#ClassicFilmReading: Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad

After reading this biography of Natalie Wood, all I have to say is: what a life, and what a tragedy.

I knew about the tragedy of her life long before I ever knew who Natalie Wood was, and I know I'm not alone. How many of us view Natalie's life and work through the prism of how tragically she died? 

For the longest time I only knew Natalie through her major films, West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass, and at the holidays, Miracle on 34th Street. It wasn't until last summer when she was featured on TCM's Summer Under the Stars that I truly began to unpack her legendary career and began exploring her filmography: Penelope, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, This Property is Condemned, Inside Daisy Clover, and her final film role, Brainstorm.

Her style is so instinctive and real; sometimes watching her I forget that she's Natalie Wood, she so inhabits the roles. From reading this biography, which Suzanne Finstad put together with over 400 interviews (reportedly), it's apparent that Natalie devoted herself to her craft. She never won that elusive Oscar, but she did put her hands and feet in cement at Grauman's; and her name is one we'll likely never forget.  

What I found most striking about Natasha is how centred Natalie was for everyone around her. She held so many people in orbit: her obsessive stage mother, her distant alcoholic father, her two sisters who had vastly different relationships with her; studio bigwigs, fellow actors and actresses, school chums. She captivated everyone she met. 

Now, onto the controversial parts of Natalie's life... 

I wish she'd gotten a chance to live life for herself, to be her own person at the formative times in her life, to have had a childhood and adolescence instead of being forced to work to support her entire family, to listen to her mother (who fed her with phobias, criticisms and fears in order to keep her home and keep her working), and to never truly feel that she knew what happiness was until she had her own children. 

Natalie Wood's death is now part of lore. That she, who had a morbid fear of drowning and dark water from the time she was a child, would disappear off of her sailboat and fulfil that prophecy is another prescient Hollywood tragedy that's constantly unpacked and investigated for new clues as to what happened that night. 

It's likely we'll never truly find out what happened that night, since only one of the men aboard the boat that night has spoken definitively and his story keeps changing. 

In an prescient magazine interview, Natalie would say about Robert Wagner and their time spent aboard sailboats and yachts, years before her tragic death from drowning: "Don't you realize that here I am, out in the middle of the ocean? The boat could sink, a storm could come up, anything might happen. But am I afraid? No. So I lie in the sun and fall asleep—a little. Why? Because with you I feel safe, secure, but most of all happy. That's a compliment." 

I'm not here to point fingers at what did or didn't happen on November 29, 1981, when Natalie Wood drowned off Catalina Islands, but the case was quickly and dismissively investigated and the key witnesses omitted and added details to their statements over the years, and Robert Wagner was never officially investigated in 1981. I think Finstad's book does an eloquent and elaborate job of laying out the facts of that weekend and how terribly Natalie was failed by everyone around her that weekend. 

(That the police department reopened the case in 2011 and in 2018 listed Natalie's husband as a person of interest is addressed in an updated version of this book that I don't have access to. Finstad wrote about the updated biography, and why she thinks Robert Wagner played a part in Natalie's death for Vanity Fair, and you can read the article here.)

There's also a bombshell dropped around the time Rebel Without a Cause was in pre-production, that Natalie was violently raped by a top Hollywood star but wouldn't publicly name him. If you Google it, you'll find who the internet believes is the culprit. 

But ultimately, after reading Natasha, I'm struck by one simple idea: Natalie Wood should still be with us. If you want to learn more about an iconic woman and how she became one of the most important actresses of the era, I'd definitely recommend this. 

Some interesting backstage gossip from Natasha

  • Natalie became close to Claudette Colbert on the set of one of her earliest movies (Tomorrow is Forever) and lamented that in real life Claudette never became a mother because she was so loving with Natalie. 
  • Natalie's mother once participated in a fan magazine article entitled "I Neglected Lana So Natalie Could Be a Star." Yikes on top of yikes. 
  • Natalie once owned a bird she named Gregory Peckwood after Gregory Peck, her favourite actor. 
  • Bette Davis went to bat for Natalie many times on the set of The Star and demanded that they stop throwing Natalie into the ocean in order to film a scene (she seemed to be the only one who noticed or cared about how terrified Natalie was of the water).
  • Bette also purposely didn't invite Natalie's mother to a wrap party for The Star, and when her mother crashed it anyways, Bette blew cigarette smoke into her face and said, "Oh...I don't remember sending you an invitation," but let her come in once she'd been suitably humiliated. 
  • Natalie took herself quite seriously as an actress (it worked for her, obviously) and once tried to be Actors Studio-serious in a scene opposite Tab Hunter. Once, after a take, he said, "Thank you, Rod Steiger," after the director yelled cut. 
  • The press turned on her as soon as she came of age and started taking control of her sexuality, because why should women be allowed to be women! 
  • Robert Wagner proposed to Natalie the first time by engraving "Marry me?" onto a pearl-and-diamond ring and hiding it in a champagne glass. 
  • Warren Beatty's wrap gift from Elia Kazan on the set of Splendor in the Grass was a hand mirror etched with, "Good God, Warren" because he was so vain (he probably thinks that song is about him). 
  • When Natalie and Robert broke up the first time, Elizabeth Taylor was reportedly beside herself because she held the couple up as a role model for a happy marriage. I had to chuckle at that, regardless of whether it's true or not, because it's such a funny mental image. 
  • The studio was convinced Natalie was going to win the Oscar for Splendor in the Grass and hired a Life photographer to be there at the ceremony to snap exclusive pictures if her name was called. The photographer was seated directly behind her, she was given clear directions to turn back to him if her name was called, and then...Sophia Loren's* name was called instead, for La Ciociara, and she didn't even attend the ceremony. The hardest part for Natalie wasn't losing, it was that the Life photographer immediately packed up his equipment as soon as her name wasn't called. 
*I read Sophia Loren's autobiography for last year's Classic Film Reading Challenge, and you can find the review here