It was during the screen test for her second movie, Tomorrow Is Forever (1946), that seven-year-old Natasha was encouraged by her mother to remember the time, not long before, when her dog had run out into the street and been hit by a truck. That proved to be all the inspiration the young thespian needed in order to muster the full resources of her emotions. “As a result” — according to Gavin Lambert, her eventual friend and current biographer “she rose to a pitch of emotional intensity that astonished [director Irving] Pichel, producer David Lewis and the president of International Pictures, William Goetz, when they ran the test.” Her performance in the subsequent film inspired Orson Welles to remark, with a grim adverbial pertinence that even he couldn’t have imagined, that young Natasha’s performance was “almost terrifyingly professional.” After that, of course, Natasha became Natalie, and nothing was ever the same. Her whole life was terrifyingly professional, and professionally terrifying, even those moments that didn’t have to be.
A funny thing happened on her way to becoming another child-star burnout: She played opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and opposite Warren Beatty in Splendor in the Grass (1961) — two epochal films about teenage repression and rebellion — and a successful career as a child actress became what such careers so very seldom become: a subsequent success as an adult actress.
And although Lambert, in his terrific biography Natalie Wood: A Life, doesn’t spend much time dwelling on the reasons for this, he doesn’t need to. We all know that most child stars are eclipsed out by strugglers and strivers, kids who didn’t come up as pampered prima donnas, and who have real drives and real talents to offer — not just a superficial sort of cuteness. Wood was always driven and talented, and with the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to watch her now in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), for example, and behold her sense of timing and humor, utterly free from awkward self- consciousness, a child receiving simple and total enjoyment from her precocious craft.
Then you pick up the thread and follow it from Miracle all the way to Rebel and Splendor and Kings Go Forth (1958), and then into her next phase and This Property Is Condemned (1966), where all that burning angst and sexuality are carried in the perfect physical vessel to create what has to be, frankly, the most supremely delicious depiction of female sexuality ever put on the screen. It’s a performance that was underappreciated in its time, and remains underappreciated still, although not if Lambert has anything to say about it.
We can be all but certain that Natalie Wood went through life not knowing that her real father was a sailor who provided extramarital bliss to her mother, Maria Gurdin, while on shore, just as surely as we know that Maria is responsible for the broken arm Natalie suffered while filming The Green Promise (1949) (She could have died, when her footbridge broke above racing rapids.); we’re told that her mother had been warned of “dark water” by a Gypsy in Harbin; and we know that years before Elia Kazan refused to employ a double for the attempted-drowning suicide in Splendor, director Stuart Heisler, in The Star (1952), refused to do a similar favor for the childhood Natalie. (Bette Davis, who played her mother, came to her rescue. Many years later, a condescending and egomaniacal Davis told Wood that she was “too young to remember” Davis’ performance in The Star, to which Wood replied: “Bette, I played your daughter in that picture.”)
All of this, as well as the nature of her roles, goes to show that it’s not only directors and writers who have running themes throughout their life and work. And it’s not as simple as being typecast, either. Wood wasn’t being typecast into roles; she was playing the roles that her life demanded she play: orphaned child, repressed teenager, inflamed young adult and despairing woman. As the latter, she would often get turned down for roles for being too beautiful. Or on the occasions when she was accepted for the part, a little cosmetic corrective was often required before she looked her age.
None of that was required by the end of her life, of course, when all the drinking and pills and bad relationships, all the tears — both forced and spontaneous — had begun to do their destruction. Her first husband and one true love, Robert Wagner, broke off their first marriage when Wood insisted on seeing a therapist — a situation that seems just as preposterously dated today as does her big starring role from that period, that of West Side Story (1961). After that, she was in and out of many beds, and one bad marriage, and then she and Wagner, seemingly inevitably now, remarried in 1972 — on a boat off of Catalina.
Anyone who knows anything about Natalie Wood knows that that’s where the final act of her tragic life took place just nine years later: She and her husband and her (potential) lover, Christopher Walken, all on the same boat; it was such a preposterous scene that you’d think that only a playwright could have gotten that group together and alone on the same boat. (Others were invited, but the storms kept them ashore.) And no one will ever know exactly what Wood was doing, drunk, out on that dinghy on the ocean at night. Her lifelong terror of dark water is, of course, well-documented all throughout this book. Was it a suicide? A call for help? Had she fallen into the dinghy? Or was she simply trying to tie the dinghy faster to the boat, so that it would stop banging, and she could finally get some of the sleep that had been coming with ever more difficulty?
Lambert has written the kind of book that only an intelligent friend could have written: sensitive without being maudlin, unforgiving without being harsh, intimate without being trashy. He has gotten friends to talk who surely wouldn’t have talked to anyone else. He rewards one of them, Warren Beatty, by giving him the benefit of the doubt about what happened on the night, while filming The Great Race (1965), Wood almost overdosed on Seconal after a Beatty visit. (He asserts that Beatty was not responsible for her depression at the time.)
As a homosexual friend who wrote the story (Inside Daisy Clover () that provided Wood one of her most challenging and interesting roles, Lambert had singular access to the psyche of Natalie Wood, and the two of them, it so happens, had at least one lover in common during their lifetimes: Nicholas Ray (who, incidentally, is the man who took 17-year-old Wood’s virginity during the filming of Rebel). And another of her lovers, the actor Henry Jaglom, serves up this psychological explanation (as if any was necessary) of that most crucial way in which Wood’s mother ensured her failure at life, just as surely as she assured her success at movies, two realms that should never be confused, but almost universally are, especially by those who should know better: “She told me that ever since she was a seven-year-old actor in Tomorrow Is Forever, she’d been begging for love. She was constantly asked to cry, praised and admired when she did, realized that if she could cry authentically, everyone adored her, and she soon established a connection between love and pain.”
Unlike traditional biographers, Lambert, who is really a novelist by trade, has written a swift piece of intimate storytelling. It’s a book that respects the obligations of biography, without being beholden to some of its more tedious customs. It’s in that spirit that any in- depth discussion of Wood’s cinematic performances is saved for one epilogously and gloriously set piece: “Something Extra” — which was Norman Maine’s term of choice for that thing that Wood had and so many others didn’t. It’s a consumptive essay that necessarily takes on the complexion of celebration as it generously ignores the worst performances (such as The Great Race and Brainstorm (1983), made by Wood at the heights of her personal turbulence), and focuses instead on those films in which she was born to star: Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel, Splendor, Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), Daisy Clover, This Property Is Condemned, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) and The Cracker Factory (1979). One can be fairly certain of why Lambert chose this approach: it’s the saddest stories, after all, that deserve the happiest endings. At least this way we get to leave under the illusion that the films are what happened only after Natalie Wood, finally, had stopped making herself cry.