In the Toast series today, we celebrate the life of an icon cut short by an untimely death, but one who bequeathed us with a prolific legacy of work. In a decorated career spanning over three decades and 50 films, Natalie Wood starred in some of Hollywood’s greatest classics, earning three Oscar nominations at 25.
Sitting in the moonlit forest, gazing up at all the white twinkly stars surrounding her, we almost forget to breathe. She’s that beautiful. Yes, ravishing. We remember her. And how she had the power to make us ‘feel.’ For two hours, we had once sat enraptured in her Hollywood tale, understanding her character’s vulnerabilities, complexities, triumphs, and struggles.
We loved her every shout, giggle, and whisper. And we cried alongside every tear. Smiled at every mischievous grin. She exuded love and hate, and everything in between. Emotion, that supremely powerful thing that makes us all human, she conveyed it like no other. And when the screen went black, we were left crying alone. But today, July 20, silver-winged butterflies dance through this moonlit forest. And the sweet, strong scent of jungle gardenia floats through the air. Somehow, she’s still wonderfully near.
At 43, Natalie Wood left us too early. Born in San Francisco, California, on July 20, 1938, and passing away by drowning off Catalina Island, California, on November 29, 1981, she’s a Hollywood tragedy that has consumed the headlines since that fateful 1981 day. So many questions surround her death, and how terribly unfair and incredibly unfortunate it was.
But Natalie Wood was so much more than her untimely passing. This Hollywood icon had glamour and spunk, kindness and smarts. And most important? She was a truly excellent actress. “They call me One-Take Wood,” she said. Yes, that was Natalie Wood in 1947. Wait, 1947? When she was just age 9? That’s right.
The Little Hollywood Phenom
She was a Hollywood child star who acted in one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street. Even back then, Natalie Wood’s performance was pitch-perfect. Giving that side-eye to a sweet Kris Kringle? Adorable. And what a plum role. Congrats to Natalie for scoring this timeless Christmas classic. It’s still popular today!
Natalie went on to star in a huge handful of classics, notably Rebel Without a Cause (1955), then Splendor in the Grass (1961) and West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962). She successfully transitioned from a child star to an adult leading lady, and by the time she hit the ripe old age of 23 in 1961, she was the hottest ticket in Tinseltown.
Natalie Wood was a Hollywood revelation, both on and off-screen. On-screen in the 1960s, she had a ravishingly beautiful femininity, with her dark hair and big doe eyes. She was curvy, but petite. And she could be seductive, but still somehow wholesome. Remember, this was the time of voluptuous blonde bombshell megastars like Marilyn Monroe. Natalie, with her very Russian looks and heritage, wasn’t even in the same league. And that’s what made her magically entrancing.
Couple that ‘visual magnetism’ with her ’emotional powerhouse’ performances, and Natalie Wood was a bona fide Hollywood FORCE. Yes, capital letters. Giving a suspicious side-eye to Kris Kringle back in ol’ 1947? Natalie was just warming up. Let’s talk about her funny ‘institute’ smile to on-screen hubby Bob (actor Robert Culp) in 1969’s hilarious Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Priceless. This is right before these two characters are instructed to start pounding pillows and talking about what they ‘feel.’ How brilliantly funny! Natalie Wood was wise to star in this colorfully introspective 1960s flick.
And what about her endearingly sly klepto character in the sweet caper Penelope (1966)? “This is a stick-up,” she says. Even donning an old lady disguise, Natalie’s mischievous grin shines through, making this scene even funnier. And with those big doe eyes, fending off would-be accusers hot on her trail (actor Peter Falk)? Sugary 1960s Hollywood heaven. Blow that bubble gum, Penelope!
Or changing gears, who can forget Natalie’s tearful breakdown in Splendor in the Grass (1961)? Never did poet Wordsworth’s words sound so painfully heartbreaking as being recited by a heartbroken Deanie Loomis. The stark anguish Natalie conveys. The valiant (though unsuccessful) attempt to stay composed like the ‘good little girl’ Deanie Loomis was raised to be. Adolescent girls everywhere found a voice through Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass. She had that rare gift of truly making others ‘feel.’ Thank you, Natalie, for even just this one precious film. No surprise she earned one of her three Oscar noms for this role.
Which brings us to Natalie Wood off-screen. By all accounts, she was ahead of her time, as an advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, mental health issues, and more. She often bravely delved deep into complexities on-screen, and she didn’t shy away from them off-screen, either. She was entirely Old Hollywood starlet, coming up in the Golden Age of Hollywood. And yet she was New Hollywood, too. She was modern, forward-thinking, and trend-setting.
The Off-Screen Legend
Natalie kindly ‘brought the glitz’ to her fans, but even more so, she embraced her role as a good human being. She was a devoted wife, mother, friend, etc., who protected her loved ones and the important social issues dear to her heart. Those close to her concur that this was Natalie Wood’s greatest accomplishment.
Big-hearted, full of laughter and ideas, and ready to have some fun and do some good, Natalie Wood must’ve been an amazing person. In that spirit, here are her most fun, groovy, and hip flicks from the 1960s. She infused these movies with the bright verve that only she could. Her filmography is vast, but for this 2021 birthday let’s celebrate Natalie at her 1960s sassiest!
4 Hip Flicks Starring Natalie Wood
Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)
Earning Natalie Wood an Oscar nom, this black and white dramedy bursts with bright colorful energy, thanks to Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen’s stellar chemistry. These two are dynamite. They portray a modern “anti-love” couple on the brink of marriage and family. Will they find love, or will their powder keg of differences explode? Natalie Wood is luminous and shows admirable emotional range. And with the film’s touch of ‘cool’ French New Wave influence, it’s Natalie at possibly her grittiest, yet most chic and sexy. Definitely a must-see. And definitely a hip, timely 1960s movie.
Sex And The Single Girl (1964)
The title alone made 1964 audiences nervous, but movie themes were changing, and Natalie Wood was there to shine the light. Her Dr. Helen Brown (sex author and psychologist) is cute to the core. It’s fun to see her playing a 23-year-old scholarly type who (gulp) might still be a virgin? This film is rollicking and chock full of excellent A-list actors (Henry Fonda, Lauren, Bacall, Tony Curtis, etc). It’s exuberant, alive. And the multiple-car highway chase at the end? A feat in 1960s filmmaking. Likely no easy task!
If the snazzy animated opening credits and catchy title song don’t lure us in, then Natalie Wood in full ‘elderly’ regalia robbing a bank will certainly do the trick. A big bright hearkening back to a sweeter Hollywood, and a sweeter world, this movie has its feet firmly planted in the 1960s. It’s not an award-winning classic, and that’s totally okay! Some movies are meant to simply make us smile. An obscure gem, it’s as radiant as those jewels that Natalie’s klepto character Penelope might steal. This is Natalie all 1960s caper-style. Quirky and heavenly. Time to smile.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
The final flick before Natalie Wood went into semi-retirement to start a family, this film is 1969 ‘couples kookiness’ on full, delightful blush-worthy display! Sophisticated, charming, humorous, and touching, Natalie’s iconic Carol character is fit for a groovy 1960s history book, chronicling those idealistic, love-beaded, flower-powered 1960s. Natalie brilliantly brings a level of seriousness and compassion to her character without ever sacrificing the through-line giggle. Praise to the director Paul Mazursky for envisioning this, and kudos to Natalie for executing it with such skill and ease. And her partners in romantic crime? Big praise to co-stars Robert Culp, Elliott Gould, and Dyan Cannon. This film is singular. No wonder it was a smash hit and a signature flick to close out the 1960s decade.
Back In That Moonlit Forest
A lot can be said about Natalie Wood. And the media has. But, if focusing exclusively on her Hollywood film and star status, she was a beyond prolific actress who doubled as beautiful starlet. For a time, there was none higher. She was the pinnacle of acting and glamour. She knew how to do superstar, and she did it.
We’d even say she was flawlessly perfect in doing it, but if quoting an unpublished 1966 Public Property/Private Person article written by Natalie and not seen until 2016’s coffee table book, Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life, Natalie was refreshingly candid about her abilities, saying, “Sometimes you wish you could say to the audience, ‘Would you please forget that last scene? I wasn’t feeling well that day.’” Natalie was a person first and foremost. Read that article to understand the ‘public property,’ but more so, to love the ‘private person.’ She was magical in her descriptions, and benevolent in bestowing us with her humanness.
When the screen went black in 1981, indeed we lost a blessing. Once upon a time, the world truly had a Hollywood superstar. And though she’s no longer here, we still love sitting in that moonlit forest, gazing up at all those white twinkly stars who are now her friends, and remembering her.
And when these silver-winged butterflies dance by, and this enchanting gardenia perfume fills the air, said to be two of Natalie Wood’s loves, we thankfully know that her precious spirit is never truly gone. Call it the magic of the movies. She will always be wonderfully near. Happy Birthday, dear Natalie Wood. She would have been 83 years old today!
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I'm a published poet, travel writer, and "vintage" pop culture blogger. I love movies, and especially those dusty old classics. I "heart" the rich history of film.