The tragic stardom of Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood

When Natalie Wood drowned off the California coast in 1981, her early death completed the tragic triumvirate of Rebel Without A Cause (1955). Like her co-stars, James Dean and Sal Mineo, she died too soon; but her early demise was mitigated by the fact that she enjoyed a long career. Starting as a child actress in the 1940’s, Natalie worked constantly up until her final role in Brainstorm (1981).

While known for her beauty, she earned three Academy Award nominations and ultimately respect from critics who conceded she turned in wonderful performances when the material was good.

Natalie Wood was born Natasha Gurdin in San Francisco, California, on July 20, 1938. Her parents were Russian immigrants; Maria Gurdin was a ballerina and Nicholas Gurdin was an architect who turned to set decoration when the family moved Los Angeles. Her parents encouraged her show business career from an early age, seeing it as a quick way to fame and fortune in their new country. After bit parts in Happy Land (1943) and Tomorrow Is Forever (1945), Natasha Gurdin became Natalie Wood and pursued an acting career in earnest.

It didn’t take long for Natalie to become a star. She appeared in the hit The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), then followed up with Miracle on 34th Street (1947). The latter became a Christmas classic and one of the best-loved movies of all-time. Through the late 1940’s and early 1950’s she did solid work in films like Chicken Every Sunday (1949) and Just for You (1952), before breaking big in “Rebel”. Natalie’s dazzling beauty and penchant for parties thrust her on the front page of the gossip magazines and kept her a box-office draw. She commanded higher salaries, even when the material was weak, but never stopped pushing her talent. The Searchers (1956) proved she could play more mature roles, co-starring with John Wayne in one of John Ford’s later classics, but it wasn’t until Splendor in the Grass (1961) that she emerged as a fully-matured movie star.

Natalie Wood

As with Rebel Without a Cause, Natalie earned an Oscar® nomination for Splendor in the Grass. She followed up with the most fruitful period of her career. West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), and Love With the Proper Stranger (1963) showcased some of her best work, the last film earning her a third Oscar® nomination.

Unfortunately, Natalie’s personal life foundered during this period. Her marriage to the actor Robert Wagner fell apart in 1962 and she endured years of bad relationships and intense therapy during the decade. After marrying and divorcing Richard Gregson, a film executive, she remarried Wagner in 1972. Her best film roles were behind her at this point, but she did enjoy playing opposite Wagner in a British TV production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof(1976). Unlike other child stars of her generation, she maintained her beauty and love of acting until her tragic death at the age of 43.