Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko (July 20, 1938 – November 29, 1981), better known as Natalie Wood, was an American actress of Russian descent, most famous for her roles in films such as Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story.
She was born to Russian immigrant parents (who had fled the Russian Civil War) in San Francisco. First appearing onscreen at the age of four and owing her "Wood" stage name to RKO Pictures executives who chose it in reference to director Sam Wood, she had a career spanning forty years, from The Moon is Down (1943) to the posthumously-released Brainstorm (1983). Her sister Lana also became an actress.
She was also a relatively rare example of a Hollywood child star who avoided Former Child Star status and became an A-lister in adulthood (Elizabeth Taylor is another), earning three Academy Award nominations (one for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and two for Best Actress in a Leading Role). Critics have theorized that the bulk of Wood's cinematic roles could represent a portrait of 20th-century American womanhood in transition.
She married Robert Wagner in 1957, they divorced in 1962, then remarried in 1972. She married and divorced British talent agent and producer Richard Gregson in the interim and had a daughter with him in 1970, Natasha Gregson Wagner, who became an actress. She had a second child in 1974, with Robert Wagner this time, Courtney Brooke Wagner, who also became an actress.
On November 29, 1981, Wood — who had a self-admitted fear of water, and never learned to swim — was found dead in the waters of a cove on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of Southern California. She seemingly fell into the sea from her and Robert Wagner's yacht during a holiday break from the production of Brainstorm with Christopher Walken. Both Walken and Wagner were aboard the yacht when the tragedy happened (and Wagner and Wood had a dispute onboard that night), and Wagner was considered a "person of interest" in the case from 2018 to 2022.
Her filmography includes:
- The Moon is Down (1943) as Carrie
- Tomorrow Is Forever (1946) as Margaret Ludwig
- The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) as young Anna Muir
- Miracle on 34th Street (1947) as Susan Walker
- The Star (1952) as Gretchen
- The Silver Chalice (1954) as young Helena
- Rebel Without a Cause (1955) as Judy
- The Searchers (1956) as Debbie Edwards
- Splendor in the Grass (1961) as Wilma Dean "Deanie" Loomis
- West Side Story (1961) as Maria
- Gypsy (1962) as Louise Hovick aka "Gypsy Rose Lee"
- Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) as Angie Rossini
- Sex and the Single Girl (1964) as Helen Gurley Brown
- The Great Race (1965) as Maggie DuBois
- Inside Daisy Clover (1965) as Daisy Clover
- Penelope (1966) as Penelope Elcott
- This Property Is Condemned (1966) as Alva
- Downhill Racer (1969) - extra in the crowds
- Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) as Carol Sanders
- The Candidate (1972) as herself (cameo)
- Meteor (1979) as Tatiana Donskaya
- Brainstorm (1983) as Karen Brace
- The Bob Hope Show (1959) as herself
- Switch (1975 and 1978) as the Cruise Ship Passenger / the Girl in the Bubble Bath (cameos)
- Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976 TV film) as Margaret "Maggie" Pollit
- From Here to Eternity (1979 mini-series) as Karen Holmes
- Hart to Hart (1979) as the Movie Star (cameo in the pilot)
Tropes and Trivia associated with her works include:
- The Cameo:
- She appeared in some crowd scenes in Downhill Racer (produced by her then-husband Richard Gregson). She worked uncredited as a production assistant (providing props and wardrobe) and did script revisions on the film.
- She briefly appeared in some series starring Robert Wagner when she was married (for the second time) to him such as Switch and Hart to Hart.
- She appeared as herself in The Candidate alongside her friend Robert Redford.
- Career Resurrection:
- After The Searchers, she appeared in a string of failed films. According to Elia Kazan, by 1960, she was considered as "washed up" at just 22. He still cast her in Splendor in the Grass, which came out in 1961, received critical acclaim and brought Wood her second Oscar nomination. Also in 1961, she starred in West Side Story, which was the biggest hit of the year and won the Oscar for Best Picture. This shot her straight back to the A-list.
- She attempted a second one after semi-retiring from the movie business in the late 1960s-early 1970s. She had retired both out of frustration with the studio system and to raise her children. She appeared in some high profile Mini Series and both the film Brainstorm and the stage play Anastasia were meant to cement a return to form. Alas, she died before Brainstorm was fully completed and Anastasia never happened as a result.
- The Cast Showoff: Her parents being Russian immigrants, she could speak Russian, as utilised in The Great Race and Meteor (she played a Soviet translator in the latter).
- Creator Backlash: She hated Penelope so much that right after it released, she cut off her contract from Warner Bros., fired almost all of her managing staff and didn't appear in another film for three years.
- Creator Thumbprint: Her trademark acting move was to switch her head to one side and give a puzzled look to the opposite co-star (and the viewer).
- Dawson Casting: Played teens when she was over 20 in Splendor in the Grass, West Side Story, Gypsy and Inside Daisy Clover.
- Died During Production: She died amidst the production of Brainstorm, which nearly caused the film to be cancelled.
- Former Child Star: One of few to still have a successful career as an adult.
- He Also Did: She worked uncredited as a production assistant on Downhill Racer (produced by her then-husband Richard Gregson and starring her longtime friend and collaborator Robert Redford), typing up script revisions and shopping for wardrobe and props. Wood also appeared as an extra in some of the crowd scenes.
- Non-Singing Voice: Her singing was dubbed by Marni Nixon in West Side Story, and by Jackie/Robin Ward in The Great Race and Inside Daisy Clover. In Gypsy and Penelope, however, she did her own singing.
- One Head Taller: Was 5'0'' and usually dwarfed by the leading man.
- One-Take Wonder: She was known for getting all her lines right on the first take - and she was nicknamed 'One Take Natalie' as a result.
- Production Posse: She was the actress costume designer Edith Head worked the most with, in Love with the Proper Stranger, Sex and the Single Girl, Inside Daisy Clover, The Great Race, This Property Is Condemned, Penelope and The Last Married Couple in America.
- Referenced by...:
- She's named in Gil Scott-Heron's 1971 poem-turned-song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised":"The revolution will not be brought to you by the Schaefer Award Theatre
And will not star Natalie Woods and Steve McQueen or Bullwinkle and Julia"
- There's a Marvel Comics character (part of the New X-Men) named after her.
- Murder victim Dehlia Draycott (Laura Harring) from the 2007 Nancy Drew film is a blatant case of No Celebrities Were Harmed — same kind of movie star career, same birth and death dates, same circumstances of death (found dead in the sea).
- In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the death of Cliff Booth's wife Billie — and the ambiguity surrounding it — is a reference to Wood, as is Billie's sister being named Natalie.
- In The Queen's Gambit, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) styles one of her haircuts after a newspaper photo of Natalie.
- She's named in Gil Scott-Heron's 1971 poem-turned-song "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised":
- Stage Names: She was born as Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko. Her name was later changed to "Gurdin", and when she started to appear in movies, it was changed to "Wood". Her sister was born Gurdin, and also took "Wood" as stage name.
- Star-Making Role:
- Miracle on 34th Street brought her much attention whe she was a child actress.
- Rebel Without a Cause was this for her post-childhood career. And the death of James Dean shortly after left her as the sole focus of much of the contemporary fandom.
- Those Two Actors:
- Wood and Tony Curtis appeared in three films together (Kings Go Forth, Sex and the Single Girl, The Great Race), although they had acrimonious interactions on set.
- She appeared alongside Robert Redford three times — Inside Daisy Clover, This Property Is Condemned and The Candidate. While the first two pictures were not darlings with critics and she only had a cameo as herself in the third, Wood and Redford were good friends and knew each other since high school. Redford was also the best man of Richard Gregson at his wedding with Wood in 1969.
- Time-Shifted Actor:
- As young Anna Muir in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (with Vanessa Brown as adult Anna).
- As teen Helena in The Silver Chalice (with Virginia Mayo as adult Helena).
- As adult Debbie Edwards in The Searchers (with her sister Lana as young Debbie).
- What Could Have Been:
- In 1963, Natalie and French director Serge Bourguignon were to work together on the film version of a novel by Dorothy Baker called Cassandra at the Wedding. Mart Crowley wrote the script for this project. She would have portrayed twins, one of which was a lesbian, no less. The plans for this production fell through.
- Producer Aaron Spelling originally wanted her to play Jennifer Hart in Hart to Hart as a Stunt Casting to add much publicity to the series since she was the wife of its main star Robert Wagner. Natalie preferred focusing on her theatrical film career instead, although she still did a cameo in the pilot.
- She opted to stay away from large theatrical film roles during The '70s to raise a family and played in some high profile TV productions. Brainstorm was supposed to be a 'comeback' theatrical role. Also, the stress of finishing the film after her death drove Douglas Trumbull away from film directing.
- She was also set to appear in Anastasia◊, a stage play that would have opened on February 12, 1982 in Los Angeles and in which she was set to play Anna Anderson, a famous impostor of Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanova when she was still thought to have survived the Russian Revolution. To twist the knife further, she said this shortly before her death:"My friends seem much more excited about me doing Anastasia than Brainstorm... and to tell you the truth, I feel the same way."