NATALIE WOOD (Natasha Gurdin)


WOOD, NATALIE (Natasha Gurdin) (1938–1981) Actress

In a career that spanned almost 40 years, Natalie Wood succeeded in making the difficult transition from child star to ingenue to serious actress. On July 20, 1938, she was born Natasha Gurdin in San Francisco, California. Her parents were Russian immigrants who found work in the entertainment industry—her father as a set designer, her mother as a ballet dancer.


At five, Natasha made her film debut in Happy Land (1943). Her next movie had her playing opposite Orson Welles in  Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). While working on the film, she was first dubbed Natalie Wood—“Natalie” as an Americanization of her given name and “Wood” as a tribute to the film director Sam Wood. Throughout the rest of her youth, Wood was in constant demand. Her winsome combination of intelligence and sweetness was most memorably captured in  Miracle on 34th Street, in which she played a practical little girl who comes to believe in the magic of Christmas. At 17, Wood re-created herself as a teen star in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The film captured the anxieties of 1950s adolescents and made her an icon to her generation. Revealing a tender vulnerability, Wood won her first Academy Award nomination for the film.


Rebel also made Wood a star of the tabloids due to her romance with costar James Dean. She was linked with other rising celebrities, including singer Elvis Presley and actor Robert Wagner. Wood and Wagner were married in 1957 and starred in  All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960). They were divorced in 1962. In Splendor in the Grass (1961), which costarred Warren Beatty in his film debut, Wood made the jump to adult dramatic actress. Playing a young woman driven insane by sexual repression, she was nominated for her second Oscar. Wood also found success as a musical star, even though she could not sing or dance. She appeared (with her singing dubbed) as Maria in West Side Story (1961) and as GYPSY ROSE LEE in Gypsy (1962).


Throughout the 1960s, Wood played young women searching for their identity in a series of films.  The most effective was  Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), for which she received another Oscar nomination. At the end of the decade, she showed a newfound talent for comedy in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), a satire of middle-class sexual mores.


In 1969, Wood married Robert Gregson, with whom she had a daughter, Natasha. After divorcing Gregson in 1972, she remarried her first husband, Robert Wagner. They had one child, Courtney, and Wagner adopted Natasha, who would grow up to become a film actress. In the 1970s, Wood teamed with Wagner for several television projects, including a production of Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976). She had less success finding suitable film roles. Among her last movies were the disaster film Meteor (1979) and the science fiction thriller  Brainstorm (1983). While still filming Brainstorm, Wood disappeared during a yachting vacation with Wagner and their guest, Wood’s costar Christopher Walken. On November 29, 1981, her body was found off the coast of California’s Santa Catalina Island. The victim of an accidental drowning, Natalie Wood died at the age of 43.



Filmography

Year    Film
1943    Happy Land
1946    The Bride Wore Boots
            Tomorrow Is Forever
1947    Driftwood
            The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
            Miracle on 34th Street
1948    Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay!
1949    Father Was a Fullback
            The Green Promise
            Chicken Every Sunday
1950    Never a Dull Moment
            The Jackpot
            Our Very Own
            No Sad Songs for Me
1951    The Blue Veil
            Dear Brat
1952    The Star
            Just for You'
            The Rose Bowl Story
1954    The Silver Chalice
1955    Rebel Without a Cause
            One Desire
1956    The Girl He Left Behind
            The Burning Hills
            A Cry in the Night
            The Searchers
1957    Bombers B-52
1958    Kings Go Forth
            Marjorie Morningstar
1960    All the Fine Young Cannibals
            Cash McCall
1961    West Side Story
            Splendor in the Grass
1962    Gypsy
1963    Love with the Proper Stranger
1964    Sex and the Single Girl
1965    Inside Daisy Clover
            The Great Race
1966    Penelope
            This Property Is Condemned
1969    Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice
1972    The Candidate
1973    The Affair
1975    Peeper
1976    Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
1979    From Here to Eternity
            The Cracker Factory
            Meteor
1980    The Memory of Eva Ryker
            The Last Married Couple in America
            Willie & Phil
1983    Brainstorm

Further Reading
Finstad, Suzanne. Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood. New York: Crown, 2001.
Nickens, Christopher. Natalie Wood: A Biography in Pictures. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1986.

Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Gypsy (1962). Warner Home Video, DVD/VHS, 2000.
Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Twentieth Century-Fox, DVD/VHS, 1999/1999.
West Side Story (1961). MGM/UA, DVD/VHS, 1998/1998.