30 July 2011

I'm very Russian, you know.

July 20th, 2011 marked the 73rd anniversary of the birth of Natalie Wood. With a resume consisting of 56 films and three Academy Award nominations, I find it sad how few people seem to remember her today. I think she is one of the most underrated actresses and I can't for the life of me figure out why.

The first time I saw Natalie Wood was in what is probably her most famous film, West Side Story. I was in either eighth or ninth grade, and I remember being struck by how pretty she looked and what a good actress she was. In retrospect, West Side Story was one of my first viewings of classic film and I'm not sure that it's hyperbolic to say that it's a film that changed my life. The library in town had a pretty good selection of movies to take out, and being that West Side Story was among them, I would borrow it quite a few times a month. To this day, whenever I think of summertime, I think of staying up late, sipping on a Vitamin Water, and watching West Side Story. I then decided to learn everything I could about Natalie Wood and see as many of her films as possible.

So, in honor of what would have been her 73rd birthday, I present to you my favorite Natalie Wood films...


Miracle on 34th Street (1947) While this wasn't Natalie Wood's first film, it was the film that really brought her to people's attention. She played Susan Walker, a girl who had been raised not to believe in Santa Claus. However, when she meets a kind elderly man named Kris Kringle who claims to be Santa Claus, she slowly starts to believe. I generally don't like kids in films. I feel like they're usually trying way too hard to impress and they come off as unnatural. However, Natalie Wood was just the opposite- there's nothing fake about her performance. She played the role of a wannabe cynic struggling with a child's innocence. I know for a fact that I've said this about other performances, but I honestly believe that had another child played the role, it wouldn't have been as good. As I've said before, I know that's not an unoriginal statement, but what the hell. It's true.


Rebel Without a Cause (1955) When Rebel Without a Cause is mentioned, one doesn't immediately think of Natalie Wood. After all, it is James Dean's picture- he owns it. But here lies Natalie Wood's greatness- she is able to stand back and let Dean do his thing, while putting in a great performance of her own. Here is another case of great casting. A film about teenagers complaining about how their parents don't understand them is hardly something one would want to watch. But Rebel Without a Cause is different. You feel the actors' angst, anger, and sadness and can relate to it. Thanks to the performances by the young leads, this isn't your typical whiny teen movie. It's something really remarkable.

Gypsy (1962) A lot of things are great about Gypsy. Natalie Wood. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Music by Jule Styne. The dialogue ("Ole, everybody! My name's Louise. What's yours?"). Mostly Rosalind Russell. Who else could have played Mama Rose as well as Rosalind Russell? Nobody, that's who. But I digress. Natalie Wood was more than a match the formidable Roz. She is just as good throughout the film. Playing the role of Louise, the girl who would grow up to be the most famous burlesque dancer in history, Gypsy Rose Lee, Natalie shines. Perhaps it's due to the fact that she was playing a part not too unlike her own life. Her own mother was a failed actress and really pushed Natalie hard throughout her childhood. Throughout her life, Natalie's mother would be an overbearing presence. And so, Natalie's performance is very tongue-in-cheek. Not many people are able to laugh at themselves. Natalie Wood could. That quality really shines through in this film.




West Side Story (1961)  As I've previously mentioned, this was the film that introduced me to Natalie Wood. As such, I've always had a soft spot for West Side Story. But rightfully so. It's one of the finest films ever made, and in my opinion, the best musical ever made, behind Singin in the Rain. Although Natalie didn't do her own singing, she still gave a magnificent performance, despite being so awfully miscast. Again, here is yet another testament to her talent. She wasn't a singer, she wasn't a professional dancer, and she sure as hell wasn't Puerto Rican, however her portrayal of Maria is one of the most beautiful and touching performances captured on film, particularly her speech to the warring gangs at the film's conclusion:  "How do you fire this gun, Chino? Just by pulling this little trigger? How many bullets are left? Enough for you? And you? All of you, you all killed him. And my brother, and Riff. Not with bullets and guns. With hate. Well I can kill too. Because now I have hate. How many can I kill, Chino? How many? And still have one left for me."  Such a performance is, in my opinion, Oscar worthy, but it doesn't really matter, because that same year, Natalie Wood also made:


Splendor in the Grass (1961) This is my absolute favorite Natalie Wood film. Co-starring Warren Beatty and directed by Elia Kazan, Natalie has never been better. She plays Wilma Dean "Deanie" Loomis, a high school senior hopelessly in love with Arthur "Bud" Stamper. The couple assumes they will marry after high school, but peer pressure, parental pressure, and the struggle between sexual expression and repression eventually drive them apart and sends Deanie into a downward mental spiral. This is, in my opinion, Natalie Wood's crowning moment as an actress and while she was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, she lost to Sophia Loren in Two Women. If you ask me, this is the worst injustice and biggest mistake the Academy has ever made. (Yes, even worse than giving Sandra Bullock an Oscar). Splendor in the Grass is one of the best commentaries on growing up and the pressures to please parents while trying to explore and experience life for ourselves, and the double standard between the sexes when it comes to sex. All in all, it is a beautiful, tragic, bittersweet, supremely enjoyable movie.


Unfortunately, when you mention the name Natalie Wood to most people today, if you don't get a "Huh?" you will most likely hear about her death. Yes, it was tragic. Yes, it was untimely. The only person who knows for sure exactly how it happened cannot tell us. There are speculations and theories, but they have never been proven. Neither have they been dis-proven. As cliche as it sounds, I think people need to stop focusing so much on how she died and remember how she lived. Of course I would love to see the case solved and if it were to turn up that something fishy did happen, I would love to see justice for Natalie. However, I would rather watch Natalie Wood doing what she did best and worry less about how she left us. To quote Natalie in Splendor in the Grass, "Though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower, we will grieve not; rather find strength in what remains behind"

And what great treasures Natalie Wood left behind.

Happy (belated) birthday, Natalie.





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