Remembering the Beautiful Hollywood Screen Icon, Natalie Wood
85 years ago, actress Natalia Nikolaevna Zackharenko — known to the world as Natalie Wood — was born in San Francisco. If it’s not obvious from her name, Wood was the daughter of Russian immigrants, and Hollywood execs changed her name to make it more palatable to Americans.
Miracle on 34th Street
Wood started acting at a very young age, with enthusiastic support from her mother. When she was just seven years old, she played a German orphan opposite Orson Welles, who said of her that she was a born professional: “so good, she was terrifying.” In 1947, after her role as a cynical child named Susan in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, she became a star.
Rebel Without a Cause
Following a successful career as a child actress, Wood was nominated for an Oscar at the age of 16 for her role in the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause opposite James Dean, then again in 1961 for portraying Wilma Dean Loomis in Splendor in the Grass, a film about high school sweethearts that also costarred Warren Beatty.
During the same year, the wildly successful film adaptation of the musical West Side Story came out, with Wood playing star-crossed lover Maria. After that, her name was golden. She went on to star in many more notable films in the 1960s, such as Gypsy (1962), The Great Race (1965), Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966), just to name a few, then transitioned into mostly TV films in the 70s.
West Side Story
Wood’s personal life probably made her as much of a household name as her acting career. Her first marriage to actor Robert Wagner at the age of 19 was highly publicized, and so was their subsequent divorce 5 years later. She dated several famous men during the 1960s, including Warren Beatty and Michael Caine, then married for a second time, this time to British producer Robert Gregson. They were married for only a few years, just long enough to have a daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner (who is now married to 7th Heaven star Barry Watson!).
Robert Wagner visits Natalie Wood on set of West Side Story, 1961
In 1972, she remarried Robert Wagner. This time around, they had a daughter together as well, named Courtney, and the two stayed together until her untimely death at the age of 43.
Wood’s death in 1981 is probably the greatest mystery of Hollywood history. Wood and Wagner boarded their boat, Splendour, which was docked near Santa Catalina Island, with fellow actor Christopher Walken — who she may or may not have been having an affair with — and that was the last anyone saw her alive. The next morning, authorities found her body about a mile away from the boat. Though it was ruled an accidental drowning, no one really knows exactly what happened. Natalie’s sister, actress Lana Wood, said Natalie couldn’t swim and was afraid of water. The autopsy showed a high blood alcohol level as well as a pain killer and motion sickness pill. There were also some bruises on her body. It’s all very mysterious, and somehow, no one has ever figured out exactly how she died, which is partly what makes it so memorable.
The case was reopened in 2011 after the boat captain came forward and admitted that Wagner and Wood were fighting that night and that Wagner was probably responsible, though no one was ever charged and the case went cold. Wood’s death certificate was amended in 2012, citing the cause as “drowning and other undetermined factors.” I sure would like to be a fly on the wall when Wagner and Walker get together, as surely one of them knows the answer to this mystery!
Coincidentally her last film, Brainstorm (1983), was alongside Christopher Walken, and had not been finished at the time of her death. Much to the studio’s dismay, director Douglas Trumbull insisted on completing it. It was the last movie he ever made, as Hollywood slammed the door on him after.
In 2020, daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, who also became an actress, explored the life and death of her mother in HBO’s Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind. She still keeps her mothers memory alive on the Natalie Wood Instagram page and shared this tribute in honor of her mother’s birthday today.
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How will you honor this screen legend? What is your favorite Natalie Wood movie? Tell us in the comments below!