I have no memory of my first introduction to Natalie Wood. But for as long as I can remember, I have been enamored with the beautiful actress who grew up on screen.
Born in 1938, the child of Russian immigrants, Natalie made her first film appearance at the age of four. Whether she really wanted the life of an actress for herself or whether her mother pushed her into it, Natalie made the best of it. From a young age she helped support her family with her career. She also became one of the rare child actresses to successfully transition into adult roles. For forty years until her death she continued to grace the screen and develop her craft until her untimely and controversial death.
As a fan, I have made an effort to see as many of Natalie’s films as I can, although I confess there are still some gaps for me in her filmography.
One of the things that has always struck me about Natalie is how human she appears. No matter what role she plays, she always makes me feel something. I think, it is in those eyes of hers.
In her comedic roles, they glimmer with mischief and fun but also hint to the audience that she is in on the joke. In Penelope, my favorite of her comedies, she acts like a ditzy blonde and keeps all the men running around her in circles. Even though she sparkles in vibrant sixties costumes and screwball circumstances, she underlays the humor with a subtle but sincere pathos. It’s as if Natalie relates to this woman with all that money and position can offer, but who only wants the attention of the man she loves. Nothing else matters. And suddenly I feel myself responding with sympathy for this gorgeous, wealthy, young woman.
As Maggie, the suffragette reporter in The Great Race, the men discount her as little more than a pretty face. All the while they are underestimating her, she is proving herself their equal. And though some of the humor comes at her expense, Natalie gives the character great dignity. The same can be said of the sex psychologist she plays in Sex and the Single Girl. Though Tony Curtis reporter is out to expose and humiliate her, Natalie’s character retains her femininity and humanity. We laugh at her innocent, naïve opinions, but ultimately we cheer when she finds love…because we feel she deserves it.
Those same eyes which sparkle with humor can also drown us with their sad vulnerability, particularly in her dramatic roles. I first felt the power of those eyes while watching Natalie as the skeptical child in Miracle on 34th Street. She made me ache with her desire to believe even though she remained afraid to do so. She is such a grave child, who acts more like an adult, but desperately needs the magical innocence of a childhood ruptured by her parents’ divorce.
She uses those eyes to express pain and tragedy in some of her most popular films such as Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and her films with Robert Redford, Inside Daisy Clover and This Property is Condemned. In all of these, she creates memorable characters that viewers not only empathize with, but have a hard time forgetting. Judy, Wilma Dean Loomis, Daisy Clover and Alva Starr are all women longing for love and acceptance. And Natalie makes us feel the torment and turmoil of their souls as they learn that one must first learn to love oneself.
Perhaps my favorite of Natalie Wood’s films is Love with the Proper Stranger with Steve McQueen. She stars as Italian Angie Rossini who becomes pregnant from a one night stand. Angie is another woman seeking love, but is unwilling to compromise her standards even when it costs her. Though Natalie excelled at emotional scenes, I think her best is in this film, when she breaks down after finally locating someone willing to perform an abortion on her. In it, you see exactly what her search for love and independence has cost her. Sobbing, her body folds in on itself before finally collapsing. It is an incredibly powerful scene as the emotion practically vibrates from her body.
Whether playing comedy or drama, Natalie’s great skill is her ability to not only transmit emotion, but to have it envelop the viewer. It’s a rare skill which allows us to connect with her characters and also to understand the depths of our humanity, our weaknesses and strengths, our hidden desires and motivators. This is why she continues to fascinate me. Though it is very sad that her life was cut short, I am so glad for her films. Natalie Wood came alive on screen. And every time I see her I come alive too.
Thanks to Robin of Pop Culture Reverie and Crystal from In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood for hosting this blogathon and allowing me to participate. There are a lot of other interesting entries, so please stop by their sites to check them out.
Image source: IMDb