Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zhakharenko in San Francisco, California on 20 July 1938 to Russian immigrant parents, Natalie Wood started performing at an early age and transitioned from child stardom to a successful movie career as an adult. In her youth, Natalie’s mother had dreamed of becoming an actress or a ballet dancer, and probably she transferred her ambition to little Natalie when she used to take her to the cinema shows as often as she could afford.
Shortly after Natalie was born, the family shifted to San Rosa, where the little girl of four, often called Natasha in Russian, was noticed by a crew during a film shoot downtown, and she landed with the part of a crying girl who had just accidentally dropped her ice cream cone. Despite her fifteen-second short scene in the film Happy Land (1943), she was spotted by the director, Irving Pichel, who kept contact with the family for two years and finally telephoned her mother to bring her daughter to Los Angeles for a screen test. Natalie’s father did not like the idea of making her daughter a film actress, but his wife’s desperate ambition to make Natalie a star took priority and packed the whole family to Los Angeles to live there. In the consequent screen test when the seven-year-old Natalie failed to cry on a cue, her mother convinced the studio heads to give her another test, and tore a butterfly to pieces in front of her to make her sob. This made the trick and she got a role in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946) in which she played the role of a German orphan in post World War II. Orson Welles, who played her guardian in the film, later confided that she was terrific, a born professional. In the same year she also appeared in another film directed by Irving Pichel, titled The Bride Wore Boots (1946), and worked for 20th Century Fox to play the role of Gene Tiemey’s daughter in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). However, her best-known film as a child artist was Miracle on 34th Street (1947), in which she won the heart of the movie patrons, playing the role of a quiet child who acts more like a grown-up than a six-year-old.
As Natalie was a minor during her early years as an actress, she had to attend educational classes in the studio wherever she was contacted. On the other side, her mother continued to play a significant role in her daughter's early career, coaching her and micromanaging aspects of her career, even forced her to return an engagement ring to her high school sweetheart, who later tried to commit suicide. At 15 she was pimped to Frank Sinatra, when the insanely ambitious Russian mother brought her to Sinatra’s apartment for a cocktail in 1954, in a form-fitting black party dress, and pushed her on Sinatra, who needed no pushing. Sinatra was attracted by the young beauty, whom he adored since the days of the Miracle on 34th Street, when she was only eight. However, he did not want to follow the steps of Charlie Chaplin, Errol Flynn, or later, Roman Polanski. So he opted for a patient method, and after the party, he arranged for Natalie to return to his place regularly for singing lessons – alone. Although he was very protective about her, just like a father, the 38-year-old Sinatra’s seduction of the 15-year-old Natalie Wood would have been both child molestation and statutory rape.
From a child star, Natalie Wood emerged as a dark-haired beauty of 16 in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause (1955), a film about teenage rebellion and angst. In the film, she played Judy, a rebellious high school student who was more concerned with hanging out with the wrong crowd than being a sweet teenager like her contemporaries and earned her first Academy Award nomination for her performance. Unfortunately, Natalie was sexually exploited by the 42-year-old director Nicholas Ray to prove her ability to play the role of a bad girl in the film.
In 1956, Natalie Wood graduated from Van Nuys High School, signed with Warner Brothers, and appeared opposite Tab Hunter in The Burning Hills (1956), a western, and The Girl He Left Behind (1956), in which she looked hot even in the frumpy dresses in some sequences. The studio had the intention to turn the duo, Natalie and teenage heartthrob Tab Hunter, into a box-office draw, but as the plan failed to materialize, they tried teaming her with Efrem Zimbalist Jr. in No Sleep Dawn (aka Bombers B52. 1957), and another prestigious project, Marjorie Morgenstern (1958), opposite Gene Kelly, in which she was given the lead role of a young Jewish girl in New York City, dealing with the social and religious expectations of her family, and at the same time, trying to forge ahead in her way to find a separate identity.
Before the filming of Marjorie Morgenstern, the 18-year-old star Natalie married actor Robert Wagner, eight years her senior, on 28 December 1957, and the couple became a favourite subject in fan magazines. However, Natalie had numerous relationships in her life, both secret and public, and dated actor Dennis Hopper, Hotel dynasty heir Nicky Hilton, American actor, director, producer, screenwriter, and sensational playboy Henry Warren Beatty, even Elvis Presley.
After playing the leading lady to Frank Sinatra in Kings Go Forth (1958), Wood refused roles in a series of worthless films and was consequently put on suspension by Warner Brothers. However, she bounced back as one of the most likable and sought-after stars of Hollywood with her appearance in Elia Kazan’s Splendor in the Grass (1961), portraying the emotional role of a small-town young woman distraught over her romantic relationship, and earning nominations for the Golden Globe Award, and BAFTA Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, apart from her second nomination for the Academy Award. She then starred in West Side Story (1961), an adaptation of a successful stage musical, directed by Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise. In the film, she appeared as Maria, a restless Puerto Rican girl on the West Side of Manhattan, who fell for a former gang member whose threatening world of outcasts also alienated him from lawful behaviour. However, before filming, Natalie Wood was forced by Jerome Robbins to practice dancing for 16 hours for perfection, and he made her so miserable that at one point, she begged to be fired from the role. While Natalie was reported to be unhappy about making West Side Story, it was a critical and box-office success, and although her songs in the film were voiced by Marni Nixon, a Broadway performer, it is regarded as one of the best performances of Natalie Wood.
On 20 June 1961, Natalie Wood and her husband Robert Wagner announced their separation in a joint press release and divorced ten months later on 27 April 1962. Around that time, Wood was involved in a relationship with Henry Warren Beatty. In fact, following her marriage that lasted less than five years, she also dated Michael Caine and David Niven Jr., apart from breaking an engagement in 1965 with shoe manufacturer Ladislav Blatnik. Finally, after dating for nearly three years, she married British producer Richard Gregson on 30 May 1969.
After the success of West Side Story, Wood played the leading role in Gypsy (1962), another musical film based on the Broadway hit about the life of a provocative and comedic burlesque dancer, Gypsy Rosa Lee. In a way, the film mirrored her own life, in which Rosalind Russell played the role of her dominating mother, who forced her daughter to perform.
At the age of 25, Natalie received her third Academy Award nomination for her performance in Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), in which she appeared as a sales clerk at a departmental store, who became pregnant after a one-night-stand with a musician, played by Steve McQueen. In Sex and the Single Girl (1964), she portrayed writer Helen Gurley Brown, opposite Tony Curtis. She starred with Robert Redford in Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and again in This Property is Condemned (1966), for which she received Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress. But following the disappointing reception of Penelope (1966), she took a break from the film industry for introspection.
In reality, at that time, Wood reached a point of deep depression, even after years of therapy, and in 1966 she attempted to kill herself by drug overdose. As a part of her recuperation, she was badly in need of a break. Nevertheless, she staged a successful comeback with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), a comedy about sexual liberation, which clearly proved that her appealing screen presence had not diminished a bit. However, despite her successful comeback, she made her screen presence sporadically thereafter, except the television movie Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976), and the TV mini-series From Here to Eternity (1979), for which she won a Golden Globe Award subsequently.
Natalie Wood had a daughter, Natasha, with Richard Gregson in 1970, and filed for divorce from her husband on 4 August 1971, which was finalized on 12 April 1972. After having a short-lived romance with future California Governor Jerry Brown, she resumed her relationship with her first husband Robert Wegner at the end of January 1972, and they remarried on 16 July 1972. Their daughter, Courtney was born in 1974.
Natalie Wood mysteriously lost her life on 28 November 1981 at the age of 43 when she was drowned during the making of Brainstorm (1983), while on a boat trip to Catalina Island on board Wegner’s yacht Splendour, with her husband and Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, along with the captain of the yacht. It was reported that on that fateful night, the three had been drinking heavily, and Wagner smashed a wine bottle in rage while talking about Wood’s close relationship with Walken. It was reported that later in the night, Wegner did not find Wood, and she was not with him when he went to bed. Her body was recovered at 8 am on 29 November, floating in the water off Catalina Island near a dinghy from the yacht. According to the autopsy report, she had bruises on her body and arms, as well as an abrasion on her left cheek, without any indication as to why, how, or when the injuries occurred. Her death was ruled as accidental drowning and hypothermia, but it was never determined how she fell in the water. It was not known as to why she left the yacht to board on a dinghy on her own when she could not swim and was scared of water all through her life. Another question that remains unanswered is the reason as to why Wegner waited for two and a half hours to report the authority about her missing.
Natalie Wood was buried in the Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles, in presence of a galaxy of celebrities that included Frank Sinatra, Rock Hudson, Gregory Peck, Elizabeth Taylor, Elia Kazan, Lawrence Oliver, and others.