After Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice in 1969, Natalie Wood only made a handful of films plus some television work. In B&C&T&A, she looks radiant and confident, and her measured and nuanced performance received positive reviews. As the 1970s began, barely into her 30s, she had spent most of her life before the camera.
Her next film wasn’t until 1973, a television film, not a feature film. She would only make four more feature films before her tragic death in 1983, at 45 years of age.
Her film career began in 1943 as a child actress. In the decade of the 1960s, she made 11 other films, which is the core of her adult filmwork.
There was something quite special about Natalie Wood. Having graduated from child star to adolescent star, her films of the 1950s like The Searchers, Rebel Without a Cause and Kings Go Forth established that. Nicholas Ray debated casting her in Rebel because he wasn’t sure she could make the leap to adult parts, even though he was sleeping with her. She convinced him, and her performance shows complexity and passion. Her eyes could light up the entire Cinemascope and Technicolor screen, and they did so throughout the 1960s.
So after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, she mainly disappeared; two marriages and children, now seemed her center. A few feature films, but Natalie Wood now mainly worked in television and that’s a shame, she was bigger than the box.
When she resurface in Brainstorm, the part was dull, and I found it was unbelievable that she was married to Christopher Walken, five years younger. More importantly, they are of different film generations. She gave the film star-power, and it was a big film for what felt like her return, but it didn’t seem to work. She died during filming so it is too bad that Brainstorm is the coda on her career.
Today, Natalie Wood seems remembered more for the mysteries surrounding her death than the blazing star she was from 1955 to 1966, from Rebel Without a Cause to This Property is Condemned.
Here is a look at her films of the 1960s.
Cash McCall (1960) Wood is Lory Austen, the daughter of the owner of a company McCall (James Garner) wants to buy. McCall met Lory before and was attracted to her, but negotiations for her father’s company hits a snag as does his love life. Innocuous, light-hearted film, doesn’t hurt Wood’s career, a resume builder.
All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960) Wood starred as Sarah “Salome” Davis, making her first film with husband Robert Wagner. Sarah gets pregnant by Chad, but leaves town, meets and marries another man. Chad comes to New York as an up and coming musician. A complicated trio trying to figure it out. Wood playing a more serious, young adult role. The film was not a success.
Splendor in the Grass (1961) Written by William Inge and directed by Elia Kazan this was Wood’s first big, serious adult role. Wood gives a deep and passionate performance as Wilma Dean Loomis, playing younger than her age, but requiring a very skillful performance. Warren Beatty played her lover, and was her lover off-screen as well, so there was drama on-screen and off. Wood was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, but lost to Sophia Loren. Her performance was worthy of the award. The first half of the film her performance is measured and takes a backseat to Beatty, but she owns the second half of the film. A sad film, it contains the overwrought drama of the day. I’m wondering who was picking out her films because there are distinct similarities in the characters, attitudes and downbeat nature of these stories. Her characters seem to have a manipulative parent and she’s torn between her young emotions and growing up too fast.
West Side Story (1961) A winner at the box office and with critics. Wood reported was not under consideration for Maria until the director saw some of her work in Splendor in the Grass. You couldn’t ask for a higher profile role. Big films often compromise, going for starpower over better but unknown actors. This is an iconic role in a film that will live forever even though it is being remade, Wood established a legacy as Maria.
Gypsy (1962) Wood starred as Gypsy Rose Lee, the less showy of the lead roles in this film. A big, old fashioned musical, based on the Broadway play and the Lee book. Wood does her best work and her own singing. Wood adapts to the role, effective as the awkward girl at first and the confident woman later. This was a huge production that was carried by her and Rosaland Russell.
Love with the Proper Stranger (1963) Wood plays Angie Rossini, who gets pregnant by Steve McQueen’s character, an irresponsible musician. Faced with pregnancy, and being pressured into marrying a man she likes but not loves, she considers an abortion (which was illegal). The father, who already has a girl-friend, isn’t stepping forward to marry her either. What does a girl do? Wood was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress but did not win. Directed with style by Robert Mulligan. Wood did her best work with strong, leading actors like James Dean, Beatty, McQueen, Curtis, Robert Redford and Robert Culp.
Sex and the Single Girl (1964) Wood tackled the role of Helen Gurley Brown, author of the book of the same name. A big budget comedy co-starring Tony Curtis and directed by Richard Quine, the film was a big earner and popular because of the subject matter. Co-starring Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall, who are wasted in their cartoonish roles. The film is terribly dated now, and rather sexist, but quite trendy at the time. I thought Wood worked well onscreen with Curtis, and she has a knack for light comedy. Wood and Curtis are an updated version of Day and Hudson. Same kind of film.
Inside Daisy Clover (1965) Wood re-teams with director Mulligan, playing Daisy Clover who goes from rags to becomes a famous actress in a short period of time. Life is not happy for Daisy as she discovers that even with fame and money, life can be disappointing, through failed relationships, mean studio heads and her mother’s death. Robert Redford co-stars as one of her loves. People seem to think the 1970s was about downbeat endings but Natalie Wood starred in several very sad films in the 1960s. It’s hard to elevate bad material that won’t connect with audiences. Wood gives it a great try.
The Great Race (1965) Wood plays Maggie DuBois, a newspaper woman and suffragette in the early 1900s, who invites herself along on an automobile race from New York to Paris. Co-starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, she holds her own in this Roadrunner cartoon of a film. Wood has a light comedic touch and stands tall in a big scale film. Although the film is a farce, Wood’s character is one of her best, a strong, confident woman competing in a man’s world. From her bios, she didn’t like the film, didn’t want to do it, and her relationship with others on the film wasn’t good. Looking only at the character, I wish she had taken on more strong, independent characters like this.
This Property Is Condemned (1966) Wood is Alva Starr in this Tennessee Williams adapted play. Alva is the star attraction in her mother’s boarding house; all the men want Alva. Living under a manipulative mother, Alva falls in love with Owen (Robert Redford), but leaves town after her mother tells him Alva is marrying someone else. Alva undergoes a downward spiral, marries an abusive man then promptly leaves him to find Owen. But happiness is just a mirage. A potboiler that just seems sad now. This is yet another journey into southern fried drama, with overblown Williams characters, inflicting as much pain on each other as possible. Wood developed a skill for turning her onscreen emotions on a dime, going from happiness to despair rather convincingly. Wood was even prettier than Redford.
Penelope (1966) Wood is the lead, Penelope Elcott, who has a history of stealing and decides to rob her husband’s bank. A whodunit as the police try to unravel the crime. The film failed financially and critically, one of those films that read well, had rich production values, but didn’t excite anyone. Three years passed before he made her next film.
Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969) Wood starred as Carol Sanders, in what was one of the most talked about films of a landmark film year. Bob and Carol were the older married couple, although Wood was just 31 and she was at the height of her appeal. In the decade, Wood played some very sexually liberated women, or young women facing the consequences of bold life choices as they struggled with growing up. In this film, she plays an older, more mature and settled woman, who must grapple with her husband admitting an affair and the possibility of swapping partners. Wood’s performance is understated and interesting. This film should have been a launching pad for incredible comedic and dramatic parts, that went to Jane Fonda, Julie Christie and Faye Dunaway.
At the beginning of the 1960s, Natalie Wood was transitioning from adolescent roles to young womanhood. Many of her famous roles had her in Tennessee Williams-type potboilers of overwrought family dynamics, usually with a bad ending for her character. She did very fine work in these films but she seemed to typecast herself in similar roles. Given her contractual obligations, she appeared in some films she didn’t select, and some she didn’t like. Those were the days of the studio contracts. When she did veer towards comedy, for which she was very good, the material was very uneven, and suffered from the gender roles of the era.
Wood had the dramatic and comedic talent for better material. When she resurfaced in the 1970s, the spark seemed to go out of her career. Even though her work in the 1960s runs the range from excellent to below average, she’s very watchable. And unforgettable.