Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 15, 2013
I love Natalie Wood but I hate writing about her. Whenever I declare my affection for Natalie or mention one of the films she appeared in some heartless dolt will inevitably respond with an idiotic joke about her tragic death. The jokes are usually followed by a procession of armchair detectives intent on sharing their theories about her unfortunate demise. When that well runs dry someone will eventually mention her alleged sexual assault by a powerful actor in Hollywood, which leads people to further ruminate on her various relationships and rumored romances with costars (Raymond Burr, Nick Adams, Dennis Hopper, Warren Beatty, Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen, Christopher Walken, etc.) and directors (Nicolas Ray and Henry Jaglom). And while I can understand the fascination with Natalie’s very adventurous and often turbulent personal life, this tired ground has been trudged countless times and I have no desire to travel down that path today. Instead, I’d like to talk about Natalie’s acting talents and highlight a few of my favorite moments from her all too brief career in front of the camera. And this coming Sunday (August 18th) you’ll be able to see a couple of them when Natalie Wood takes center stage during TCM’s ongoing Summer Under the Stars.
In no particular order…
Reason #1 - LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER (1963)
LOVE WITH THE PROPER STRANGER has a lot of memorable and touching moments as well as a romantic ending that leaves my heart in knots but the one scene that I love to watch over and over again is the “Apartment Dinner” scene. If you’ve seen the film you know exactly what I’m talking about and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for? Natalie plays Angie, a New York shop girl who has a brief fling with a musician named Rocky (Steve McQueen) and ends up pregnant. After a botched abortion attempt, Angie is determined to forget about Rocky but there’s no denying the feelings they share for one another. Angie eventually invites the reluctant Rocky over to her small apartment for dinner and clumsily tries to entertain him but their dinner date goes horribly wrong. This funny, charming and poignant scene is elevated by the natural chemistry shared between Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen. They’re electric together and it’s just a joy to watch them exchange lines and crack jokes at each others expense. I like to imagine that Natalie and Steve never left that little apartment and that they’re there now, growing old together and still madly, awkwardly and passionately in love.
Reason #2 - SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961)
Elia Kazan’s heartbreaking drama about young love gone oh so wrong still has the power to destroy me every time I watch it thanks to Natalie’s devestating performance. The film takes place in the late 1920s with the Great Depression looming in the foreground and all the fears and frustrations of the period are played out by two innocents. When young Deanie (Natalie Wood) gets her heart broken by devilishly handsome Bud (Warren Beatty) she attempts to unwind with a nice refreshing bath. But her constrained anger and repressed sexual desires boil over when her mother (Audrey Christie) begins to doubt her virginity by suggesting that she’s been “spoiled” by Bud. Natalie’s character lashes back with a fury of words and like a sacrificial lamb, offers her wet and naked body to her mother who retreats in horror and confusion. Natalie’s vulnerability in that painful moment is truly palpable. You want to wrap your arms around her and save her from thoughtless parents, self-satisfying boyfriends and an unkind world that has never really understood the incomprehensible passions and deep-seated anxieties of teenage girls.
Reason #3 - THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED (1966)
This very bitter and occasionally sweet depression era drama tells the tragic story of Alma Starr (Natalie Wood), a beautiful young woman forced into prostitution by her heartless mother (Kate Reid) who runs a whorehouse in Mississippi that masquerades as a boarding house. In one standout scene Alma gets very drunk (“Loaded as a pistol!”) at a Southern speakeasy and ends up in a verbal sparring match with her mother. Their exchange in THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED plays out like a continuation of the daughter vs. mother fight in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS and you can sense that all of Natalie’s animosity towards her own—very real—stage mother is bubbling and seething just below the surface. At the time Natalie was suffering from severe depression (she attempted suicide during filming) and It’s rumored that she had to actually get drunk to perform the scene . Whatever the case may be, Natalie lets her inner demons fly free and things turn violent. In-between the wisecracks and slurred words Natalie and Kate Reid smack one another a few times and you get the feeling that those hits genuinely hurt. It’s an ugly altercation in a film full of many but Natalie is gorgeous, fierce and feral in her boozy rebellious state and for one brief liberating moment you think that she might finally be able to escape from the powerful clutches of her monstrous mother.
Reason #4 – REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (1955)
If you read as much as I do you know that there’s really nothing left to say about REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE that hasn’t already been said. It’s one of the most analyzed and mined films in history and there’s good reason for that. Nicholas Ray created a cinemascope masterpiece about teenage angst in postwar America that’s maintained its power and relevance for almost 50 years. At the center of this poignant drama beats the inflamed heart of Judy (Natalie Wood) and two scenes from the film among many (yes, I’m cheating a bit here) have captivated me for decades. The first takes place at her suburban home, when Judy attempts to fondly kiss her father (William Hopper) and he rebukes her with a slap claiming that she’s “told old” to be showing her old man physical affection. It’s a supremely creepy moment that suggests her father is harboring unspoken desire for his own child but it also speaks to a larger problem. Like Judy, I “blossomed” early and had trouble adjusting to adulthood. Being forced to pack away my toys and shop for training bras was traumatic and Natalie was able to perfectly expresses the youthful anxiety and trepidation that so many young women face. When Judy looks at her father, still stunned by the force of his blow, her humiliation and confusion is heartbreaking. She might be an adult woman in her parents eyes but inside she’s still a growing girl. This confrontation between father and daughter leads to another favorite moment in the film, the infamous “Chicken Run.” Natalie‘s character is at the center of all the action and when she unwittingly waves her boyfriend Buzz (Corey Allen) towards his doom, she faces a cruel realization. Her innocent flirting, red lipstick, tight sweaters and immeasurable beauty have power. In the aftershock of the crash she’s forced to grow up fast while peering over the cliff at Buzz’ lifeless body. And just when you think she’s plunged into the dark abyss of adulthood and will never return, the young, spirited and inhumanly gorgeous James Dean reaches out his steady hand and pulls her to safety. Natalie and Jimmy briefly lock eyes, two cult icons trapped in a timeless moment, and then they’re gone. Disappearing into a car with Sal Mineo as they all drive towards an unattainable teenage paradise where adulthood and all its rotten hang-ups and regrets are briefly forgotten.
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