Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1633
Surprisingly, Natalie Wood: A Life is only the third biography of the legendary actress to be published after her tragic death in 1981. Suzanne Finstad's Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood (2001) provided an engrossing account of the actress's life, replete with Hollywood gossip and juicy details, while Lana Wood's Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister (1986) was as much about Lana as Natalie and does not really qualify as a legitimate biography. Lambert, who knew Wood both as a friend and as a colleague—he wrote the screenplay forInside Daisy Clover and was sleeping with Wood's first love, bisexual director Nicholas Ray, at the same time she was—received full assistance and blessing in this effort from Wood's widower, Robert Wagner.
Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on July 20, 1938, in San Francisco, to Russian émigré parents Maria and Nick, who changed their surname to Gurdin upon becoming U.S. citizens. When a motion-picture company was filming in Santa Rosa, California, where the Gurdins were living at the time, three-year-old Natalie was cast as an extra. Maria's already strong ambitions for her beautiful little girl were intensified. Convinced that her child was destined for stardom, she moved the family to Hollywood, changed Natalie's last name, and three years later Maria's persistence and Natalie's talent earned the child a starring role in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946), with Orson Welles.
Hollywood took notice of Wood's quiet but intense presence in the film, and her career took off. Between 1947 and 1949, she appeared in six Fox productions, including the classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947). She worked almost nonstop, making nine films between the ages of ten and fourteen. By 1953, roles for the now adolescent Natalie were offered less frequently, and she filled the void of her “awkward years” with a television situation comedy, The Pride of the Family, and work in several television dramas.
Finally, in 1955, Rebel Without a Cause presented Natalie Wood with the role that would break her out of the “child star” mold, earn her an Oscar nomination, and begin to establish her reputation as a serious actress. Influenced by her costar James Dean and director Nicholas Ray, she began to view acting as a serious pursuit, rather than just a way to please her parents. She was drawn to the new method school of acting, espoused by Dean, and began for the first time to break away from the powerful influence of both her mother and the studio and to think for herself.
After Rebel Without a Cause, Wood worked steadily in a series of mediocre films assigned her by Warner Bros. but did not have another opportunity to showcase her talent properly until her work in 1961'sSplendor in the Grass, directed by Elia Kazan and also starring Warren Beatty. In order to win this role, she had to pretend not to want it, so that studio head Jack Warner, who intensely disliked her, would demand that she do it. This role, for which she received an Oscar nomination, marked the beginning of the peak years of her career.
Her next film, West Side Story (1961), was her most successful, although she did not reap its rewards, having opted for a $50,000 bonus rather than 5 percent of the profits (a mistake that she would not repeat with the 1969 hit Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, for which she received 10 percent of the profits). Although her singing voice is dubbed in West Side Story (she was not informed until after filming that her voice would not be used) and she disliked director Robert Wise, it remains one of her signature roles. Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice marked the remaining high points in Wood's career. She received her third Oscar nomination for Love with the Proper Stranger.
Wood made very few films after 1969, although she appeared in some noteworthy television dramas, including Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976) with Robert Wagner and From Here to Eternity (1979). She was filmingBrainstorm (1983) with Christopher Walken when she drowned in 1981 at the age of forty-three.
Lambert stresses the strong influence of Wood's family on her life, particularly that of her mother. Maria was told by a gypsy that she would give birth to an exceptional child, so when her second, dark-eyed, beautiful child was born, she was convinced the gypsy's prophecy had come to pass. From the time she pushed Natalie on the director in Santa Rosa, she was a full-blown “stage mom,” reveling in her status as mother of the star. At the age of six, Natalie was not only expected to support her family, but she was also responsible for her mother's identity and self-esteem. Her family's life revolved around her career, to the extent that her mother was paid to answer her fan mail and her father was hired by the studio to work as a carpenter. Maria impressed upon Natalie that she was never to acknowledge her father on the set, because she was a star and he was the hired help.
This biography makes much of the fact that Nick Gurdin may not have been Natalie Wood's biological father. Maria had a lifelong affair with fellow émigré George Zepaloff, the “great love” of her life; according to Lambert, she hinted on occasion to Natalie that he, not Nick, was her real father. It remains unclear whether Wood ever caught her mother's implications, or took them seriously if she did, but after Wood's death enough information came to light to convince Wagner and Wood's two daughters that this was true. Although Lambert returns repeatedly to this line of inquiry, he fails to make the case that this fact changes Wood's life story in any way. Nick was an ineffectual alcoholic whose only influence on Wood's life was through his absence as an effective father figure, but it is clear that George would have been an even less effective parent.
Lambert also explores the dichotomy in Wood's character between her desire to be both a serious actor and a glamorous film star. One of the last products of the old studio system, she maintained a very professional attitude toward her work, appearing in the mediocre fare assigned to her by the studio, often in exchange for the freedom to then do something of her own choosing. However strongly she was attracted to the idea of acting as a serious art form, she nonetheless was meticulous about her appearance, often making “movie star” type demands for a particular costume designer (she was partial to Edith Head) or makeup artist in order to protect her glamorous image. She also cultivated the “old Hollywood” image when she went out as well, making sure her “star” face was on when she appeared in public.
Lambert does not fail to “dish the dirt,” particularly when it comes to Wood's love life. The reader learns that she lost her virginity at the age of sixteen to forty-three-year-old Ray, the director of Rebel Without a Cause, while at the same time conducting an affair with her twenty-year-old costar Dennis Hopper. She had an on-and-off affair of many years with singer Frank Sinatra and attempted suicide after breaking up with Beatty. She also had brief flings with California attorney general (and future governor) Jerry Brown and with actor Steve McQueen. Her second marriage to Wagner appeared to be successful, although in the last year of her life, when her alcohol and drug use increased, she was carrying on a flirtation, if not an affair, with costar Walken, who was present the night of her death.
Unfortunately, Lambert's insider status does not shed much new light on what has become the most fascinating aspect of the Natalie Wood story: her mysterious death by drowning in 1981. He examines the details of that fateful Thanksgiving weekend thoroughly, using the police and autopsy reports and interviewing many of those involved, including Wagner, whose vague recollections of a very drunken weekend are not particularly revealing. Lambert was unable to get more information from the key witness, Walken, than he has given in the past, so this book is no more helpful in unraveling the occurrences on the Wagners’ boat than any previous source.
While Lambert's knowledge of Wood's private life is extensive, his encyclopedic knowledge of the motion-picture business is even more impressive, although it sometimes gets in the way of the book's narrative flow. He offers such extensive background material on each film and filmmaker mentioned that the reader can feel bogged down in the kind of extraneous detail appreciated by only the most devoted students of film. This habit of presenting extensive background information on nearly every person introduced, however tangential to Wood's life, becomes distracting and, finally, annoying.
Although bursting with intriguing details only an insider can provide, this biography may finally suffer more than profit from the author's close association with Wagner. Because this work received his full cooperation and support, the reader cannot help but feel that the version of Natalie Wood presented here is perhaps too heavily filtered through Wagner's protective lens and that Wagner's own role in her life is somewhat whitewashed. The author is extremely censorious of Maria Gurdin and Natalie's sister Lana (perhaps deservedly so) and is totally uncritical of Wagner. Although Lambert's portrait of Wood, drawn from personal experience, is sensitive and insightful, he does tread lightly on her darker side. Nonetheless, his status as an insider and his extensive knowledge of the film industry make this biography a valuable addition to Hollywood history as well as a well-researched examination of one of its biggest stars.
Booklist 100, no. 8 (December 15, 2003): 718.
Kirkus Reviews 71, no. 22 (November 15, 2003): 1352.
Library Journal 129, no. 1 (January 15, 2004): 116.
The New York Times Book Review 153 (January 18, 2004): 8.
People 61, no. 2 (January 19, 2004): 46.
Publishers Weekly 250, no. 49 (December 8, 2003): 57.
The Times Literary Supplement, July 2, 2004, p. 16.
Variety 393, no. 12 (February 9, 2004): 95.
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