Four Reasons Why I Love Natalie Wood

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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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

33 Responses Four Reasons Why I Love Natalie Wood
Posted By avmckee : August 15, 2013 3:47 pm

I like your take on Wood. Too often, an actor’s death overshadows their acting life. Thanks!

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2013 3:59 pm

Amazingly, I haven’t seen films 1 through 3 (although I recently DVR’d #1 to tick off another unseen entry in the Steve McQueen filmography), but I’ve been endeavouring to catch up with Natalie in recent months, including viewings of Gypsy and Inside Daisy Clover.

So far, what I enjoy about watching her films at this late date is that I don’t come to them with the kind of baggage that I bring to, say, a Marilyn Monroe title. I remember hearing the news of Wood’s death, but I’ve never dwelt on the circumstances of it all or had any interest in the latest tabloid theory. I’m thankful I can enjoy her films purely for the quality of her work in them and look forward to experiencing more of it.

Posted By Klara : August 15, 2013 5:17 pm

Can’t help it, my favorite will always be West Side Story… I, too, will love Natalie Wood forever! I appreciate your putting the focus on her contributions.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 15, 2013 5:20 pm

avmckee – Thank you! I’m glad you appreciated it.

Posted By robbushblog : August 15, 2013 5:20 pm

My four reasons would be: Gypsy, because she was so beautiful and sexy in it. Miracle on 34th Street, because she plays skeptical and excited so well, even as a child, that you believe everything she says and does in the movie. Rebel Without a Cause, because of everything you just said. And finally, The Searchers, because of “Untmaya! Go, Martin! Please!”, but also because of “Let’s go home, Debbie” as she melts in the Duke’s arms, finally able to return home to what is left of her family.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 15, 2013 5:24 pm

swac – You are in for such a treat when you get around to the films I mentioned! I honestly envy you. I saw many of Natalie’s films before she died so I never had any baggage to deal with either. It seems like a lot of people talk about Natalie but they’re not watching her movies.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 15, 2013 5:29 pm

Klara & Rob – I love many more of her movies too, particularly WEST SIDE STORY, ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS and BOB & CAROL & TED & ALICE but these are simply 4 reasons why I love Natalie Wood. Nothing more. Nothing less. Had actually planned to include WEST SIDE STORY in my write-up but I’ve already written about my deep love for that film at the Morlocks before. I also had a deadline to meet & my word count had exploded.

Posted By Susannah : August 15, 2013 5:40 pm

Oh I ADORE Natalie Wood at all times but you’ve chosen two of my all-time favorites: Splendor in the Grass and This Property is Condemned. Let me say that I love the first half of Love With the Proper Stranger when it is dark and edgy. Unfortunately, the second half veers so quickly into a romantic comedy that it’s almost as if a separate director stepped in. (Maybe that happened?!?!?) But Splendor shook me as a teen and, like you, affects me deeply every time I see it. That scene in the bathtub is one I shared with my therapist when trying to describe the blurred boundaries of my own sexual awakening. I cannot watch it without gasping for air, for freedom. Could there possibly be anything on earth more beautiful than Wood in This Property is Condemned? I don’t think so. She captures both the power and powerlessness of her character in another role of desperation. When her mother finds her in New Orleans and takes such perverse pleasure in destroying her happiness… oh it still makes me ache. In addition to Rebel Without a Cause, I also love Wood in Sex and the Single Girl, Gypsy and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Finally, thank you Kimberly for having such great taste.

Posted By Klara : August 15, 2013 5:50 pm

It’s a great challenge to focus and limit content — and I love that you did, while focusing on her craft! In terms of personal Natalie Wood favorite performances, I’ll also add her as Carol in ‘Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice’, which possibly exceeds WSS for me.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 15, 2013 5:59 pm

Susannah – Thanks for that passionate & personal response! I can totally understand your feelings about LOVE WITH A PROPER STRANGER but I just get a BIG kick out of seeing Natalie & Steve on a date stumbling through a lot of awkward moments that many couples have experienced. But yes, SPLENDOR still has the power to destroy me. I hold a lot of animosity (outright dislike) towards Warren Beatty and I suspect that film is the one of the main reasons. I think I tend to relate to Wood a lot because I’ve got mommy issues myself and (for better or worse) films like SPLENDOR & THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED feed into them. Have you seen ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS? That’s another one of my favorite Wood films you didn’t mention and I think you’d love it if you haven’t caught it yet.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 15, 2013 6:14 pm

This Property Is Condemned is my personal favorite Natalie movie, though she holds her own with the boys in The Great Race.

Posted By Michael McCrann : August 15, 2013 7:07 pm

This is a lovely tribute to one of my all time favorites. I was in high school when Splendor in the Grass came out and I was hooked from that day on. I think Love With The Proper Stranger is her best performance and think Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice is another of the great Wood roles. Inside Daisy Clover had its moments and would loved to have seen the original version before Warner Bros cut it up. I think The Great Race is a total waste of Natalie Wood and it kills me that she could have done The Collector for William Wyler had she not been bogged down in this lame Blake Edwards farce.(Wood and Edwards did not like one another either probably because she knew this so called comedy was a waste of her talent and was going to be a bomb.) This Property is Condemned probably has the greatest cinematography (courtesy of James Wong Howe) of any Natalie Wood film. Natalie made a movie comeback in 1974. Wish she had made Chinatown or The Great Gatsby instead of Peeper! Natalie Wood was a gorgeous talented actress. I met her once and will never forget how nice she was. She will always hold a special place in my heart.

Posted By David Ehrenstein : August 15, 2013 8:44 pm

Raymond Burr and Nick Adams were gay. Nicholas ray was Bi. He was carrying on with Sal Mineo at the same time he deflowered Natalie Wood, who was then passed on to Dennis Hopper. Warren Beatty was a MAJOR affair. He dumped Joan Collins for her. Her relationship with Christopher Walken was far more professional than personal. He had all sorts of ideas about what she should be doing with her career. That’s what he and R.J. were fighting about the night of the tragedy.

I met her once. She glowed in the dark.

Posted By Gene : August 15, 2013 10:15 pm

Kimberly – how can anyone not LOVE Natalie Wood. For me it’s all of the above and Miracle on 34th Street as well. She was a natural from the start. I was shocked and heartbroken when she passed. A few years later I dreamt that I was visiting her and Robert Wagner. It was so real, and it took a few days for me to really get that it was just a dream. I think she (and Robert Wagner from his television shows) were just so familiar to me growing up that the dream was an extension of that. I guess others’ lives are so boring that any hint of scandal just dazzles their lurid imaginations. For me it’s about what she did on the Big Screen. Her private life, good or bad is irrelevant and it doesn’t tarnish her screen presence or talent one bit.

Posted By Alice Tully-Hall : August 15, 2013 11:30 pm

Just an FYI for those concerned with Miss Woods’ sexual partners; it may be of interest to point out that Raymond Burr was gay. We can safely conclude that theirs was not a sexual relationship.

Posted By Alice Tully-Hall : August 15, 2013 11:39 pm

Kimberly, I thought it may interest you; based on the strength of your spirited commentary I have decided to watch THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED right now! Cheers!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 16, 2013 12:37 am

Michael – Thanks so much! And I appreciate that you took the time to share your own personal story about Natalie Wood.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 16, 2013 12:43 am

David & Alice – I’m well aware of the sexual preferences of Burr, Adams and Ray. In fact, Burr’s homosexuality has been discussed a lot right here at the Morlocks blog by other writers but as I made clear in my opening paragraph, I wanted to discuss Wood’s acting and avoid ruminating on her possible/rumored sexual or romantic partners.

And David, she does seem like she would glow at night.

And Alice, I hope you enjoy THIS PROPERTY IS CONDEMNED. I believe that my fellow Morlock Susan Doll wrote a lengthy post about it a few years ago that’s worth a look.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 16, 2013 12:48 am

Gene – “how can anyone not LOVE Natalie Wood?” I have no idea but I’ve seen plenty of my fellow classic film fans dismiss her talents. She’s often been called a “limited actress” but I don’t agree and find that accusation baffling. I’ve always admired her and find her utterly captivating on screen. She’s a gem!

Posted By Emgee : August 16, 2013 10:06 am

As a noir fan her role in A Cry in the Night comes to mind.
And those eyes…….yes that’s not a profound statement but still….

Posted By celluloidcouture : August 16, 2013 10:34 am

I came here – hoping – and you didn’t disappoint me. That scene in “Love With The Proper Stranger” is also my favorite. I always imagine myself (hah – as if!) in her place. That perfect, dictionary-definition “little black dress”, the tiny little apartment, the Le Creuset cookware (yeah, I’m a geek) and of course, Steve McQueen (I hate that pearl necklace, though…wrong length for the neckline of that dress)

And in the “Condemned” scene, another great feature is the look on Charles Bronson’s face as Reid and Wood volley back and forth. He’s lovin’ every minute of it.

Great piece – thanks!

Posted By Doug : August 16, 2013 1:16 pm

I grew up thinking that Natalie Wood was Hollywood “Royalty”, as in a child of stars, like Drew of the Barrymore clan. I guess she seemed royal to me.
I haven’t seen a lot of her films, but “Miracle on 34th Street” has always been a favorite, and it’s been too, too long since I’ve seen “West Side Story”.
Thank you,Kimberly, for shining light on another great actor who earned the title of ‘Star’.
I think she did a lot of acting with her eyes, if that makes any sense.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 16, 2013 1:46 pm

I saw Gypsy so long ago, I need to re-see it. I like to watch Miracle on 34th Street every Christmas season, and in Maureen O’Hara’s autobiography she wrote such lovely things about Natalie Wood. They really formed a bond making that film, and Natalie would send Maureen pieces of art work she had made during her growing up years. Other than West Side Story and Gypsy,I haven’t seen Wood’s other films. Need to rectify that! Thanks for an interesting post!

Posted By Devora Wharton : August 17, 2013 9:22 am

I love all your posts never missed one but to shy to post. I hate all the “other” stuff but love the above posts as well.
No one said a word about PENELOPE. She was so fresh and funny in it and I try and never miss it. Everything else is stellar as well but for fun The Great Race and Penny are my fav. But don’t forget Gypsy. Keep the post coming MM.

Posted By CiCi : August 18, 2013 5:42 pm

My 4 reasons are: Splendor in the Grass, Love with the Proper Stranger, This Property is Condemmed and Gypsy. (I’m puzzled by why on earth TCM never ever plays Love with a Proper Stranger; the acting is actually better in my opinion than in Sex and the Single Girl– and the story is way better.)

Posted By CiCi : August 18, 2013 5:45 pm

TCM’s putting “The Searchers” as one of the movies to showcase her this summer is a poor choice. She’s barely in that movie.

Posted By CiCi : August 18, 2013 5:49 pm

I’m watching “Splendor in the Grass” now. The ending of it. I think after about 15 times seeing this I finally know what she’s thinking: “I loved him but we wouldn’t have been right for each other.” (or “I couldn’t live like this.”)!

Posted By Polupit : August 19, 2013 5:04 am

She is one the great ones. I loved the clown scene in Daisy Clover. She was 27 years old at the time and was able to become a teenager again. Loved the clown scene. The makeup in the movie was superb.

Posted By swac44 : August 19, 2013 7:10 am

Love With the Proper Stranger is a Paramount title, which means it’s less likely to show up in regular rotation due to extra licensing fees, although I believe it has shown up on TCM in the past.

Posted By swac44 : August 23, 2013 3:27 pm

Just watched Natalie in Cry in the Dark, a dark thriller with Raymond Burr as a psychopathic mama’s boy who kidnaps Wood (and clocks poor Richard Anderson in the head with a metal lunch box). Don’t know how I missed this one over the years, it’s tense and moves swiftly with Burr going to town with his proto-Norman Bates part. Wood’s a captive for most of the film, but she shows her moxie on more than one occasion in standing up to Burr and trying to manipulate his damaged emotions.

Less enjoyable is Sex and the Single Girl, I think this film must have seemed dated the day it was released. Natalie is quite watchable, as always, but sadly she has to play a supposedly intelligent woman who acts like an idiot half the time. The best parts of the movie are Edward Everett Horton’s speech at the start, and Mel Ferrer’s dancing. Oh, and Lauren Bacall being completely alluring at 40.

Posted By swac44 : August 26, 2013 10:03 am

Finally watched Splendor in the Grass, thanks to a bout of insomnia, what a remarkable film! I enjoyed it more than Rebel Without a Cause, due in large part to having Wood in the spotlight, but also for Beatty’s sensitive, understated portrayal. I feel bad I put off watching this for so many years.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : August 27, 2013 5:49 pm

Thanks again for all the comments, everyone! And swac44, I’m glad you finally got the chance to see SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. It’s an incredible film. Kazan tended to bring out the best in the actors he worked with and SPLENDOR is no exception. Wood and Beatty have rarely – if ever – been better.

Posted By ESassaman : September 7, 2013 8:27 pm

Though mentioned a couple of times above, I felt the need to comment on Natalie Wood’s performance in INSIDE DAISY CLOVER. I love this film, despite the fact that it only covers the first half of the novel it was adapted from. But should anyone question the caliber of Ms. Wood’s talent they need only refer to the scene in the sound stage where Daisy has been given the task of over-dubbing her vocals. I won’t explain further (no spoiler here), but I will suggest that this is one of the most riveting sequences ever filmed, and her portrayal feels organic and frighteningly real.

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