Besides dancing, pseudo kissing during Spin the Bottle games was the only physical contact I had experienced with boys when I was a 14-year old high school sophomore (I graduated at 17). But watching pretty Natalie Wood and handsome Warren Beatty heavily “petting” (aka “making out”) in the 1961 movie Splendor In The Grass gave me goosebumps. That was strong stuff back in the day.
Lots of teenage girls yearned to BE like Wilma Dean Loomis, the role 23-year-old Natalie played in that movie. Maybe we wanted to be adored as much as Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty’s part) adored Wilma Dean. Or perhaps the young woman’s sexual repression stirred newfound feelings in us.
At 14, I didn’t think about the quality of an actor’s performances. As the years moved forward, I recognized Natalie Wood’s talent in films including Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, Gypsy, Love With The Proper Stranger, The Searchers, and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice.
When Natalie Wood died in a mysterious boating accident in 1981 – at 43 – she took on the role of a tragic figure. But when I recently watched Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, a new HBO documentary about her, I also learned what a complex woman she was. More than a passionate actress who dug deeply into the roles she played, Natalie Wood was a devoted mother, wife (she was twice married to actor Robert Wagner), daughter, friend, and mentor (she gave Robert Redford his first breaks in the movies and the two became dear friends.) She was even an impassioned hostess, throwing frequent dinner parties attended by celebrities including Laurence Olivier, Fred Astaire, Mia Farrow, George Hamilton, and Frank Sinatra.
Natalie Wood grew up at a time when most women were hardly independent thinkers, but she defied convention – and succeeded on her own terms. Although she died prematurely, she managed to live a scintillating life.