Natalie Wood's life of beauty, agony

THE BALTIMORE SUN

"Natasha: The Biography of Natalie Wood," by Suzanne Finstad. Harmony Books. 454 pages. $25.

In 1962, Natalie Wood was the second highest-paid actress in the world (behind Elizabeth Taylor) and was the embodiment of glamour. She had just been nominated for an Academy Award for "Splendor in the Grass" and her high-profile marriage to actor Robert Wagner was the stuff of magazine covers.

But beneath the star persona of "Natalie Wood," created by her relentlessly ambitious and domineering mother, was an insecure and frustrated 24-year-old woman seeking to recapture her real identity -- Natasha Gurdin. Thus began the final phase of a life that ended 19 years later with her mysterious and still-debated drowning.

Suzanne Finstad's remarkably researched and occasionally shocking new book is the first full biography of the star known for such films as "Miracle on 34th Street," "Rebel Without a Cause," "West Side Story" and "Love With the Proper Stranger." It also is the story of her mother, Maria Gurdin, who once pulled the wings off a butterfly in front of her terrified child to ensure that she cried on cue for a scene.

Natasha was born to Russian immigrant parents in San Francisco in 1938. Her mother, considered a social climber, quickly recognized Natasha's exquisite beauty and raised her to be a movie star. Her mother changed her daughter's name when she made her movie debut at 6. She became her family's sole breadwinner at 7, co-starred with Orson Welles at 8 and became internationally acclaimed at 9 for "Miracle on 34th Street."

Her real-life household was a model of dysfunction. Her father was a serious drinker and her mother ignored her younger sister, Lana, to promote Wood's career and control her life. As she matured, Wood resented that she'd had no real childhood and began to rebel socially and professionally. At 15 she had a "serious friendship" with Frank Sinatra, and at 16 she began a sexual relationship with 43-year-old Nicholas Ray, the director of "Rebel Without a Cause."

That film focused on teen-age alienation and mirrored themes from Wood's own experience. She was excited by the movie's social realism and was in awe of the film's star, the unconventional James Dean. In the role as Dean's frightened and lonely girlfriend, Wood brought an aura of sexuality and vulnerability that thrilled viewers.

Soon after, she met Robert Wagner, who represented conventional Hollywood and was completely different from her current boyfriend, Dennis Hopper. Despite rumors that he was bisexual, Wood and Wagner married in 1958 and soon became one of the world's most publicized couples. But when Wood found Wagner in a sexual encounter with a man four years later, she ended the marriage and plunged more deeply into work and new relationships.

She again was nominated for an Academy Award for "Love With the Proper Stranger" (1963) and had a tumultuous affair with Warren Beatty. But by 1966 two major "artistic" projects had failed and she moved from one relationship to another. She married producer Richard Gregson in 1968 and daughter Natasha Gregson was born in 1970. The marriage didn't last and in 1972 she reconciled with and remarried Wagner. Their daughter, Courtney, was born in 1974.

For the remainder of the 1970s, Natalie appeared in lackluster films and TV movies. In 1981 she began work on a thriller called "Brainstorm" and, much the way she did 25 years earlier with James Dean, she become enthralled with her co-star, Christopher Walken. Despite rumors that the two were having an affair, Wagner welcomed Walken to join the couple for a Thanksgiving weekend cruise on their boat off Catalina Island.

The last quarter of Finstad's book is a detailed account of the doomed weekend on the Wagners' yacht. This much is clear from her reporting: Wood's drowning was due to excessive drinking, fallout from serious arguments and failure to follow safety procedures while at sea. Conflicting reports continue to this day but no criminal charges were ever filed.

Finstad talked to nearly 400 people -- from junior high classmates to adult friends of Wood, Robert Blake and Robert Redford, for her book. The volume of detail at times overpowers the narrative, but certain things stay with you: Natalie's lifelong fear of dark, seawater and the revelation that she was raped at 16 by an unnamed "powerful and famous actor-producer."

Whether she was a great actress is beside the point. She possessed a singular beauty, distilled in her Russian eyes, that lighted up the screen. And as Suzanne Finstad proves, her life was more compelling than any of her roles.

Paul Moore is deputy managing editor / news at The Sun. He has recently updated his list of the best 200 English-language films of the 20th Century.

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