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...
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