Natalie Wood – The Greatest Actress of All Time

Groomed by her ambitious mother Maria, Natalie Wood began acting in films at the age of 4 and shot to stardom with 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. She earned Oscar nominations as a teen for Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass.

Natalie Wood

In 1976, she received acclaim for her role in Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. She was working on Brainstorm—a sci-fi film with Christopher Walken—when she died.

During the decade that followed Miracle on 34th Street, Natalie Wood earned three more Oscar nominations, including one for her performance in Splendor in the Grass (1961). She also starred in musical films such as West Side Story and Gypsy and a comedy with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis called The Great Race. She also starred in several television shows, guesting on Studio One in Hollywood, Camera Three, Kings Row, and other anthology series.

Pushed into acting at the age of 6, Natalie Wood survived by memorizing her lines and never complaining, but she did feel a sense of obligation to please. Once, when a script called for her to cry and she wasn’t working up to it, her mother pulled the wings off a butterfly to induce tears.

By the time she was 13, Natalie had a reputation as one of the most beautiful child actresses in history. She was also an excellent dancer and pianist.

For the next few years, Natalie played daughters in a number of family movies: 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 Bette Davis’s daughter in The Star.

During this period, Natalie’s personal life took a turn for the worse. In 1957, she married actor Robert Wagner who was nine years her senior. The marriage ended in 1962 and she subsequently married British producer Richard Gregson, whom she divorced in 1969. Despite occasional career stalls, Natalie seemed to have a knack for revitalizing her star status, as she did with 1969’s social comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.

The Searchers (1956)

In a career marked by ups and downs, Natalie Wood emerged as one of the greatest actresses of her time. Her work emphasized strong, confident women with a restless, rebellious side, and she was a favorite of audiences, despite her troubled personal life. Younger generations might know her best as the heroine of Rebel Without a Cause, but in her later films she proved herself a talented, mature actor with an ability to convey both the fragility and the strength of the human spirit.

After her breakout role in a classic drama, she tugged the heartstrings of audiences with a small part in Claudette Colbert’s 1947 comedy Tomorrow Is Forever and then landed her first big movie starring role, as the title character in Miracle on 34th Street, a role that solidified her stardom.

The Searchers is a powerful, thought-provoking Western that features an abduction story with a deeper meaning. The film is not about a good guy and a bad girl, but about a woman’s struggle to assert her independence while still caring for those around her.

Wood won her second Oscar nomination for her role as Debbie Edwards, the abused daughter of John Wayne’s character, Ethan Edwards. The character reflected her own rebellious, wild side and tapped into the deep emotions of her childhood.

Throughout her career, Wood starred in a mix of popular comedies and dramas that included West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, Love with a Proper Stranger, and the science fiction film Brainstorm, which was released posthumously after her death in 1981. She appeared on television in a number of miniseries and made-for-television movies, as well. After her marriage to Richard Wagner ended, she took on few theatrical roles and focused on family life.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)

The film was a critical and commercial success. Its theme—the free-love era of swinging Las Vegas and California—was fresh and relevant, and Wood’s performance as Carol pushed the boundaries of her career. The character was more complex and mature than her Maria in West Side Story, with witty dialogue and greater emotional range. Film historians consider it one of Wood’s finest performances, a definite defining moment for her career.

Director Paul Mazursky, who co-wrote the screenplay with Larry Tucker, infused the film with humor and affection for its characters, without mocking them. It’s a perfect balance of the thorny issue with the lightheartedness of a comedy, and it’s filmed with remarkable poignancy. It remains a classic.

Bob and Carol, a pretentious wealthy couple living in Southern California, decide to indulge in the sexual experimentation of their trendy friends, Ted and Alice (Elliott Gould and Dyan Cannon). But their over-the-top displays of openness and aggressiveness infuriate their more inhibited buddies. Soon, long-buried feelings come bubbling to the surface.

It’s not long before the couples swap partners, and Bob and Carol begin to chafe at their old moral constraints. In the end, they must choose between their principles and their pleasures. Bob’s abhorrence of adultery is a bit out of place in this context, but his wife’s need for excitement and his desire to be loved by her are more in keeping with the spirit of the movie.

After this, Wood made only four more feature films, including a cameo in Robert Redford’s The Candidate (1972) and a brief appearance on the television series Switch in 1978 as Bubble Bath Girl and Hart to Hart in 1979 as Movie Star. Throughout this period, her personal life was troubled and she became an alcoholic.

The Last Married Couple in America (1980)

After her breakthrough role in Miracle on 34th Street, Wood was in high demand for films. However, she often found herself in movies that she didn’t want to make, which was a source of great frustration for the actress. Despite her desire to do serious work, she had to compromise and settle for many comedies that she considered below par.

Fortunately, her next few films were much better. In 1961, she appeared in Splendor in the Grass as a girl distraught over her romantic relationship, a role that won her an Oscar nomination. She followed it with the urban retelling of Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story. In these two films, as well as the modern romance Love with a Proper Stranger (1963), she proved her ability to act in more sophisticated and dramatic roles.

Kazan cast her as the female lead in this film because he saw something special in her: “a true blue quality with a wanton side held down by social pressure.” She received a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award nomination for her performance.

After a few more successful films, she took some time off from acting and focused on her family life. During this period, she was very close with her mother, who died in 1956. She also worked on a couple of television projects, including the short-lived sitcom The Pride of the Family and the drama Marjorie Morningstar.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Wood returned to the big screen for such movies as the ensemble disaster film Meteor and the sex comedy The Last Married Couple in America with George Segal and Valerie Harper. She also co-starred with Wagner in Brainstorm, a science-fiction thriller. During the filming of this movie, Wagner and Wood were involved in an incident that would ultimately end their marriage. On a boating trip off Catalina Island, California in November 1981, the pair got into a heated argument that ended with Wood being pushed in the water by her husband.

Brainstorm (1981)

Despite its lurid title, Brainstorm is a fascinating, if not wholly successful, science fiction film with a spiritual dimension. Director Douglas Trumbull – the effects master who made 2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Blade Runner – uses his impressive clout to visualize a fascinating concept (and he was also Wood’s husband for most of her career).

The story revolves around a device that can record and play back a person’s brain waves. It’s no mere gadget flick, however; it raises questions of morality as the dedicated scientists who create the machine battle government tycoons intent on using it for unsavory purposes. Wood and Walken are a solid team, while Louise Fletcher adds a flinty, career scientist personality to the mix.

Although the film was completed before Wood’s death in November of that year, her death hung like a dark cloud over it for a while. Thankfully, her scenes were not drastically altered, as some reports had suggested. Moreover, MGM and the filmmakers were determined to see the movie through.

As a result, some of the film’s startling sequences – shot in Super Panavision and combining POV fisheye lens footage with shots from a fighter jet simulator, a loop-the-loop roller coaster, and the cockpit of a Formula 2 race car with bob sled shots – still work even if they’re less visceral on a smaller home screen.

The movie’s climactic journey into the afterlife is especially touching, largely because it allows us to see life and love, even death, from the point of view of other people. Brainstorm isn’t a classic, but it’s a worthy effort, and the final pairing of Wood and Walken provides an appropriately uplifting conclusion.