Wednesday, January 11, 2012


Scandals of Classic Hollywood: The Unspoken Tragedy of Natalie Wood

Natalie Wood was a transitional star, her career straddling Hollywood's awkward shift from the classic studio system to the independent free-for-all that continues to characterize film production today. Her face also seems frozen in transition from girl to woman: Wood was a child star, Oscar nominee, teen bride, and has-been — all before the age of twenty. And her acting oscillated between the poignant and the hysterical, for which she was alternately lauded and lampooned. But she had a work ethic, and ultimately survived studio manipulation to become a legend in her own right, starring in one of the most successful and seminal musicals of the past fifty years.

Before her gradual retreat from Hollywood, she appeared in a smattering of later-career films and mini-series, and was filming with Christopher Walken in 1981 when she fell from her private yacht and drowned. Her death, although deemed an accident at the time, has been shrouded in scandal ever since. The case was reopened late last year (and, as of today, re-closed), reviving our macabre interest in stars we didn’t even know we still cared about.

You can read the ins and outs of Wood’s death elsewhere. Because what’s more interesting than how she died is how she lived: as a stand-in for teens beset by angst the world over, with an image mobilized to both assuage and accelerate societal anxieties about female sexual desire.

Wood, née Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko, was the child of Russian immigrants, and spent her early years in Southern California. Natalia was cute, and others, including those in the film business, thought so as well, prompting her mother to move the entire family to Hollywood to pursue their five-year-old’s film career. She starred in a few movies, let RKO Anglicize her name to “Natalie Wood,” and appeared increasingly precocious — think Dakota Fanning with brown hair. Orson Welles said the adolescent Wood was “so good she was terrifying.” Her parents signed Wood to 20th Century Fox, and she soon starred in Miracle on 34th Street, effectively marking the end of her private life at the ripe old age of seven.

After a host of loving-daughter and similarly moppet-like roles, Wood co-starred in A Rebel Without a Cause. This film is bandied about by cultural theorists and ascribed with all sorts of significance: James Dean Cries a Lot — the first representation of post-war teen malaise! Dad Wears an Apron — Freudian psychology seeps into pop culture! All these things are true, but the film has accumulated a cultural heft that the actual text itself cannot support. Yes, teens rebel; yes, James Dean is a fox. But like so many teen films, then and today, the film is overwrought and overdone. I realize this is blasphemy, but my own sins against the film history canon matter less than the fact that the movie not only made stars of James Dean and Sal Mineo, it turned Wood from a child star into a bona fide teen idol — the same way that, say, the album Justified turned Justin Timberlake from an N’SYNC-er who wore head-to-toe denim into someone women actually wanted to undress.

Wood and Dean with Rebel director Nicholas Ray.

In later years, biographers and scandal mongerers claimed Natalie Wood was all over every male on the set, initiating an affair with the film’s director, 43-year-old Nicholas Ray. A highly unvetted source claims that Wood was not only sleeping with Ray but with her other costar, too — one Dennis Hopper, creating all sorts of dramz with the near-men and dad-aged-men on set.

Whether or not this was true — part of me just thinks that it fit well with the image of Wood that emerged post-Splendor in the Grass — it certainly was not public knowledge in 1955. Indeed, in Rebel Without a Cause, Wood really just seems sixteen, anxious, and totally crushing on Dean the way a sixteen-year-old should. And Wood was nominated for an Academy Award not for playing something she wasn’t, but something she was — the same way that so many children and teens are nominated (and win) for playing characters who are actually children, as opposed to children’s bodies mouthing adult words (remember the little sister character in 500 Days of Summer? That sage-advice-giving girl WAS THE WORST).

However precocious Wood may have been as a child actor, she was now playing teens — and teens, male and female, loved her. Over the course of the ‘50s, the studios, already in the early stages of free-fall following a constellation of regulatory and cultural changes, began to increasingly rely on teen audiences. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, as 90% of contemporary media products cater to teen audiences, but in the ‘50, this switch was A HUGE DEAL. The teenager, a cultural formation in and of itself, had not really been a thing until the Depression/World War II. Seventeen Magazine didn’t even hit newsstands until 1944. People think of the ‘50s as the baby boom, but it was also the teen boom — a time when teenagers benefited from their parents’ new prosperity, using allowances and pocket money to “vote teen" at the box office. The drive-in theater was a response to geographical demands, but it was also the perfect teen magnet: there’s a reason they were nicknamed “passion pits.”

Long tangent short: to attract teen audiences, the studios — and fan magazines, and the rest of the gossip industry — needed teen idols. Dean had already established himself with East of Eden, but Natalie Wood was a studio’s dream: young, popular, and, unlike Brando and other up-and-comers, already under studio contract. In other words, she would do what her studio, now Warner Bros., told her.

And from 1955 to 1960, her studio told her to do two things:

1. Star in really shitty movies


2. Marry her childhood idol, all Katie-Holmes-Tom-Cruise style.

First, the films: apart from a small but crucial role in The Searchers, Wood appeared in nine stinkers, including All the Fine Young Cannibals, a bomb so big it appeared to be the end of Wood’s career.

No matter of prom shoes could save Wood’s career.

Despite critical and box office failure, Wood was all over the gossip press, in part because Warner Bros. learned that Wood had long harbored a crush on Robert Wagner, a B-level but very handsome star contracted to Fox. The studios arranged a high profile date between the two, timed to correspond perfectly with Wood’s eighteenth birthday.

I have no idea. Are they telephoning while ironing?

The two “courted” for a year and married in December 1957, inviting the gossip press along the way. At this point, more and more stars were going independent, which meant that they were no longer forced to cooperate with the fan magazines, posing for studio-approved photos and allowing studio press agents to pen articles under their bylines. The fan magazines, which once benefited from a flow of free (albeit highly fabricated) information from the studios, now had to scramble for content. Some of them did so by speculating or performing “write-arounds” — using “unnamed sources” to hide the fact that the star had not, in fact, spoken to the author. We see this all the time now, but for the gossip press of the 1950s, it was a real crisis.

But there were still some stars who would cooperate, and the majority of those stars were still teens. Some were music and television stars — Elvis and Ricky Nelson were both big favorites — but Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner seemed to offer salvation. While Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher refused to grant interviews, these two shared (or, more precisely, were compelled to share) their “real-life” (read: totally fabricated) wedding album and “private love diaries.”


All this, and nary a hit to be found! The studios were confused, and even more confused when they put Wood in a film with Wagner, and even that bombed. In this way, Wood further underlined the growing disconnect between gossip stardom and film success. Wood’s private life sold magazines; Wood’s acting career did not sell movie tickets. At this point, she could probably have exhausted her celebrity by selling photos to Modern Screen the way that former Bachelorettes sell their baby photos. Yet Elia Kazan, best known for On the Waterfront and naming names during the McCarthy hearings, had a new script, and fought to give Wood a second (er, fifteenth) chance.

Now is the point when I try to tell you about the marvel that is Splendor in the Grass. I don’t know that I can, except to say that the sexual energy is this film is enough to power a small town in Vermont. It demands to be experienced first hand. As in so many films from the ‘50s and early ‘60s, this energy undulates immediately below the surface, bursting through in gasping, manic moments. It’s a story of young love set in the years leading up to The Great Depression, with a very young Warren Beatty (appearing in his first major role) devoted to a still believably high-school-aged Wood. But he REALLY, REALLY WANTS TO HAVE SEX, because, duh, he is teenage boy WITH URGES. Wood’s into it too, but everyone tells her that sex = huge slut = the end of her life = being a poor person. The horror, the horror! (Warren Beatty’s sister = a sexually “loose” flapper = slutshamed all over the place = his parent’s personal nightmare.)

Urges: Teens have them!

If Beatty can’t exercise his urges on Wood, then he’ll find someone (read: a loose woman) with whom he can. Wood finds out and is literally driven mad — like rolling-around-on-the-ground palpably crazy. Her family sells their investments to pay for their daughter to go to the sanatorium, while Warren Beatty’s family loses its collective shirt in the stock market crash. Fastforward several years, and FATTIE SPOILER ALERT: Beatty’s family is living in relative squalor. Wood’s out of the crazy house, but when goes to visit Beatty, ahhh shit he’s saddled with a wife who obviously has sad poor people sex with him all the time, because they already have one baby and another’s on the way. Plus the wife is AN IMMIGRANT! SHE’S ITALIAN! HOW DÉCLASSÉ!

Natalie realizes that their love can never be, so she returns, all Grey’s Anatomy style, to get married to her former doctor from the sanatorium. (In movies, doctors never fall in love with other doctors; they always fall in love with their vulnerable yet beautiful patients.)

The film is overwrought and, in places, overpoweringly melodramatic. But it’s also a beautifully subversive thing: we may think that sex ruins people and makes them crazy, but in reality, sexual repression ruins people and makes them crazy. And marry Italians.

I’m also in love with the marketing for this film, which relied heavily on teen identification. Every teen melodrama does this implicitly, but Splendor in the Grass’s trailers and posters made it explicit:

“If you’re an adult, you lived this story. If you’re young, it’s happening now.”

And look at this poster! You guys, if they still made posters like this, maybe we’d actually go see films in the theater on a regular basis:

Just weeks after Splendor hit theaters, Wood appeared in another film, a film even more visible than an Elia Kazan picture about sex. This picture had singing, a hackneyed Shakespearian plot, a successful Broadway run ... it had SHARKS and JETS and slicked hair and tight pants and twirling skirts and DANCING IN THE MOTHERFUCKING STREETS OF NEW YORK!

I’m talking, of course, about West Side Story, in which Wood plays the very innocent and very desirable Maria Nunez, sister of Head Shark Bernando, and object of former-Jet Tony’s affection. I realize West Side Story may hold a special place in many of your musical-theater-loving-hearts, but let’s be honest: this film is ridiculous. I kinda love it — even if it is about 30 minutes too long — but it is ridiculously bad. But like all bad musicals, while the film, as a whole, may not stand up to repeat viewings, you always have the magic of the remote control edit, a.k.a. the Center Stage edit, a.k.a. fastforwarding through the talky-talk parts and just watching the dancing. This is obviously the way this film is meant to be viewed, preferably with bad Chianti for every time someone a) makes a really, really earnest face; b) gets really, really pissed off about someone from a rival gang making googly eyes at someone related to someone in your gang; or c) uses a street fixture of some sort as a dance prop.

But there’s something gloriously exuberant about Wood’s performance — unlike Splendor in the Grass, where she’s purposefully repressed, here she gets to let her eyes go wide and lip-sync with as close to wild abandon as someone lip-synching possibly can. Maybe she annoyed you in Rebel Without a Cause, maybe her romance with Wagner made you ralph. But here, she gets beautiful clothes and mooney love scenes, and the result, however preposterous and campy, makes it nearly impossible to dislike her. Which is all just another way of saying that Natalie Wood, Major Movie Star, was back.

Wood’s performance in Splendor in the Grass earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, and West Side Story became one of the biggest grossers of 1961. Her separation and subsequent divorce from Bob Wagner only made for greater gossip fodder: stars become stars through performances; they stay stars through gossip. And the notion that Wood could be moving on with Warren Beatty, by then a rising star himself ...

... the fan mags obviously went crazy, especially when Beatty accompanied a ravishing Wood to the Oscars in 1962. I mean seriously. Wow.

Wood’s next film, Gypsy, was an obvious attempt to exploit her musical success in West Side Story, only this time she played a vaudeville performer turned burlesque dancer, daughter to a shrill and toxic stage-mom (rather perfectly portrayed by Rosalind Russell).

Gypsy resides somewhere in the No Man’s Land of the absolute value scale of movies: it’s not good enough to make it good, and it’s not bad enough to make it awesome — neither Moulin Rouge nor Burlesque. It’s hanging out with most of the films made by Jessica Biel, somewhere between milquetoast and forgettable.

A string of predictably mainstream roles followed: opposite (sometime boyfriend) Steve McQueen in the weirdly moralizing Love With a Proper Stranger, inconceivable as Helen Gurley Brown in the forgettable film adaptation of Sex and the Single Girl, and oddly touching as a tomboy-turned-Hollywood star in Inside Daisy Clover (let’s be honest: the real reason to watch this film is young Robert Redford).

Hellllllllo, Robert.

In 1965, she was paid loads of money to make a slapstick turn alongside Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in The Great Race. Wood looks gorgeous, but the film was a bloated mess and a huge bomb at the box office.

She played a bored housewife who dresses up to rob her wealthy husband’s bank in Penelope and, in 1967, paired with Redford yet again, this time in an adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ one-act play This Property Is Condemned. Wood plays a (big surprise) sexually suggestive and alluring woman attracted to a stranger (Redford), and she uses her sexuality to 1) piss a bunch of people off; 2) get her way; 3) achieve fleeting, New Orleans-based happiness; and 4) (another big surprise) DIE.

This decade demonstrated that Wood could play two parts: mad-cap and self-destructively sexual — sometimes both at once. The bifurcation seemed to spread to her personal life, too, and Wood retreated from Hollywood to seek treatment for depression (and turned down Warren Beatty’s offer to star opposite him in Bonnie & Clyde — purportedly because she refused to be separated from her therapist). Wood began dating producer and generally boring guy Richard Gregson at some point in the late ‘60s, marrying him in May 1969, at the ripe old age of 30.

Then, three months later, there was Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Bob Mazurky’s take on “swinger” culture and its various pitfalls. Natalie Wood. As a swinger. With Dyan Cannon and Elliot Gould. The marketing was obviously a study in subtlety.

As Pauline Kael, inveterate movie critic for The New Yorker and the closest I get to a personal hero, explains,

I think it’s almost impossible to watch Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice without wondering how much the actors are playing themselves. Natalie Wood is still doing what she was doing as a child — still telegraphing us that she’s being cute and funny — and she’s wrong. When she tries hard, she just becomes an agitated iron butterfly.

I mean, Kael’s right. Wood, like so many stars, was best at “acting” like herself, which is to say acting her star image. When she tried to be sexual without the neuroses, or overly cute, there was just too much try. I get it. But shit, Wood’s eye makeup and boobs in this film are just fantastic.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice's subject matter was titillating, but the narrative resolution rendered it tame enough to become a major mainstream hit. Americans love the thought of transgression, not the actual act, which explains why Rihanna’s “S&M” is a huge hit while actual S&M is not.

Amid all the film's fanfare, Wood retreated once again, giving birth to a daughter, Natasha, in 1970. But her boring producer husband was cheating on her (with the secretary, no less; how very Hollywood-screenplay of him), and in August 1971, Wood took her infant daughter and left. Super sad, I know — but then she rediscovered her childhood love! GOOD OL’ BOBBY WAGNER, THERE TO SAVE THE DAY!

And just like a Cary Grant comedy of remarriage, Wood and Wagner reunited, went through a whirlwind re-courtship, and married just five months later. Wood gave birth to another daughter, Courtney, in 1974. The 1970s version of The Minivan Majority must have been thrilled: onscreen, woman dabbles in sexual liberation and “open marriage”; off-screen, she finds out that her husband is cheating with the secretary. That’s what you get for sexual permissiveness! But don’t worry, she remarries, and not to some schlump, but her childhood crush, the man who (presumably) took her virginity. Sexual conservatism reigns supreme!

Wood operated in semi-retirement for the rest of her life, aging the way Diane Lane has, which is to say she seemed to get only more luscious with time. And then, in 1981, the yacht, the drowning, and the enduring scandal.

Wood was made famous for our generation by her death, which, yes, is sensational and belongs on Unsolved Mysteries on NBC on Wednesdays at 9 p.m. circa 1991. But in reality, it’s the least interesting thing about her — in fact, it has very little to do with Wood herself and everything to do with the type of man who would or wouldn’t save a woman who was or was not calling for help, and how each of these men has worked to exculpate himself in the years since.

Ultimately, I’m less interested in thinking about these men and more interested in re-watching Wood’s movies, recreating her eye makeup, and staring at the dozens of exquisite shots that pop up when you type “Natalie Wood Warren Beatty” in Google Image search. People think the scandal was Natalie Wood’s death. But the real scandal was the way in which women — specifically, the dozens Wood portrayed, along with Wood herself — bore the burden of our culture’s conflicting, schizophrenic, fucked up attitudes toward sex.

Wood didn’t have tragedy mapped on her body the way that Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland did. The signs of her struggle were far less obvious, in part because her rise was less mercurial, her handling of stardom somehow more balanced. She was a survivor, as cliched and Hallmark-movie-of-the-week as that sounds, and at various points in her career wielded more power than any of her male co-stars. She wasn’t a tremendous talent. She couldn’t really sing or dance. But she was a sex symbol for twenty years in a time when "sexual" was simultaneously the best and the worst thing a girl could possibly be, and she lived to tell the sad, screwy tale. And that, more than playing opposite James Dean, more than working herself into a true frenzy of repressed sexuality in Splendor in the Grass, evidences true talent. Not as an actress, per se, but as the makings of an image that will continue to endure.

Previously: Cary Grant's Intimate Bromance.

Anne Helen Petersen is a Doctor of Celebrity Gossip. No, really. You can find evidence (and other writings) here.

202 Comments / Post A Comment

The Lady of Shalott

This is a wonderful article, beautifully written. Thank you.

Nicole Cliffe

@The Lady of Shalott I saw it in the queue, and deliberately refused to cheat and read it early, so we could all experience it together. It's fantastic.

Nicole Cliffe


raised amongst catalogs

@Nicole Cliffe That movie never fails to rip all of my guts out! Her bathtub breakdown! AHH!

The Lady of Shalott



@vanillawaif The freakout in the tub is the BEST.


@Nicole Cliffe Oh my gawwww I was OBSESSED with Splendor in the Grass as a teenager. I couldn't get enough of poor Natalie and Warren's doll like beauty and the sadness and the repression and the drama and this article brought that all back! I would probably think it's ridiculous if I watched it now since I'm all mature and shit but it will always hold a special place in my heart.


@Nicole Cliffe Every time I even THINK about Splendor in the Grass, I get goosebumps all over and start to hyperventilate a little.


Well shit, now I've got to watch it.


@melis and it's not on netflix instant!!! WHAT'S A GIRL TO DO???


@Nicole Cliffe She devastates me in this movie. And! The gorgeous blue suit she wears at the end, just perfect.


@ohbladi This hack is the only working one. top eleven hack illimite tokens
Enjoy it!

Alice Prin

You guys, am I the only one who thinks the saddest part of Splendor is the end when the pregnant wife is sizing herself up and is clearly feeling bad about herself? Gets me every time. Poor wifey, you can cook me a pizza, you are beautiful and I heart you. :(


@The Lady of Shalott

raised amongst catalogs

@Nicole Cliffe A movie theater in Lansing, MI is playing SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS this Saturday. I am going!

richard spiran

@The Lady of Shalott
The ultimate hack for dofus !
dofus hack


I almost thought at 2:40 that was Emma Watson for some reason@k

raised amongst catalogs

@Anne Helen Peterson Thank you thank you THANK YOU! You just made my day.


I've never been a huge Natalie Wood fan because I could never get over the histrionics in her acting, but now I think I get it. I'll probably never love her, but I can appreciate where she came from.

And OH MY GOD. How GORGEOUS is she in that still from Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice?


Gorgeous article. Does she remind anyone else of Mila Kunis? No? Just me?

Artressa Vandelay

@Nutellaface: I was thinking Katie Holmes in a few of the pics.


@Nutellaface Yes I can see it. I thought of Mila Kunis when I read that Wood was a Russian immigrant so SoCal, because I think Mila was too.

fondue with cheddar

@Nutellaface Now that you mention it...yeah.

In the second to last picture she looks like a perfect cross between Winona Ryder and Heather Graham.


@Nutellaface In the very last picture I get a little Britney.


I have such a soft spot for Gypsy and cannot bear it being tossed in the "forgettable" pile. Although it sounds like I should probably watch Splendor in the Grass.


@heyladies I like Gypsy too! Although Natalie Wood doesn't make much of an impression in that movie. I mean, how can she with Rosalind Russell charging around?


Thank you so much for this article! I have a very special place in my heart for Natalie Wood, as she is my mom's favorite actress and I saw Splendor in the Grass and Gypsy an insane amount of times growing up. Also, I'm named after her daughter! My mom wanted to name me Natalie, but my dad didn't like that name, so she went for Courtney instead.

She was just so beautiful. And Splendor in the Grass is amazing, yes.


Wait. Why did Cheryl have to kill??? WHO did Cheryl have to kill? WHO IS CHERYL?? So many questions from one cover.

Tragically Ludicrous


Anne Helen Petersen

@brista128 I'm guessing it refers to Cheryl Crane, Lana Turner's daughter. See that scandal HERE: http://thehairpin.com/2011/06/scandals-of-classic-hollywood-lana-turner-sweater-girl-gone-bad


"That's right, CHERYL! Just keep screaming your own name!"

Graydon Gordian

Well, that was terrific. Admittedly, anything with "Natalie Wood" in the title is going to have my complete attention, but I would have loved this even if it hadn't tapped into my longstanding infatuation with Ms. Wood.


Aaaaaand again the final photo knocks it out of the park.


@PistolPackinMama They always do. Love it!


@PistolPackinMama right? she was so. so. pretty. possibly the prettiest. like, heart-achingly pretty.


@candybeans I know! I want to look like her, but have like, Katharine Hepburn's life.

oh, disaster

Great, as always. West Side Story isn't the best movie musical, but I'll always have a soft spot for it. And good gracious, young Warren Beatty.


@andrea disaster Re: young Warren Beatty: WHO KNEW? KNOCK ME OVER WITH A FUCKING FEATHER. I have only ever seen him being old-ish and always walking a step ahead of Annette Bening at award ceremonies, even when she's the reason they're there. But I digress.


You totally lost me when you started hating on West Side Story. Nobody hates on West Side Story!!! And if they do, I stop reading their otherwise thoughtfully-crafted blog post.


@marzapane I am completely incapable of judging whether WSS is a good movie or not. I've watched it five hundred times since I was a tiny girl. It is burned into my brain. I love it. Is it objectively good? WHO CARES?


@marzapane Thank goodness I'm not alone in my absolute adoration of WSS. How can you hate it? Granted, the horrible fake accents and brown face ridiculous, but I'm not expecting historical accuracy from a musical.


@marzapane I mean, Rita Moreno! Your argument is invalid.

The one clunky part that always makes me laugh is at the dance when Tony keeps blithering on and Maria just completely cuts him off in the middle to exclaim, "My hands are cold!" I did not know the character's last name was Nunez, though.

Katie Scarlett

@LooseBaggyMonster I used to say that line to my ex-boyfriend all the time in the winter! But because I'd stare at him and use that same weird robotic tone that Maria uses, he would know I was referencing WSS and roll his eyes. I would laugh at my own dumb joke every. single. time.


@Katie Scarlett Thank you so much for affirming how bizarre the delivery of that line is.

Also, Vertigo is one of my favorite movies, and Midge is the best. So, in conclusion, ♥ ♥ ♥.


@anachronistique Also incapable of objectivity over here. It's even worse, because Stephen Sondheim wrote the lyrics to the show. I was raised to worship Stephen Sondheim (probably the direst form of rebellion I could have come up with at age 14 or so would have been to espouse a passionate love of Andrew Lloyd Webber, but I could never bring myself to do such a thing), and so his association with ANYTHING means I have to like it, it's Pavlovian. (Plus! The lyrics are pretty good.)

Atheist Watermelon

@marzapane It's one of the only musicals I like (I'm a classical musician) because it's one of the only ones that has... um... decent music. Leonard Bernstein ftw!!!!!

miss buenos aires

@marzapane I went to a WSS sing-a-long in Prospect Park with my parents (making them the coolest people I know) this summer, and it was a beautiful experience to sing the songs with a few hundred other people, everyone totally into it and no one rolling their eyes. If anyone on this thread ever gets the chance, I highly recommend it.

raised amongst catalogs

Omg, can we talk about the issue of Photoplay that hints at what Ann-Margret can give Eddie that Liz doesn't know about and can't even give him?!?!



Lily Rowan

@vanillawaif Something with a whip?


@vanillawaif whisper whisper blow jobs whisper whisper


Is anyone old enough to remember the Natalie Wood jokes that circulated after she died? They were all the rage in my school.

I prefer to watch West Side Story with my eyes closed. Love your music and lyrics, Bernstein and Sondheim. Hate your star-crossed lovers story, Shakespeare.

Better to Eat You With

@kayjay Just barely. I was in first grade in 1981, so I didn't understand the jokes, and how vile they were, until much later.


@kayjay: But then you miss all the awesome, barely controlled Robbins choreography. Watch with eyes open! Eyes open, I say!


Natalie Wood was my first real lady crush. That scene in The Great Race where she is playing the guitar in her skivvies...I die!

Yankee Peach

My mom is a huge Natalie Wood fan and one of my fondest memories is watching some of her really bad films (Inside Daisy Clover, for example) on rainy Saturdays when I was a kid.Some of her movies are the equivalent of really trashy novels, but in a good way.

I don't agree with all the Gypsy hate, it's too long, like most of the musicals of the period are, but it's still fun. And Splendor in the Grass, well.. Elia Kazan, ftw is about all I can say.

No one can convince my mom that she wasn't pushed off that yacht, either.


@Yankee Peach Ha ha, it sounds like we had the same mom. I grew up knowing one definitive fact about Robert Wagner, and that was that he killed Natalie Wood.

Yankee Peach

@Dachelle Oh my god yes. Everytime I see him on TV or in a move To This Day, I say to whoever I'm with (or out loud to myself) That's the guy that killed Natlie Wood.


WISE CHILDREN ARE THE WORSTTTTT. Thank you for saying so.

Which was why I kind of liked that weirdsauce "Where The Wild Things Are"? Because neither the kid nor the monsters generated from his imagination solve things in a remotely adult way.

Though its not clear to me where Tatum O'Neil in Paper Moon falls on this spectrum, and I'd take a bullet for that version of her.


Anne Helen, these are so good. I send these to my mom (with whom I have nothing in common but our love of Old Hollywood) and she thinks they're great.

Gypsy wasn't all that great, but I used to watch it every weekend, anyway. Despite not being the best singer or dancer, Natalie played Rose with aplomb even while having to compete with a scene-chewing Rosalind Russell.


I was about to sit down to start this huge work commission I got today when I saw this posted! Half an hour later I have translated zero words but I have a higher awareness of how insanely beautiful Natalie Wood was.


These are great.

Nicole is a brave American. Rebel without a Cause is a joke movie.

But "bona fide teen idol," whut? My head is failing to process the irony loops.


Ugh. I cannot stand Rebel Without A Cause. Thank you for speaking truth to power, AHP! Sadly, (speaks in a tiny voice) for me Splendor in the Grass is kind of tarred with the same brush? The overacting! The heavy-heavy-handed way that every point is driven home a bajillion times! I always feel a little sad when I disagree with SOCH, but I just can't get into this one. (Speaks in an even tinier voice) Hope we can all still be friends?


@pterodactgirl That said I love and totally agree with the point about what Splendor in the Grass meant to audiences at the time, and what Natalie would come to symbolize for the American public. So interesting and well-expressed!


@pterodactgirl I watched Splendor In the Grass after seeing it mentioned somewhere on here about 6 months ago. I was largely underwhelmed. I agree with you on the points of the heavy handedness and the overacting. It also just seemed so incredibly dull to me. In fact when I started reading about it here I could not remember a single thing about the movie until I watched the trailer and it started coming back. But even still, I don't know if I can remember much outside of the trailer even now. It just didn't get to me like it apparently does to the whole rest of the world.


I'm gonna need that "Splendor in the Grass" poster on my wall, stat!


Her legs in that picture from Gypsy...they are amazing.


@Megan@twitter I have actually scrolled back up to look at them twice already. Gam City.


Why is it Helen “Gurley” Brown? "Gurley" isn't her nickname, it's her name. Is this like on Facebook when people put their maiden names in quotes so their elementary school friends can still look them up? Is this a thing? Is Helen Gurley Brown on Facebook because I would friend her.

I cannot hear/see Natalie Wood's name without saying "It'ssss Nnnnnnatalie Wwwwwood!" ala Gilmore Girls. To. This. Day. Best show of our generation, ladies.

Edith Zimmerman

@MrsLlama Oops! Fixed, thanks.


@MrsLlama I don't remember that particular incident, but Gilmore Girls!! Yes.

Lila Fowler

@MrsLlama "I had that shirt on Jimmy Stewart the night of his colonoscopy, and he came through clean as a whistle!"


Man, her BOOBS. Those are racktacular!

tiny dancer

I have the same birthday as Natalie and always had a soft spot for her. I was about to run errands when I saw this so I had to immediately read it. I love everything about your posts, thank you!


That tabloid reminded me- can we please have an Ann-Margret SoCH?? Please??


@ilikemints we love you, ilikemints, oh yes we do! we love you, ilikemints, and we'll be true. when you don't post on the hairpin, we're blue. oh, ilikemints, we love you.

YES PLEASE. the elvis trysty gossip alone would be fabulous.


Going to go ahead and point out the only fly in the ointment on behalf of people with psychotic illness and their loved ones - when writers use schizophrenic in the context like "our culture’s conflicting, schizophrenic, fucked up attitudes toward sex", they misuse the word and unknowingly help perpetuate our culture's complete misunderstanding of the illness

Not trying to be a kill joy, just trying to represent for my patients and be helpful idk don't hate me.


Why would we trust you? Everyone knows all you want is to tear the Bluths apart.


Every time I read one of these I think it's the best one yet. Thank you, AHP!
Things I did not know before:
Young Warren Beatty=unnnnfffff!
Young Warren Beatty plus Natalie Wood=unnnnfffff squared!!!


@ru_ri Get thee a DVD of "Bonnie and Clyde"!

Honey Vadger

Young Robert Wagner = Leland Palmer. If you'll excuse me, I'll just be sitting in the corner, rocking back and forth and whimpering.


the frankie that the magazine refers to ala laurel bacall is frank sinatra.


Loved the article, but was startled by the Jimmy Kimmel doppelganger standing behind Natalie in the Oscars picture!


also, can we please have a boston pinup that revolves around west side story?


@becky@twitter I'm SO there.


@anachronistique How about a dramatic reading(/singing) of the script? CAN I BE A JET PLEASE


Great article, but I feel a need to re-emphasize how PROFOUNDLY creepy she was in Miracle on 34th Street. I mean, she's supposed to be creepy and off-putting, and she nails it perfectly. Orson Welles knew of what he spoke. The Dakota Fanning reference is spot on, as we all remember how creepy she was as an eerie adult-child early in her career.


I first saw "Splendor in the Grass" one night when I was about fourteen years old. Man it made a lasting impression. It was all so messed up and insane. I recall talking about it with my Mother afterward and she said, "yep, essentially the movie is telling you that if you don't have sex you will go insane and if you do have sex, your life will be ruined. Good times. Now pass me a pizza roll."


Is it just me, or does she resemble Kate Middleton in Fred & Carol & Ted & Alice?


Haven't read this yet but YAY, I LOVE THESE POSTS.

Katie Scarlett

Re her death: "It has very little to do with Wood herself and everything to do with the type of man who would or wouldn’t save a woman who was or was not calling for help, and how each of these men has worked to exculpate himself in the years since. Ultimately, I’m less interested in thinking about these men and more interested in re-watching Wood’s movies..." !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I opened up this article and was all excited to read about a scandalous death but the article you wrote was so much better! I'm not disappointed in the least; in fact I has intended to read that article about the murder case being closed again, but I realized I don't really care. AHP, you are so wise! Thank you focusing on this lady as the subject rather than the object of her own life.

Anne Helen Petersen

@Katie Scarlett I really love the phrase "subject rather than object of her own life" -- beautiful.


@Anne Helen Petersen I love the phrase too, it's a keeper.


My husband and I have a longstanding argument about whether or not the fundamental conceit of Sex and the Single Girl is just completely bonkers. But one thing we all can agree on is that you can TOTALLY SEE NATALIE WOODS AUREOLAE in that one white Grecian gown she wears!

Other than that, the movie is kind of a snooze.


Loved this. I knew so little of her beyond Rebel, West Side Story, and her death.

Semi-related tangent: Does anyone else notice that Sal Mineo is ridiculously overused as a crossword puzzle clue? I have some NYTimes crossword puzzle books and the number of times his name comes up is insane in proportion to his career.


@fatgirlinohio Yes! Sal Mineo flying El Al, using aloe, eating oleo, singing an aria.


@Canard: while walking Asta.


@Canard @Bittersweet Also, "Ulee" - referring to the Peter Fonda film "Ulee's Gold." HAS ANYONE EVER SEEN ULEE'S GOLD?! OR TALKED ABOUT IT SINCE?


my intense love for natalie wood was instilled in me by my mother! am i the only person who counts gypsy as her favorite musical?!

also, not to be fussy about your lovely article, but i am pretty sure natalie wood's doctor boyfriend (johnny?) in splendor in the grass was a fellow patient, not her own doctor! the mentally ill can move on and be happy and functional again! (sort of, at least according to kazan)


I thought part of the message of Splendor in the Grass was to not let your social climbing parents push you towards a future you really don't want. It seems very 60's actually. Also, she married a young medical student who couldn't stand blood and who was also in the sanitarium with her. So patients marrying patients which is less creepy than her marrying her personal doctor.

Wendy L. Smith@facebook

@acookieaday Right! I was scrolling down to see if anyone else noticed that she didn't plan to marry her doctor but a fellow patient who planned to be a doctor. I also think the tone of the ending didn't indicate Wood was appalled at Beatty's new life (farmer) and family. I think she just noticed the irony of how different things were now that they were past their youthful passion. It's a bittersweet moment. (And I love the chicken in his kitchen).


@Wendy L. Smith@facebook i totally agree! it's actually kind of a hopeful (and definitely bittersweet) moment, acknowledging that things don't always turn out how you plan/dreamed, but that doesn't mean things can't still turn out okay. (and i also love the chicken in his kitchen).

Kitten Mittens

Emma Forrest has written some really interesting things about old Hollywood starlets and sex - I could've sworn she wrote something about Natalie Wood and Deanie, but I do know she wrote, of Liz Taylor, "...she looked like sex was literally driving her mad. Her own eroticism was rotting her brain." Which I always thought was such a powerful image, and could be applied to Deanie (and, I would argue, maybe Tony and Maria?)

Rebecca K.@twitter

This truly helped me process my youthful obsession with Natalie Wood. I adored Rebel, Gypsy, Splendor (A LOVE STORY UNLIKE ANY OTHER), and Daisy Clover. She seemed to embody teen yearning--and her "histrionics" seemed authentic to the teenaged me. Of course, I dreamed of being half as pretty and glamorous (let alone adored by the likes of young Warren Beatty). Between Splendor and Sandra Dee/Troy Donohue I was quite consumed with that teen "I WANT IT/BUT IT'S WRONG" thing. And I was living in the 80s, not the 50s!

Add to that the fact that she died tragically and I was completely fascinated by her.

Rookie (not the magazine) (not that there's anything wrong with that)

I've been secretly hoping (or not-so-secretly, maybe, I don't remember) for a Natalie Wood SoCH and now there is one and it was so good and thank you, Anne Helen Peterson.

Also, I was hoping that the re-opening of her case meant that we would get some answers. Just so that her loved ones could have some peace. It's really too bad that that hasn't happened.

Betsy Murgatroyd

The only reason I watched Splendor in the Grass was because of the Judy Blume YA Novel, Deenie. I quickly decided that Deenie was a better book than Splendor in the Grass.

I was never a Natalie Wood Fan, but I am quickly becoming an Anne Helen Petersen Fan. I love these articles.

Eva Swan@facebook

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Can we do a "Scandals of Current Hollywood" with TomKat? I wasn't really paying attention during their weirdo courtship/marriage. Didn't he contract her to be his Scientology bride or something?

Also, I love WSS! In a campy way, not an Oscar-worthy way. I love how they had a Russian woman like Wood play Maria, instead of a Latina actress. Like, did brunette = Latina back then? I guess so.

Unsolicited WSS story: In high school, our evil chorus teacher played favorites like no teacher I've ever seen before or since. She was BFF's with this one girl's mom. The girl was The Whitest Person Ever- like, pale pale pale white skin, naturally platinum hair, almost translucent blue eyes. Chorus teacher gave private voice lessons to this girl, went to her house all the time to chill with her mom, etc. Of course when she's in charge for casting "West Side Story" one year, who does she cast as Maria? Instead of using the many talented young women in our school who can sing/dance/were Latina and could pass as a Latina character, she casts Pale Platinum Blonde Girl as Maria. They threw a terrible brown wig from Party City on her. I'm surprised she didn't put the girl in some type of blackface, she was that type of person. Also, she cast her son as Tony. Her unfortunate-looking troll of a son as the handsome and dashing Tony. He wasn't a tenor, and his voice cracked multiple times during the high notes. Oh, high school musicals.


I can't believe no one else has mentioned This Property Condemned yet! Supposedly Natalie's favorite film, it's overblown and overly emotional, but it's a Tennessee Williams script! What else can you expect?

Dixie Laite@facebook

@minijen I know, this movie is awesome!




I'm surprised you didn't mention how fucked up her relationship with her mom was in this article. That doesn't detract form the fact that this is a good article though.


And off topic, but I finally figured out how to post comment on the Hairpin. Yay! I think being blind might've factored in to my problems with the comment posting button.


This was great - the Natalie Wood narrative definitely doesn't go deeper than her death these days.

And, is it just me, or is there something very James Franco-ish about that Warren Beatty photo? (or perhaps that's better expressed the other way around?)

Elijah Meyer@facebook

The guy her character marries in “Splendor in the Grass” is not her doctor. He is a fellow patient. He had become a surgeon to please his father, but cracked under pressure and went crazy. Not sure how you could miss that.

Great article otherwise.


Excellent 'Scandals' article as always! Speaking of Judy Garland, I would loooove one of these on her. I looked back through the achives and I don't think you've done one?


Pretty stupid article, like written by mediocre jealous faggot.


@dsol@twitter Whoa, you better be joking! We don't allow such hateful remarks on The Hairpin. This is a judgment-free zone. Keep that ish to yourself, please.


I guess I"m the only one who has a tender spot in my heart for Love With A Proper Stranger, which was so odd and awkward sometimes that I felt it was actually kind of real... I loved it.

Tonya Vitale@facebook

The classic Hollywood scandals are the whole reason I come to this site. I just can't get enough. Thank you!

Dixie Laite@facebook

Great piece! I have to add 3 of my big Natalie Wood memories:
1) Seeing "This Property is Condemned" on TV when I was 10 and basing my entire personality on her character for the next 10 years.
2) As a teen, reading a 70s Cosmo article where the lead said she had eyes to make a man's groin ache and I've been sad to be saddled with non-groin-ache-inducing-eyes ever since.
3. She and William Devane were super hot in the TV remake of "From Here to Eternity".

Rick Olson@facebook

She wasn't lip-syncing in "West Side Story". Her own vocals were used during the filming. Marni Nixon's voice was was dubbed in after filming completed.


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I can't wait to see Splendor in the Grass! Going to download it right now so I can watch it later! Warren Beatty looks so YOUNG!! oooh la la! I also think it will be intersting to see how they portray someone with mental illness back then (I notice they say she went to a "sanitorium") That is my field of work and I'm sure a lot of things have changed.

Shoshana Korman@facebook

Love the article...few things. In SITG she didnt marry her doctor, she marries a man that was also seeking treatment who was studying to be a surgen. I think she was very talented and was a ground breacking actress.


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Natalie Wood didn't marry the doctor who examined her in "Splendor in the Grass." She married a fellow patient who was studying to become a doctor.

Ms. Peterson, I like your wit and your writing style, but you're making repeated mistakes with your facts and details. You should double-check more carefully or at least check up on and correct your mistakes when they are pointed out to you.


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purportedly because she refused to be separated from her therapist). Wood began dating producer and generally boring guy Richard Gregson at some point in the late ‘60s, marrying him in May 1969, at the ripe old age of 30. cómo comprar el pdf


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