The extraordinarily talented Natalie Wood, who stole our hearts at the age of 9 in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and made the rare successful transition to meaningful roles as an adult, was tragically taken from us 31 years ago in an accident off Catalina Island. Last year, the case of her death was reopened when law enforcement gained some new information about that night, and the intense feelings surrounding Natalie’s death were reopened with it.
San Francisco impresario Marc Huestis, beloved for his lavish and creative productions dedicated to the stars of stage and screen, was uncomfortable with this new attention. A huge fan of Natalie Wood himself, he took matters into his own hands and created “Forever Natalie Wood,” a large tribute to Natalie featuring some of her best and most beloved film work to be shown over the course of 3 days at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco.
Beginning Friday night with a double feature of Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and This Property is Condemned (1966), the event continued yesterday with another double feature of Gypsy (1962) and Love with a Proper Stranger (1963). The latter is a brave powerhouse of a film, featuring probably the most powerful scene I have ever seen on film dealing with back alley abortions. Wood’s performance earned her an Oscar nomination, the third of 3 over the course of her career.
The centerpiece of the event, however, was a frank and honest discussion with Natalie Wood’s younger sister Lana, with whom she was very close. Lana, who made her own name for herself in Hollywood (notably as a Bond Girl in Diamonds are Forever (1971), wrote one of the quintessential books about Natalie Wood, and along with 2001’s Natasha by Suzanne Finstad, Natalie: A Memoir By Her Sister stands as one of the most complete and honest accounts of Natalie Wood’s life.
Preceded by 20 minutes of film clips compiled by Huestis that detailed the life and career of Natalie Wood (as well as a very entertaining performance by Matthew Martin lip syncing to a mashup of “Everything’s Coming Up Roses”), the discussion with Lana was an insightful look into the early life and career of her legendary sister as well as the details of Natalie’s later personal life. Simultaneously serving the roles of sister, friend, and confidante, Lana Wood’s words were sincere, moving, and beautiful as she spoke about what Natalie meant to her. She was quick to protect her infamously pushy stage mother, who she admitted was “difficult to deal with” but who was ultimately “full of life” and protective of her children.
The Wood family (originally Zakharenko, later changed to Gurdin and then to Wood when Natalie began in Hollywood) was from San Francisco. The sisters’ parents were both born in Russia and emigrated to the United States later in life. Both Natalie and Lana grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, speaking Russian and proud of their Russian heritage. Lana spoke fondly of her “very Russian” mother and her father who “played the balalaika and wished the Communists would get out of Russia.” This reverence for her Russian heritage and San Francisco background was especially moving to me, as my own nativity to the San Francisco Bay Area and my Russian heritage has always made me feel close to Natalie Wood.
During the discussion, Marc Huestis announced that there would be a surprise for Lana and the audience. He had conducted telephone interviews with Mary Badham (primarily known as “Scout” in To Kill a Mockingbird) and Ann Blyth (known for her role as “Veda” in Mildred Pierce), who had both worked with Natalie. They offered remembrances of their times with her, and expressed thanks to the audience for keeping Natalie’s memory alive. It was a lovely gesture by Huestis, and wonderful to hear such stars in their own right speaking so candidly.
Speaking about Natalie’s later life, career, and relationships, Lana commented on an increasingly difficult relationship with Natalie following her second marriage to Robert Wagner, of which Lana disapproved. But they loved each other dearly despite their disagreements, and referring to of the circumstances surrounding the ongoing investigation of Natalie’s death, Lana’s voice broke as she remarked that she appreciates the investigators’ thoroughness but nothing will change. She emphasized that she does not want to bring more pain to Wagner and their two daughters. Lana concluded by thanking the audience for their devotion to Natalie. “I don’t want her to be forgotten,” she said, with a sincerity that was palpable. As with all of Huestis’ events, the crowd was warm and enthusiastic for her, and it was a true pleasure to hear her speak so freely about Natalie.
Lana Wood’s talk was followed by a screening of Splendor in the Grass (1961). I have a special affinity for this film, as it was one of the first Natalie Wood movies I ever saw and it was wonderful to see it on the big screen. One of my favorite trivia bits about this movie demonstrates just what a magnificent and dedicated actress Natalie Wood was. There is a scene in which Natalie is supposed to have a nervous breakdown in the bathtub. Due to a childhood injury on the set of The Green Promise, Natalie had a malformed wrist and due to her nearly pathological insecurity about it, she nearly always wore a bracelet on her left hand. In order to get into the right mindset for the scene (and for the reality of the scene, as she was in the bathtub), Natalie took off her bracelet. The psychological distress that she shows in this scene is not completely acting, the fact that her bracelet was off was an intense psychological impetus that helped her play the scene accurately. The film afforded her her second Oscar nomination.
The bathtub scene from Splendor in the Grass.
Today, the final day of “Forever Natalie Wood,” features a Sing-A-Long version of West Side Story (1961) at 2:00, followed by a double feature of Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1968) at 7:00 and Inside Daisy Clover (1965). For those in the San Francisco Bay Area, this is a great opportunity to see some of Natalie Wood’s true gems. I hope to see you there!
See you next time!