Reflections on Natalie Wood: Two of Her Best Roles

natalie wood

With all of the posts we do here at True Classics, I had honestly never thought about doing a post about Natalie Wood. I have no idea why, but I haven’t. Today, TCM’s Summer Under the Stars will be featuring twenty-four hours of her films, and suddenly it makes sense for me to offer some thoughts on Wood.

In the past, I’ve focused on a single film, preferably one that I had not seen but would like to explore. This time is different. I’m talking about two films, both of which I know.  We frequently associate Natalie Wood with her memorable childhood starring role in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and her effective performance in the 1961 musical West Side Story. While both of these films are lovely, I am not reviewing them today. Instead, I want to focus on two of her other well-known films: Rebel Without a Cause and Gypsy.

Rebel Without a Cause (1955)

rebel without a cause poster

Falling in line with West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause runs the risk of planting Natalie Woods in a severely restricted film category. Filled with teenage gang angst (much like the later film), Rebel Without a Cause closely follows James Dean’s character, Jim, as he gets in trouble with a gang, fighting with their leader.

rebel without a cause

Worse, he falls for the leader’s girl, Judy, played by Wood. Judy is mostly the love interest the film needs: feminine, emotional, sweet, and conflicted enough with a bad boyfriend and rough home life. Natalie delivers the character beautifully, and earned herself an Oscar nomination for the role.

rebel without a cause

Her parents don’t seem to want her to grow up, and Jim faces the same problem. You might say they share “daddy issues,” though it’s not always the central conflict. Although the film is set firmly in the 1950s, it’s in every way a teen movie and covers themes that audiences would later love in the 1980s John Hughes movies. You might also relate it to The Outsiders novel and significantly later film (both of which I loved). The film is worth seeing, especially if this is a genre you like. Parents are difficult (read: a problem), bullying and “bad boys” are a problem, and falling in love is a complicated problem. Probably, there are some notes here for Twilight fans (which I am not, but that is another discussion entirely), though it lacks the vampires, the shapeshifters, and (ahem) the sparkles.

rebel without a cause

In keeping with the Movie Memories project earlier this summer, I chose this film because of my particular attachment. I did not see this as a child, nor was it my first film. It was the basis of my first major theatrical production. In high school, we put on the play version of Rebel Without a Cause, choosing it over a made-for-high-school comedy production. We later discovered that our particular class should have gone with a comedy. We dutifully practiced the play, with the trials, problems, and complications you might expect. I played the role of Jim’s mother, a demanding woman overly dedicated to flash and image, who desperately needs an attitude adjustment. My “husband” stood well over six feet tall and I am about 5’1″ on a good day.

rebel without a cause

The evening of  the play began fine, until the curtain was not pulled all the way so that the dramatic battle between Jim and his father (executed very well, at least) was invisible to most of the audience. Lines disappeared from minds, as did all view of hope. Plato’s cap gun that had been present in rehearsals for months caught a sudden case of stage fright and decided to stay in the pocket of khakis that had been present at rehearsals for months. The powerful desperation of a frightened teenager collapsed in the moment when he realized that his threats to shoot his attacker lacked any sort of timing. The great drama of James Dean became a comedy of errors. All told, my recommendation would be to watch the film version, where they could correct for takes and be fully appreciative of film editing and do-overs.

Gypsy (1962)

gypsy film poster

Natalie Wood moved on to become the burlesque dancer her Rebel father may have feared in the film version of the musical Gypsy. Thwarted and overshadowed for years on the stage with her sparkling (okay, there are your sparkles) sister, she grows up to perform as Gypsy Rose Lee. Gypsy Rose tries to abandon the manipulative mother who held her back as a child, and she delivers excellent performances both on the stage and in the central conflicts of her life.

gypsy film

Possibly identifying well with her character–having been a child star herself and coming from a difficult childhood–Natalie demonstrates a genuine reaction to the past in claiming her own future in the harsh world of the stage. Oddly, it’s a film my mother and I have watched together, because we both enjoy it.

gypsy film

The film Gypsy stars a number of notables, including Rosalind Russell (yes, that Rosalind Russell) as her mother and one of my favorites, Karl Malden, as Russell’s love interest. I love seeing Malden as sympathetic, kind, perhaps overly generous characters, which he plays well in Gypsy. Regardless of his character, however, I always think of him as Reverend Ford in Pollyanna (1960): “Death comes unexpectedly!”

gypsy film

Born to Russian immigrants, Natalie Wood began life as Natalia Nikolaevna Zacharenko, and her name was changed (a typical move) by the studio heads at RKO when she started out there as a child star in the mid-1940s. Her career as a child and young woman was profoundly successful, uncommonly extending to her adulthood. Natalie Wood continued her work through a rather dramatic lifetime that ended too early. Her untimely death at age 43 due to drowning off of a yacht has long held suspicion of foul play–so much so that the case was reopened in 2011.


suts blog banner natalie woodThis post is an entry in the ongoing “Summer Under the Stars Blogathon” hosted by Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence and ScribeHard on Film. Make sure to check out the other entries that have been dedicated to the talented Natalie Wood today.

8 thoughts on “Reflections on Natalie Wood: Two of Her Best Roles

  1. Pingback: 2013 tcm SUTS Blogathon Day 18: Natalie Wood | ScribeHard On Film

  2. These are two excellent pics for strong Natalie Wood performances, but my favorite of hers is definitely SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS. I think she’s brilliant in it and her closing scene with Warren Beatty usually leaves a lump in my throat.

    • That’s a great film indeed! My thoughts were that someone else would likely cover that film (and indeed better than I!). Excellent choice.

  3. I have to admit, I’m not a fan of either of these films – I find the former is way too overheated, and the latter, while admittedly not my favorite source material in the first place, stretches it out too thinly – but I do agree Wood is very good in both of these. For the former, my favorite parts of the movie are the scene with Wood, James Dean (it would have been interesting if Dean had lived to see if they made more movies together, because they had terrific chemistry) and Sal Mineo, and for the latter, the movie doesn’t really get going for me until Wood shows up. Nice write-up.

  4. Natalie Wood’s role in Splendor in the Grass was wonderful. I enjoyed her as a child actor in The Miracle on Third Fourth Street and Love with the Proper Stranger. She and Steve McQueen in that one were excellent.

  5. Carrie,

    Thanks so much for contributing to the blogathon for Natalie’s day. I really enjoyed your story about the high school production of Rebel Without at Cause. I can’t say that I’m the biggest fan of Wood’s, but I do love her in Miracle on 34th Street. And it is refreshing that she was allowed to use her own singing voice in Gypsy.

    Thanks again!

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