Only the most exceptional performer could appeal to sensibilities as disparate as those of homo-pornovateur Bruce LaBruce, who pays homage to Natalie Wood in his 1995 film Super 8½, and Catherine Deneuve, who recently hailed Splendor in the Grass, which Wood made in 1961, as “one of the most beautiful love stories I’ve ever seen in cinema.” But the title of Walter Reade’s 12-film tribute to the stunning actress is misleading: Wood was no angel, on-screen or off-, and her best roles are defined by torment, the struggle for independence, and sexual appetite.
Born to Russian-immigrant parents in 1938, Wood, pushed by her overbearing stage mother, made her first credited screen appearance at age seven in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946); the following year, she’d appear as the preternaturally poised, Kris Kringle–denying half-pint in Miracle on 34th Street. Wood is one of the few child stars who transitioned spectacularly to a teenage and adult career. Made when she was 16, Rebel Without a Cause (1955) features Wood in the defining performance of Eisenhower-era adolescent-girl anguish, her Judy deeply wounded by her father’s lack of affection. Initially too cool for James Dean’s Jim Stark, Wood later shared with him this declaration, one of cinema’s most tender: “All the time, I’ve been looking for someone to love me. And now I love somebody.”
Two vehicles from the ’60s, the richest decade of Wood’s career—cut too short in 1981, when she died in a drowning accident—bear autobiographical traces. In the title role in 1962’s adaptation of the Broadway musical Gypsy, Wood must endure Rosalind Russell’s domineering (and loud) Mama Rose before blossoming into burlesque’s most beloved stripper. Wood sings her own songs in Gypsy—unlike in another hit musical, made the year before, West Side Story.” Wood was eager to star in friend Gavin Lambert’s adaptation of his novel Inside Daisy Clover (1965), which, like Gypsy, features Wood, 26 at the time, as a teenage ragamuffin catapulted into stardom. The dream machine turns out to be a nightmare, of course, terrifyingly captured as Daisy cracks up in a recording booth. Wood’s incarnations as girl, teenager, or woman-girl are indelible, but Wood as an adult does some of her finest, sexiest work, exemplified in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969): “I did it because I wanted to do it,” Wood’s Carol unapologetically tells her free-loving husband, hypocritically flipping out over her affair with her tennis coach, still in their bed. Who needs angels?