The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

A birthday tribute to Natalie Wood

Written by: Kimberly Pierce, CC2K Associate Editor

Natalie Wood made her screen debut in 1943 at the ripe old age of five. Despite her young age, by the end of the decade, the actress was working steadily and quickly made a name for herself in a number of classic films like Miracle on 34th Street and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. While growth and evolution is often a struggle for a child star, as Wood entered here teens and twenties she out-performed many of her contemporaries and sank her teeth into a wide variety of challenging and interesting roles. Had she not passed away at the tragically early age of forty-three, she could have expanded and developed more as an actress. Natalie Wood is a case of the term “gone too soon.”

To celebrate what would have been Natalie Wood’s 80th birthday, I wanted to take the time to showcase some of my favorites from her extensive filmography. This list is by no means inclusive, as she tackled dozens of fascinating roles in her too-short career. Nevertheless, here are my Top 5 Favorite Natalie Wood movies.

Rebel Without a Cause

1.) Rebel Without a Cause(1955)

Rebel Without a Cause is a widely recognized classic, best known as one of James Dean’s three starring roles. The movie features Dean opposite Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo as three teenagers struggling to define themselves in the regimented conservatism of the 1950s. There’s young love, drama and iconic filmmaking by director Nicholas Ray.

Rebel Without a Cause is a particularly strong movie for Wood, who earned the first of her three Oscar nominations for her role as Judy. The young actress was gradually asserting herself at this point as more than the child star the studios wanted her to be. She was growing up, and you can see her stretching her wings. Wood brings a powerful portrayal as Judy, a teenager fighting against not only the expectations of her parents, but also her growing sense of self. The 1950s were an era of drastic social change, and Rebel Without a Cause (through Wood and Dean’s performances) provides a stark examination of how teenagers fit into this cultural shift.

2.) Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Splendor in the Grass (like Rebel Without a Cause a few years before) is another cinematic classic from Natalie Wood’s career. The 1961 drama partners the veteran Wood opposite a charming young newcomer, Warren Beatty (who won a Golden Globe for this). While Rebel saw Wood stretch her wings, Splendor in the Grass sees her fully realize her acting powers. She brings a powerful, heart-wrenching and complicated portrayal to the character of Deanie Loomis. In fact, Wood received her second Academy Award nomination for her performance. Deanie (like many of Wood’s other characters during this period) struggles violently in the face of the burgeoning sexual awakening of adolescence in an age of societal repression.

Wood’s characterization of feminine desire and sexuality during this period is incredibly interesting to watch and is in need of more analysis. As an actress, Wood struggled mightily against her reputation as a child star and the audiences seeming unwillingness to see her as the woman she was becoming. It is not difficult to draw comparisons from this stage in her career to the roles Wood was tackling. Splendor in the Grass is recognized by many as some of Natalie Wood’s best work, and it definitely ranks high on my list.

Love with the Proper Stranger

3.) Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

Love with the Proper Stranger is a small, independent romantic dramedy starring a relatively young Steve McQueen opposite Wood. The film spotlights the actress as a young woman who tracks down a one-night-stand (McQueen) upon finding herself pregnant in hopes he can help her procure an abortion.

While most love stories focus on the building of the couple, this one takes a different approach. As a genre, romance watches as a boy and girl meet, fall in love, and end up together despite the challenges which stand in their way. As this movie begins, Angie and Rocky have already coupled. Can they build a relationship?

Love with the Proper Stranger once again features a dynamic performance from Wood (who received her third Oscar nomination) and is an under discussed drama from this era, especially considering the nature of the subject matter. Classic film fans should add this one to their lists.

4.) Marjorie Morningstar (1958)

Much of Wood’s work in the 1950s captures a sense of unease. Her characters (like the actress) are stuck in their teen years and there is an overwhelming feeling that Wood (although radiant) doesn’t feel comfortable in her own skin. She finds herself fighting against the expectations of the adults around her while not losing sight of what she truly wants out of life.

Marjorie Morningstar features Wood as Marjorie a young girl (and wanna-be actress) who spends a summer working as a counsellor at a summer camp. While there, she meets the dashing Noel Airman (Gene Kelly). The resulting love affair is beautiful, passionate and sees Marjorie explore who she is in the face of love and (you guessed it!) 1950s repression.

Director Irving Rapper combines tender performances from the film’s leads with rich color, gorgeous lighting and stunning locations to craft a truly beautiful work of cinema.

The Great Race

5.) The Great Race (1965)

This film is probably the one which introduced me to Natalie Wood and holds a nostalgic place in my heart. The Great Race follows daredevils “The Great Leslie” (Tony Curtis) and “Professor Fate” (Jack Lemmon) as they compete in an around-the-world automobile race taking them from New York to Paris. Along the way, the men pick-up a stranded journalist and suffragette, (Wood) who’s attempting to cover the race for a major newspaper.

While much of the heavy lifting is done by Lemmon (and to a slightly lesser extent) Curtis, Wood absolutely shines in her role. She stands toe-to-toe with the comedic legends, keeping pace in outrageous set pieces like the iconic pie-fight as well as a lengthy action sequence inside a European castle. The Great Race is as varied and entertaining as it sounds, combining fun character performances by the leads into the epically scaled comedy.

Natalie Wood stands as a vibrant talent from the peak of the classic Hollywood era. While recent news has seen her name associated with her tragic (and unexplained) death, Wood was a prolific actress who survived drama, scandal and child stardom to establish herself as an award winning performer. Take a look at her filmography, there’s plenty to see and even more to enjoy.