay Alanski, cover by Jil Caplan), "Natalie's Song" (David Pack), and "Eyes Like Natalie Wood" (Kathy Fleischmann). In 1999, Julian Daze and the Photon Karma recorded "Natalie Wood", written by singer/songwriter Brian Bell, and released on the Stories of Old album. In 2002 The Handsome Family wrote a haunting song "Natalie Wood" later released on their Twilight album. In 2015, the band TV Girl released a song titled "Natalie Wood". A 2004 TV film titled The Mystery of Natalie Wood was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starred Justine Waddell and Michael Weatherly. In 2015, an eau de parfum fragrance was released called "Natalie", and featuring gardenia, which was her favourite scent.
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