Beloved cinema icon of the 50s and 60s, Natalie Wood began life as Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in San Francisco, CA in 1938. Born to Russian immigrants, she was an early devotee to the movie business, encouraged by her dancer mother who often carried young Natalie to the movies. This proved to be a big influence on Natalie and the acting career she would soon embark upon. After Natalie was noticed by members of a film crew filming a movie in their home town of Santa Rosa, CA, her parents quickly moved the family to LA. It would not be long before she made her screen debut as "girl who drops ice cream cone" in the the 1943 film HAPPY LAND. It was a modest beginning for a little girl who would soon become a true Hollywood legend.
Natalie caught her big break a few years later as little Susan Walker in the holiday favorite MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET, enchanting audiences with skills uncharacteristic of such a young girl. She would soon become one of the most beloved child actors of the 40s and 50s, charming a nation weary from war and social upheaval. She would be hailed as one of the most promising child actors of the decade. Instantly beloved of her craft, Natalie and acting went together like milk and cookies. And as many had foreseen, her abilities and affinity for film making would only increase as she moved into her teenage years, bound for immortality alongside icons of cinema.
The 1950s produced a young Natalie eager to leave her childhood far behind her. Now grown into a beauty similar to the likes of modern day Nina Dobrev and in possession of skills akin to today's Rooney Mara, Natalie was understandably eager to expand into more adult-oriented roles, dealing with the complex issues faced by people her age, living in a rapidly changing time. Toward those ends, Natalie accepted a role as the troubled Judy in 1955's REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE - a role that would open the door to many more mature parts to follow. At the tender age of 16, Natalie easily held her own against the legendary James Dean in what would become his final film. This role would earn Natalie her first Oscar nomination and cement her status as a true Hollywood A-lister.
Now that she was a big name in Hollywood, Natalie's private life quickly became subject to speculation and sensation. Not one to be limited by her youth, it was said Natalie carried on a relationship with REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE director Nicolas Ray when she was just 16 and he 43. What is known for sure is that Natalie's tremendous affection for actor Robert Wagner would soon become a great passion. After embarking on a studio-arranged date in 1957, the two young acting phenoms became a couple, with Natalie eventually marrying Wagner in 1957 at the very young age of 19 and he 27. They would go on to have a passionate love affair, which would eventually fizzle out, much like their first movie together, 1960s ALL THE FINE YOUNG CANNIBALS. This film tanked so badly it was thought Natalie's career was finished. In fact, it was just the opposite. Things were only just beginning to get interesting for Natalie.
The year 1961 would see Natalie trapped in between success and failure. With her marriage on the rocks and private life in shambles, she found herself making not one, but two of her most well remembered and beloved films - SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, for which she would earn her second Oscar nom, and WEST SIDE STORY. Both films would go down in cinematic history, beloved of film fans across the globe to this day and make Natalie a true international film legend. The next year would see her follow up with yet another big hit with 1962's GYPSY. This decade would prove to be Natalie's most prolific time as an actress and one of her most challenging as a human being.
In 1963, Natalie received her 3rd Oscar nomination for her role in LOVE WITH A PROPER STRANGER. This nomination would earn her the distinction of becoming the only actress to receive 3 Oscar nominations before the age of 25 - a record that stands to this day. Success in her career abounded, but her private life was in shambles. Being the favorite of tabloid news, where her many high profile break ups were front page news, not to mention the pressure of being in high demand in Hollywood, drove Natalie to the brink. Following a suicide attempt in 1966, she would go on to semi-retirement from acting, only appearing in a few more movies in the decade. The most noteworthy of those movies was the 1969 swinger lifestyle exploration film BOB, CAROL, TED & ALICE. She would also marry again that year to producer Richard Gregson, with whom she would have her first child.
Echoing her brief time with Robert Wagner, Natalie's relationship with Gregson would be over by 1971. Ironically, it was shortly thereafter that she would reunite with Wagner. The two remarried in 1973 and Natalie gave birth to a second child with Wagner soon after. Unfortunately, Natalie spent much of the late 60s and 70s out of the spotlight, passing up numerous big parts during that time as she attempted to rebuild her life. This cost her a great deal of her clout in the industry. By the time she was ready to return to acting, Natalie was essentially back to square one, starring in TV movies and a few small films as a co-star, many of which did little business.
As the 80s dawned, Natalie was determined to rebuild her career back to previous heights. A starring role in the sci-fi thriller BRAINSTORM held promise, as did her first stage performance in an adaptation of Anastasia. There were also other film roles on the horizon. It looked as if she was primed for a return to greatness. Sadly, before she could accomplish her comeback, tragedy struck. In November 1981, after a night of drinking, Natalie, her husband Robert and BRAINSTORM co-star Christopher Walken retired to the couple's boat in Catalina Island for the night. In circumstances that remain somewhat murky, by the time the dawn rose the next morning, Natalie's heavily bruised body was found floating face down in the water. Those on the boat claimed to have no idea how she entered the water or why no one was alerted to her fall. No sign of foul play was found. Natalie's death was ruled the result of apparent hypothermia and drowning. Controversy, speculation and numerous investigations would follow, even to the present day, but nothing contradicting the official findings has ever been uncovered. She was only 43.
A true star movie star for any time, Natalie Wood's beauty and talent had already made her an iconic actress at a time in life when most others are just beginning to think about a career. In a short few decades, Natalie revolutionized what it meant to be a star and defined how generations of Americans looked at themselves and the times they lived in. Unfortunately, the turmoil of Natalie's personal life equaled her success - turmoil that would ultimately rob her of most of the fame and status she spent virtually her entire life building. She would eventually find happiness in her life, though tragedy would take her from the world before she could see her career restored. Despite the sadness of her untimely death, Natalie will go down as one of the silver screen's most beautiful women and brightest stars.