Natalie Wood (born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko) was an American actress of Russian descent. She started her career as a child actress and eventually transitioned into teenage roles, young adult roles, and middle-aged roles. As a teenager, she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, for her role in Rebel Without a Cause. As an adult, she was nominated twice for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, for her roles in Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). She never won either award. Wood drowned off Catalina Island on November 29, 1981 at age 43.
Wood was born in 1938 in San Francisco to Russian immigrant parents. Her parents were day laborer and carpenter Nikolai Stepanovich Zakharenko (1912-1980) and housewife Maria Zudilova (1908-1998). Nikolai was born in Vladivostok, son of chocolate-factory worker Stepan Zakharenko. Maria was born in in Barnaul, southern Siberia to industrialist Stepan Zudilov. Natalie’s maternal grandfather owned soap and candle factories.
Wood’s parents had to migrate due to the Russian Civil War (1917-1923). Her paternal grandfather Stepan Zakharenko joined the anti-Bolshevik civilian forces early in the war. In 1918, Stepan was killed in Vladivostok, involved in a street fight between Red and White Russian soldiers. This convinced the Zakharenko family to migrate to Montreal, Quebec, where they had family. Nikolai later moved to San Francisco, in search of work.
Maria Zudilova, Wood’s mother, had unfulfilled ambitions of becoming an actress or ballet dancer. She wanted her daughters to pursue an acting career and live out her dream. Maria frequently took a young Wood with her to the cinema, where Maria could study the films of Hollywood child stars. The impoverished family could not afford any other acting training to Wood.
The Zakharenko family eventually moved to Santa Rosa, where young Wood was noticed by members of a crew during a film shoot. She got to audition for roles as an actress, and the family moved to Los Angeles to help seek out roles for her. RKO Radio Pictures’ executives William Goetz (1903-1969) and David Lewis (1903-1987) chose the stage name Natalie Wood for her. The first name was based on her childhood nickname “Natalia”, and the last name was in reference to director Sam Wood (1883-1949). Natalia’s younger sister Svetlana Gurdin would eventually follow an acting career as well, under the stage name Lana Wood (1946-).
Wood made her film debut in the drama “Happy Land” (1943), set in the home front of World War II. She was only 5-years-old, and her scene as the “Little Girl Who Drops Ice Cream Cone” lasted 15 seconds. Wood somehow attracted the interest of film director Irving Pichel (1891-1954) who remained in contact with her family over the next few years.
Wood had few job offers over the following two years, but Pichel helped her get a screen test for a more substantial role in the romance film “Tomorrow Is Forever” (1946). Wood passed through an audition and won the role of Margaret Ludwig, a post-WorldsWar II German orphan. At the time, Wood was unable to “cry on cue” for a key scene, so her mother tore a butterfly to pieces in front of her, giving her a reason to cry for the scene.
Wood started appearing regularly in films following this role and soon received a contract with the film studio 20th Century Fox. Her first major role was that of Susan Walker in the Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street (1947), which was a commercial and critical hit. Wood got her first taste of fame, and afterwards Macy’s invited her to appear in the store’s annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
Following her early success, Wood receive many more film offers. She typically appeared in family films, cast as the daughter or sister of such protagonists as Fred MacMurray (1908-1991), Margaret Sullavan (1909-1960), James Stewart (1908-1997), Joan Blondell (1906-1979), and Bette Davis (1908-1989). Wood found herself in high demand and appeared in over twenty films as a child actress.
The California laws of the era required that until reaching adulthood, child actors had to spend at least three hours per day in the classroom. Wood received her primary education on the studio lots, receiving three hours of school lessons whenever she was working on a film. She was reportedly a “straight A student”. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz (1909-1993) was quite impressed by Wood’s intellect. After school hours ended, Wood would hurry to the set to film her scenes.
While Wood acquired the services of agents, her early career was micromanaged by her mother Maria. An older Wood gained her first major television role in the short-lived sitcom The Pride of the Family (1953-1954). At the age of 16, she found more success with the role of Judy in Rebel Without a Cause (1955). She played the role of a teenage girl who dresses up in racy clothes to attract the attention of a father who typically ignores her. The film’s success helped Wood make the transition from child star to an ingenue. She was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role, but the award was won by rival actress Jo Van Fleet (1914-1996).
Her next significant film was in the western The Searchers (1956), playing the role of abduction victim Debbie Edwards, niece of the protagonist Ethan Edwards, played by John Wayne (1907-1979). The film was a commercial and critical hit, and has since become regarded as a masterpiece. The narrative was driven by “the abduction, captivity, and implied rape of Debbie” by the Comanche.
Also in 1956, Wood graduated from Van Nuys High School, with her graduation serving as the end of her school years. She signed a contract with Warner Brothers, where she was kept busy with several new films. To her disappointment, she was typically cast as the “girlfriend” of the protagonist and received roles of little depth. For a while, the studio had her paired with teenage heartthrob Tab Hunter (1931-2018). The studio was hoping that the pairing would serve as a box-office draw, but this did not work out.
One of Wood’s only serious roles from this period is the role of the eponymous protagonist in the melodrama Marjorie Morningstar (1958), playing a young Jewish girl whose efforts to create her own identity and career path clash with the expectations of her family. As described in Wikipedia: “The central conflict in the film revolves around the traditional models of social behavior and religious behavior expected by New York Jewish families in the 1950s, and Marjorie’s desire to follow an unconventional path.” The film was a critical success, and fit well with other films exploring the restlessness of youth in the 1950s.
Wood’s first major box office flop was the biographical film “All the Fine Young Cannibals” (1960), examining the rags to riches story of jazz musician Chet Baker (1929-1988) without actually using his name. The film’s box office earnings barely covered the production costs, and film studio Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer recorded a loss of $1,108,000. For the first time. Wood’s appeal to the audience was in doubt.
With her career in decline following this failure, Wood was seen as “washed up” by many in the film community. But director Elia Kazan (1909-2003) gave her the chance to audition for the role of the sexually-repressed Wilma Dean Loomis in his upcoming film “Splendor in the Grass” (1961). Kazan cast Wood as the female lead, because he found in her (in his words): a “true-blue quality with a wanton side that is held down by social pressure”. Kazan is credited for producing Wood’s “most powerful moment as an actress”. The film was a critical success, and Wood received a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The award was won by Sophia Loren (1934-).
Wood’s next important film was West Side Story (1961), where she played Maria, a restless Puerto Rican girl. Wood was once again called to represent the restlessness of youth in a film, this time in a story involving youth gangs and juvenile delinquents. The film was a great commercial success with about $44 million gross, the highest-grossing film of 1961. It was also critically acclaimed, and is still regarded as one of the best films of Wood’s career.
Wood’s next leading role was in the biographical film Gypsy (1962), where she was cast in the role of burlesque entertainer and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee (1911-1970). Film historians credit the film as an even better role for Wood than that of Maria, with witty dialogue , a greater emotional range, and complex characterization. The film was the highest-grossing film of 1962, and well-received critically.
Wood’s next significant role was that of Macy’s salesclerk Angie Rossini in the comedy-drama Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). In the film, Angie has a one-night-stand with musician Rocky Papasano, played by Steve McQueen (1930-1980), finds herself pregnant and desperately seeks an abortion. The film under-performed at the box office but was critically well-received. Wood received her second (and last nomination) for the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The Award was won by Patricia Neal (1926-2010). Earning her third Academy Award nomination at age 25, Wood was tied with Teresa Wright (1918-2005) as the youngest person to score three Oscar nominations. Wood held that designation until 2013, when Jennifer Lawrence (1990-) achieved her third nomination at age 23.
Wood continued her successful film career until 1966, but her health status was not as successful. She was suffering emotionally and had sought professional therapy. She paid Warner Bros. $175,000 to cancel her contract and was able to retire for a while. She also fired her entire support team: agents, managers, publicist, accountant, and attorneys. She took a three-year hiatus from acting.
Wood made her comeback in the comedy-drama Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) with the themes of sexual liberation and wife swapping. It was a box office hit. Wood decided to gamble her $750,000 fee on a percentage of the gross, earning a million dollars over the course of three years.
In 1970, Wood was pregnant with her first child, Natasha Gregson (1970-). She chose to go into semi-retirement to raise the child, appearing in only five more theatrical films before her death. These films were the mystery comedy Peeper (1975), the science fiction film Meteor (1979), the comedy The Last Married Couple in America (1980), the comedy-drama Willie & Phil (1980), and the posthumously-released science fiction film Brainstorm (1983).
In the late 1970s, Wood found success in television roles, appearing in several television films and the mini-series From Here to Eternity (1980). Her project received high ratings, and she had plans to make her theatrical debut in a 1982 production of Anastasia.
On November 28, 1981, Wood joined her last husband Robert Wagner (1930-), their friend Christopher Walken (1943-), and captain Dennis Davern on a weekend boat trip to Catalina Island. The four of them were on board Wagner’s yacht “Splendour”. On the morning of November 29, Wood’s corpse was recovered 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) away from the boat, near small Valiant-brand inflatable dinghy beached nearby. The autopsy revealed that she had drowned. Wood was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. (IMDB)