Cinema and Media Studies Natalie Wood
Cynthia Lucia
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0173


Born in San Francisco as Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, three-time Oscar-nominated actress Natalie Wood (b. 1938–d. 1981) began her career at age four with an uncredited role in Irving Pichel’s Happy Land (1943). Natalia’s Russian father, a carpenter and eventual studio set builder, changed the family name to Gurdin for better placement on Depression job lists. Claiming to be an amateur ballet dancer and/or actress in her native Russia, Natalia’s mother became the driving force behind her daughter’s career. She moved her family from Santa Rosa to Hollywood in 1944, hoping to persuade Pichel to again cast Natalia, who preferred the name Natasha. Fond of Natasha and aware of the difficulties child actors endured, Pichel only reluctantly cast the seven-year-old in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946) and re-christened her “Natalie Wood.” Natalie’s popularity took hold at age nine with her role in Miracle on 34th Street (1947), followed by twenty-eight movie and television performances before emerging as a teenage star in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) with James Dean. During her teenage and early adult career, Wood’s most prominent roles mediated cultural anxieties over female sexuality and maturation, with allegorical resonance for audiences who had watched this compelling child grow up onscreen. Most notable are The Searchers and A Cry in the Night, both 1956, which cast Wood as a kidnapping victim, and later Bombers B-52 (1957), Marjorie Morningstar (1958), Cash McCall (1960), Splendor in the Grass, and West Side Story (both 1961). Wood’s Louise in Gypsy (1962) literally effects a transition from innocent, soulful girl to illustrious stripper. Even when Wood was in her mid- and late twenties, her roles hinged on a nuanced interplay of sexual innocence and experience, whether in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), or This Property Is Condemned (1966). Her last big hit, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), treated adult sexual ennui and experimentation in the explicit and hilarious terms possible only with the demise of the Production Code and the studio system that supported it. Throughout her career, Wood acted in more than sixty movies and television series, concluding with Brainstorm (1983), released two years after her untimely, still mysterious death by drowning. Her uncommon beauty and deep, brown eyes registered intelligence, sincerity, and an inexplicable vulnerability, qualities animating her ever-captivating screen performances and frequently commented upon by critics, scholars, and biographers alike.


Finstad 2001 culls archival and popular press sources while conducting extensive interviews with Wood’s family and her childhood, teen, and adult friends, both in and outside of Hollywood. Biographer Gavin Lambert was an industry-insider, a novelist and Academy Award–nominated screenwriter, who wrote Inside Daisy Clover (1965), in which Wood played the eponymous character. One-time partner of writer Mart Crowley, Wood’s trusted confidant, Lambert was on friendly terms with Wood and her husband, actor Robert J. Wagner. While less anecdotal than Finstad 2001 concerning Wood’s childhood and teenage years, Lambert 2005, thanks to the author’s access to Wood and her adult entourage, provides significant detail about Natalie’s personal life, her career trajectory, and her contentious contractual relationship with Warner Bros. Manoah Bowman also was given access, not only to family and friends but also to Wood’s personal archive and photographs—many never-before-published industry and family-album images—that beautifully illustrate the coffee-table volume Bowman 2016, which is part biography and part commemorative tribute. All three works delineate Wood’s conflicted view of her own position at a time when method acting became popularized and stars were often considered as less-than-serious actors. Wood’s desire to be both created conflict in her personal life, whether with her mother, who drove Natalie toward studio stardom, or in her marriage to Wagner, who was firmly attached to old Hollywood. Finstad 2001 and Lambert 2005 examine the circumstances of Wood’s death, recounting similar facts concerning the fateful 1981 Thanksgiving weekend, when she drowned during a heavy-drinking, contentious evening aboard her yacht Splendour with Wagner, their skipper Dennis Davern, and actor Christopher Walken, who was then co-starring with Wood in Brainstorm. Lambert accepts Wagner’s explanation—that Natalie probably slipped when trying to secure a lose dinghy—while Finstad is more skeptical, having spoken to Natalie’s sister, Lana Wood, with whom Wagner had strained relations, and having delved into accounts from other possible witnesses and officials involved. Bowman 2016 refers to Wood’s death as tragic and accidental, without detailing circumstances, but citing obsessive media attention as one factor that has overshadowed Wood’s legacy as an actress, which through his illustrated biography, the author hoped to restore. Harris 1988 concentrates on the relationship between Wood and Wagner (a.k.a. R. J.) from their first meeting through divorce, remarriage, and Wood’s death.

  • Bowman, Manoah. Natalie Wood (Turner Classic Movies): Reflections on a Legendary Life. Philadelphia: Running Press, 2016.

    Supplementing Bowman’s text are a foreword by Wagner; an afterword by actor Robert Redford, whom Wood introduced to the screen; essays by actress/writer Sloan De Forest on Wood’s childhood films and by film/music historian Matt Tunia on West Side Story; a remembrance by Wood’s eldest of two daughters, Natasha Gregson Wagner; and a previously unpublished reflection on her life and career by Wood herself—originally intended for publication in a 1966 edition of Ladies’ Home Journal. Chapters devoted to selected Wood films include critical commentary, details of production history, and publicity stills.

  • Finstad, Suzanne. Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood. New York: Three Rivers, 2001.

    Finstad examines Wood’s “stolen” childhood and her adult career ambitions; her romances; her marriage to and divorce from Wagner and also to and from Richard Gregson, with whom she had a daughter, Natasha; followed by her re-marriage to Wagner with whom she had daughter Courtney. The interplay of personal and professional choices and conflicts sketches a complex, compelling portrait of the star.

  • Harris, Warren G. Natalie and R. J.: Hollywood’s Star-Crossed Lovers. Graymalkin Media, 1988.

    In his career-couple study, celebrity biographer Harris deftly summarizes each star’s upbringing before concentrating on their Hollywood careers, their romantic lives together and with others, and the details of their various film and television projects—all culled from insider interviews, film reviews, and archival sources, that, while not cited, are echoed by Finstad, Lambert, Bowman, and memoirs devoted to Wood.

  • Lambert, Gavin. Natalie Wood: A Life. New York: Back Stage Books, 2005.

    Many in the Hollywood establishment who knew Wood personally and professionally offer their insights into her talent, ambitions, intelligence, insecurities, patterns of behavior, and emotional vulnerabilities.

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