Natalie Wood’s Film Career Takes Off After Rebel Without a Cause

After the success of REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, Natalie Wood’s film career took off. She starred in iconic films like SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS and West Side Story.

Natalie Wood

She also had a volatile personal life, including two divorces and one remarriage to actor Robert Wagner. Trumbull avoids speculating about the events that led to Wood’s mysterious death in 1981. Keep reading the article below to learn more about Natalie Wood.

After her starring debut in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street, Natalie Wood began a steady career in feature films. She tugged at the heartstrings in small roles as an orphan and a girl questioning Santa Claus, but her best work was yet to come.

In 1960, she won critical acclaim for her role as a young woman distraught over a love affair in Splendor in the Grass and received an Academy Award nomination. In the same year she starred in West Side Story and was nominated again, this time for her portrayal of Maria, the Puerto Rican girl at the center of Jerome Robbins’ modern allegory of Romeo and Juliet set in Manhattan’s West Side.

The early success of these films allowed Wood to gain more freedom, though she remained micromanaged by her mother. She starred in several television productions, including a 1979 miniseries of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and the televised version of From Here to Eternity. She also married twice, first to actor Robert Wagner and then to producer Richard Gregson.

Rebel Without a Cause

The 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause reworked the theme of juvenile delinquency in cinema. It emphasized suburban middle-class kids who got into trouble. Unlike earlier films, it did not focus on urban slums, and it depicted the emotional confusion of these teenagers. It also offered a new model of rebellious youth, rooted in a search for identity and meaning rather than in a desire to cause anarchy.

Director Nicholas Ray’s daring movie showed 1950s audiences that nice middle-class suburban kids could go bad too. James Dean was a moody high schooler who rejected his parents’ values and befriended sensitive misfits Judy (Natalie Wood) and Plato (Sal Mineo). They all have family troubles that contribute to their delinquency. He is pulled into a gang of bullies who drag him into dangerous nocturnal drag-race duels (in stolen cars).

The movie’s bleak portrait of teenage life has a cultish appeal. Its three lead actors met tragic early deaths: Dean died in a car crash, Mineo was stabbed to death, and Wood drowned under mysterious circumstances.

The Searchers

After a string of small roles, Natalie Wood tugged at the heartstrings as a frightened little girl in the 1947 film Miracle on 34th Street. Her success in the role helped her to shed her child actor image and she began appearing on television in anthology shows such as Studio One in Hollywood, Camera Three and Kings Row.

In 1955, John Ford cast her as the female lead in The Searchers. Kazan admired her in this role and thought it was her most powerful performance. She was nominated for an Academy Award.

Wood was 43 years old when she drowned off the coast of Catalina Island in California. The cause of her death has been disputed, but most believe she fell or jumped into the water after securing her dinghy to the boat. Her body was found near the dinghy, but her down jacket filled with water and she was weighed down by the weight. She had recently completed the science fiction film Brainstorm with Christopher Walken.

Splendor in the Grass

After Rebel Without a Cause, Natalie Wood was cast as the lead in Splendor in the Grass, a film that showcased her range and depth as an actress. Her character, Deanie, is a young girl torn between her heart and social conventions. She falls for a boy from the wrong side of the tracks and her parents oppose their relationship.

Directed by Elia Kazan, this film focuses on the lives of people who live in rural 1920s Kansas. The screenplay was written by William Inge, based on people he knew from his childhood. Despite the film’s heavy handed subjects, it never becomes overblown or melodramatic.

It also marked the screen debuts of Sandy Dennis and Phyllis Diller. Although Wood’s film career continued to flourish, her personal life began to deteriorate. She married actor Robert Wagner in 1956, when she was only 18. The marriage ended in 1962. In 1966, she suffered from depression and sought professional help. Despite the success of her films, she was no longer happy with her career and decided to retire from acting.

West Side Story

Since West Side Story debuted on Broadway in 1957 and became a movie in 1961, it’s been a pulsing part of the cultural fabric. Remaking it might seem like a reckless misstep, especially for film, where remakes are more often seen as attempts to supplant the original rather than honor it. But director Steven Spielberg (Munich, Lincoln) and screenwriter Tony Kushner (Angels in America) have a gift for making this restaging feel fresh and essential, thanks to an outstanding young ensemble and a score that’s as rich and sophisticated as the Manhattan skyline.

Gone is the 1961 version’s reliance on white actors in brownface and accents; here, the Puerto Rican characters are played by Latinx actors, including Rachel Zegler as Maria, whose wide eyes and heart-on-sleeve swooning sell this retelling as modern as it is classic. Another improvement is the addition of a trans character, Anybodys, played by nonbinary actor Iris Menas. This gives the story a sense of urgency and being stuck that echoes what so many youths feel today.

Love with the Proper Stranger

The enigmatic Natalie Wood could never quite shake her Old Hollywood image but director Robert Mulligan’s sensitive handling of this human drama is the closest to truthful in any film of the period. Watching her squabble with her possessive family and later squirm in front of gawky admirer Tom Bosley is as funny as it is touching; the actress’s graceless, acerbic performance may seem harsh by today’s standards but it’s fearlessly honest and utterly convincing (while Walken gives his best performance yet, his chemistry with Wood is still the film’s strongest).

By placing its characters before the events that engulf them, Love with the Proper Stranger avoids the easy trappings of soap opera. It’s a story of two people who find each other, try to keep their hands off each other, and eventually, despite the odds, end up in each other’s arms. It’s a tense and funny film that would have been considered racy for its time but remains as relevant now as it was in 1963.

Sex and the Single Girl

When Helen Gurley Brown’s scandalous book Sex and the Single Girl burst onto the scene in the early ’60s, it changed how women saw themselves. Feisty and fun, it urged unmarried women to embrace single hood with confidence and zest.

Wood’s own early marriage to Wagner, eight years her senior, was catnip for the tabloid magazines of that era. It was a match that never really worked out, and her discontent soon became evident in her work.

This film is a campy relic of the sexual revolution, but it’s surprisingly fun. Wood delivers her lines with a deadpan sensibility that makes them hilarious. And her cast – Tony Curtis, Henry Fonda and Lauren Bacall – are obviously having a blast hamming it up.

The film flopped, and was followed by another box-office dud, the comedy How to Murder Your Wife. It was around this time that Natalie Wood died off the coast of Catalina Island, in November of 1981. She was 43. The night of her death, she’d been invited aboard a yacht by Wagner and Christopher Walken.

Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice

Wood was still making films in the late ’70s, but motherhood now took center stage in her life. She married director Richard Gregson and had a daughter, Natasha. She returned to the screen with a number of made-for-TV movies and the miniseries From Here to Eternity.

After pretentious couple Bob and Carol attend an enlightened New Age-type retreat, they become more open to sexual experimentation and swapping partners. When they share this new philosophy with their more inhibited best friends Ted and Alice, an incensed Alice demands that the foursome take their sexy new ethos to its natural conclusion and join each other in bed.

Wood was sailing with Wagner and co-star Christopher Walken on a yacht off the coast of Catalina Island when she drowned on November 28, 1981. Her cause of death was officially ruled an accident, but questions have been raised about the circumstances surrounding her sudden death. A 2020 documentary explores the controversy. The case is still under investigation. Wagner has refused to speak to investigators.