My admiration for Natalie Wood started when I was young. Introduced though my mother’s love for the actress, the name Natalie Wood stayed in my head. I would not be exposed to her movies until years later, but since my first viewing of West Side Story, I went further down the rabbit hole – in awe of her talents. And in the process, eventually matching my mother’s admiration for the actress. It’s a career that has its highest highs and its lowest lows. Wood would tragically pass away in 1981, at the young age of 43. Now, we find ourselves on the eve of HBO’s newest documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, produced by someone who knew her best, Natasha Gregson Wager, Wood’s daughter. In an effort to help keep Wood’s legacy alive, it feels like the perfect time to share my Top 5 Natalie Wood Performances.
- West Side Story (1961)
I know some of you may have put West Side Story a little higher, but as far as performances go, this purely rests at number five. This retelling of the forbidden Romeo and Juliet tale, is served with a side of incredible music and fantastic performances. Wood plays Maria, the Juliet of our story, who falls in love with Tony. Their rival gangs The Jets and The Sharks, make it hard for Maria and Tony’s love to blossom. The film highlights the prejudices of the early 1060s, and sadly, today’s prejudices towards immigrants looking for a home in the United States. If you know anything about Romeo and Juliet’s story, West Side Story follows the same recipe with a new spin. Wood is exceptional, but her screen time is short. She’s especially fantastic in the film’s final scene, with the love of her life fading away in her arms – grabbing the loaded gun, exclaiming, “well, now I have hate.” It’s a performance that will send chills down your spine, and bring you to tears.
- Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
Would you believe that Wood had to fight for her role in this film. Because of the “sweet” roles of Wood’s childhood, rumor has it that only after a car crash, did director Nicholas Ray feel she was “bad” enough to play such a role. Wood’s character, Judy, is not your usual rebellious teenager. In fact, none of the main three characters are. Costarring James Dean and Sal Mineo, Rebel Without a Cause is more of a “rosebud” story – an explanation as to why these teens are the way they are. From the moment Wood is revealed onscreen, you instantly take notice of her as she sits in the police station, sobbing over her family’s treatment of her. Sure it’s Dean’s story to tell, but how can you forget Wood’s performance? Judy’s monologue at the beginning of the film highlights Wood in some of the most heart-wrenching work she had done at that time.
- Inside Daisy Clover (1965)
Here’s where we get into the “meat and potatoes” of Wood’s skills. She embraces the character of Daisy Clover, a tom-boy, wanting to be taken seriously as an actress on the big-screen. But it isn’t all fun and games for Ms. Clover, as she soon finds out that the occupation she’s dreamt of, turns to sour grapes in her mouth. Her disillusionment with the Hollywood culture is evident in Daisy singing “The Circus is a Wacky World,” or her anxiety ridden breakdown in the studio’s sound booth. And although Wood finds herself to be opposite some great leading men, such as, Robert Redford and Christopher Plummer, she never finds herself to be overshadowed, as she gives such an emotionally demanding role.
- Love with a Proper Stranger (1963)
Love with a Proper Stranger may be one of Wood’s most underrated performances, but it’s definitely one of her best. Wood plays Angie, a Macy’s shop girl, who comes from a devout Catholic family. Her formative years have been a sheltered – consumed by her brothers’, protective, watchdog eyes. But when Angie and Rocky (Steve McQueen) have a one night stand, Angie soon tells him she’s pregnant. A turbulent tale of the trials of a relationship, with a light shining brightest on the topic of women’s reproductive rights. In my reviews, I always say there’s more to illustrate to the audience through a character’s mannerisms onscreen. I say these things, because of Wood’s performance here. There’s a part in the film where Angie and her family get into a heated argument. Angie storms out of the apartment, but soon returns when she realizes she has nowhere to go. She walks straight into the apartment, to her room, which is nothing but a bed surrounded by a curtain, and pulls the curtain around her, never once turning and showing her face. This scene is saturated in Angie’s defeat. But what makes this scene even better, is how it impacts the audience with very little dialogue. And that, my friends, is true talent!
Honorable Mentions (Because it’s hard enough to just pick five)
- Gypsy (1962)
- The Great Race (1965)
- Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
- Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969)
- Brainstorm (1983)
- Splendor in the Grass (1961)
Splendor in the Grass is probably the best performance of Wood’s career. Much like Love with a Proper Stranger, Splendor’s, Deanie Loomis, comes from a sheltered life, as the only child of her loving parents. But she finds herself in a serious relationship with popular, Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), and realizes that her love for him knows no bounds. She’s straight smitten with him as she writes Mrs. Bud Stamper on her school binder. Brought on so “lovingly” by his over-masculine father, Bud believes he must go out and experience the world, and the beautiful women it has to offer. What follows is the breaking of a relationship, and the breaking of Deanie’s mental state — by which she blames her “good girl” personality as the cause of losing the love of her life. Deanie begins, like many of Wood’s other innocent characters, only to be shoved aside – embracing the rebellious flappers of the 1920s. Wood throws herself into the clutches of this character, as Deanie can so easily go from one end of the spectrum to the other. The abrupt shifting of emotions shows off Wood’s talents like none of her other films. The bathtub scene, which is a more popular scene from the film, starts off softly, and quickly escalates to an argument with her concerned mother. Splendor in the Grass makes the taboo topic of sexual desires at the forefront of its story. But without Wood’s performance, I can easily say that the film would not be the classic it is today.