Wood began acting in movies at the age of four and, at age eight was given a co-starring role with Maureen O'Hara in the classic Christmas film Miracle on 34th Street. As a teenager, her performance in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) earned her a nomination for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She starred in the musical films West Side Story (1961) and Gypsy (1962), and received Academy Award for Best Actress nominations for her performances in Splendor in the Grass (1961) and Love with the Proper Stranger (1963). Her career continued with films such as Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969).
After this, she took a break from acting and had two children with different husbands, appearing in only three theatrical films during the 1970s. She was married to actor Robert Wagner twice, and to producer Richard Gregson. She had one daughter with Gregson, actress Natasha Gregson Wagner. Wood gave birth to Courtney Wagner during her second marriage to Wagner.
Wood died, age 43, drowning on November 29, 1981; police, and the coroner, ruled her death as accidental.
Natalie Wood was born Natalia Zakharenko in San Francisco, to Russian immigrant parents Maria Stepanovna (née Zudilova, Russian: Мария Степановна Зудилова; 1912–1996) and Nikolai Stepanovich Zakharenko (Russian: Николай Степанович Захаренко; c. 1912–1980). Nikolai was a son of two Ukrainians from Kharkiv: Stephan Zakharenko and Eudoxia Sauchenko. Nikolai was born in Vladivostok. As a child, he immigrated with his mother and two brothers to Montreal, Quebec. Later they moved to San Francisco. There, he worked as a day laborer and carpenter.
Natalia's mother was born in Barnaul, southern Siberia. Her father Stepan worked in a chocolate factory in Russia. He was killed in street fighting between Red and White Russian soldiers in 1918 during the Russian Revolution. After Stepan's death, Maria's mother left the country with her children, resettling as a refugee in the Chinese city of Harbin. Maria married Alexander Tatuloff, in China, and had a daughter, Olga (1927-2015).
Natalie liked to describe her family as having been either gypsies or landowning aristocrats in Russia. In her youth, her mother had dreamed of becoming an actress or ballet dancer. Natalie and her sisters were raised Russian Orthodox Christian and remained in the church. As an adult, she stated, "I'm very Russian, you know." She spoke both English and Russian with an American accent.
Biographer Warren Harris wrote that under the family's "needy circumstances," her mother may have transferred those ambitions to her middle daughter, Natalia. Her mother would take Natalia to the movies as often as she could: "Natalie's only professional training was watching Hollywood child stars from her mother's lap," notes Harris. Wood would later recall this time:
My mother used to tell me that the cameraman who pointed his lens out at the audience at the end of the Paramount newsreel was taking my picture. I'd pose and smile like he was going to make me famous or something. I believed everything my mother told me.
Shortly after Natalia was born in San Francisco, her family moved to Santa Rosa in nearby Sonoma County. Natalia (often called "Natasha", the Russian diminutive) was noticed by members of a crew during a film shoot in downtown Santa Rosa. Her mother soon moved the family to Los Angeles in order to pursue a film career for her daughter. After Natalia started acting as a child, David Lewis and William Goetz, studio executives at RKO Radio Pictures, changed her name to "Natalie Wood."
Wood's younger sister, Svetlana Gurdin (the family had changed their surname), was born in Santa Monica after the move. Now known as Lana Wood, she also became an actress. Lana had a role as one of the Bond girls.
A few weeks before her fifth birthday, Wood made her film debut as a character actress in a fifteen-second scene in the 1943 film Happy Land. Despite the brief part, she attracted the notice of the director, Irving Pichel. He remained in contact with Wood's family for two years, advising them when another role came up. The director telephoned Wood's mother and asked her to bring her daughter to Los Angeles for a screen test. Wood's mother became so excited that she "packed the whole family off to Los Angeles to live," writes Harris. Wood's father opposed the idea, but his wife's "overpowering ambition to make Natalie a star" took priority. According to Wood's younger sister, Lana, Pichel "discovered her and wanted to adopt her."
Wood, then seven years old, got the part. She played a post-World War Two, German, orphan opposite Orson Welles, as Wood's guardian, and Claudette Colbert, in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946). Welles later said that Wood was a born professional, "so good, she was terrifying." After Wood acted in another film directed by Pichel, her mother signed her with 20th Century Fox studio for her first major role, the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street, which has become a Christmas classic. Wood starred with Maureen O'Hara. She was counted among the top child stars in Hollywood after this film. Within a few months after the film's release, Wood was counted among the top child stars in Hollywood, and was so popular that Macy's invited her to appear in the store's annual Thanksgiving Day parade.
Film historian John C. Tibbetts writes that for the next few years following her success in Miracle, Wood played roles as a daughter in a series of family films: Fred MacMurray's daughter in Father Was a Fullback and Dear Brat, Margaret Sullavan's daughter in No Sad Songs for Me, James Stewart's daughter in The Jackpot, Joan Blondell's neglected daughter in The Blue Veil, and the daughter of Bette Davis' character in The Star. In all, Wood appeared in over 20 films as a child.
Because Wood was a minor during her early years as an actress, she received her formal education on the studio lots wherever she was contracted. California law required that until age 18, child actors had to spend at least three hours per day in the classroom, notes Harris. "She was a straight A student", and one of the few child actors to excel at arithmetic. Director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who directed her in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), said that "In all my years in the business, I never met a smarter moppet." Wood remembered that period in her life, saying, "I always felt guilty when I knew the crew was sitting around waiting for me to finish my three hours. As soon as the teacher let us go, I ran to the set as fast as I could".
As a child actress, Wood received media attention. By age nine, she had been named the "most exciting juvenile motion picture star of the year" by Parents. At age twelve, Wood was ranked as Child Star of the Year by the Children's Day National Council of New York.
In the 1953–54 television season, Wood played Ann Morrison, the teenage daughter in The Pride of the Family, an ABC situation comedy. She successfully made the transition from child star to ingenue at age 16 when she co-starred with James Dean and Sal Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Nicholas Ray's film about teenage rebellion. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. She followed this with a small but crucial role in John Ford's The Searchers (1956).
Wood graduated from Van Nuys High School in 1956. She signed with Warner Brothers and was kept busy during the remainder of the decade in many 'girlfriend' roles, which she found unsatisfying. The studio cast her in two films opposite Tab Hunter, hoping to turn the duo into a box office draw that never materialized. Among the other films made at this time were 1958's Kings Go Forth and Marjorie Morningstar. As Marjorie Morningstar, Wood played the role of a young Jewish girl in New York City who has to deal with the social and religious expectations of her family, as she tries to forge her own path and separate identity. She also had detractors. Film critic Pauline Kael referred to her as "clever little Natalie Wood ... [the] most machine-tooled of Hollywood ingénues."
Wood's characters in Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers and Marjorie Morningstar began to show her widening range of acting styles, observes Tibbetts. Her former "childlike sweetness" was now being combined with a noticeable "restlessness that was characteristic of the youth of the 1950s." After Wood appeared in the box office flop All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960), she lost momentum. Wood's career was in a transition period, having until then consisted of roles as a child or as a teenager. She hoped to be cast in adult roles.
Biographer Suzanne Finstad notes that a "turning point" in her life as an actress took place when she saw the film A Streetcar Named Desire (1951): "She was transformed, in awe of director Elia Kazan and of Vivien Leigh's performance ... [who] became a role model for Natalie." "Her roles raised the possibility that one's sensitivity could mark a person as a kind of victim," noted Tibbetts.
After a "series of bad films, her career was already in decline", notes Rathgeb. Then she was cast in Kazan's Splendor in the Grass (1961) opposite Warren Beatty. Kazan wrote in his 1997 memoir that the "sages" of the film community declared her "washed up" as an actress, but he still wanted to interview her for his next film:
When I saw her, I detected behind the well-mannered 'young wife' front a desperate twinkle in her eyes ... I talked with her more quietly then and more personally. I wanted to find out what human material was there, what her inner life was ... Then she told me she was being psychoanalyzed. That did it. Poor R.J., I said to myself. I liked Bob Wagner, I still do.
Kazan cast Wood as the female lead in Splendor in the Grass, and her career rebounded. He felt that despite her earlier, innocent roles, she had the talent and maturity to go beyond them. In the film, Warren Beatty's character was deprived of sexual love with Natalie's character, and as a result turns to another, "looser" girl. Wood's character could not handle the sexuality and after a breakdown was committed to a mental institution. Kazan writes that he cast her in the role partly because he saw in Wood's personality a "true-blue quality with a wanton side that is held down by social pressure," adding that "she clings to things with her eyes," a quality he found especially "appealing."
Finstad felt that although Wood had never trained in Method acting techniques, "working with Kazan brought her to the greatest emotional heights of her career. The experience was exhilarating but wrenching for Natalie, who faced her demons on Splendor." She adds that a scene in the film, as a result of "Kazan's wizardry ... produced a hysteria in Natalie that may be her most powerful moment as an actress." Actor Gary Lockwood, who also acted in the film, felt that "Kazan and Natalie were a terrific marriage, because you had this beautiful girl, and you had somebody that could get things out of her." Kazan's favorite scene in the movie was the last one, when Wood goes back to see her lost first love, Bud (Beatty). "It's terribly touching to me. I still like it when I see it," writes Kazan.
In 1961, Wood played Maria in the Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise musical West Side Story, which was a major box office and critical success. Tibbetts notes similarities in her role in this film and the earlier Rebel Without a Cause. Here, she plays the role of a restless Puerto Rican girl on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She was to represent the "restlessness of American youth in the 1950s", expressed by youth gangs and juvenile delinquency, along with early rock & roll. Both films, he observes, were "modern allegories based on the 'Romeo and Juliet' theme, including private restlessness and public alienation. Where in Rebel she falls in love with the character played by James Dean, whose gang-like friends and violent temper alienated him from his family, in West Side Story she enters into a romance with an ethnic white gang member and his threatening world of outcasts, also alienated from their families and the law.
Although the singing parts were sung by Marni Nixon, West Side Story is still regarded as one of Wood's best films. Wood sang when she starred in the 1962 film Gypsy. She co-starred in the slapstick comedy The Great Race (1965), with Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and Peter Falk. Her ability to speak Russian was an asset given to her character Maggie DuBois. It justified the character's recording the progress of the race across Siberia, and entering the race at the beginning as a contestant. In 1964, Wood received her third Academy Award nomination for Love with the Proper Stranger, making Wood the second actress to net three Oscar nominations by age 25, joining Teresa Wright.
Although many of Wood's films were commercially profitable, at times her acting was criticized. In 1966, Wood was given the Harvard Lampoon Worst Actress of the Year Award. She was the first performer in the award's history to accept it in person, and The Harvard Crimson wrote she was "quite a good sport".
Director Sydney Pollack was quoted as saying about Wood, "When she was right for the part, there was no one better. She was a damn good actress." Other notable films starring Wood were Inside Daisy Clover (1965) and This Property Is Condemned (1966), both of which co-starred Robert Redford and brought Wood Golden Globe nominations for Best Actress. In both films, which were set during the Great Depression, Wood played small-town teens with big dreams. After the release of the films, Wood suffered emotionally and sought professional therapy. During this time, she turned down the Faye Dunaway role in Bonnie and Clyde (1967) because she did not want to be separated from her analyst.
After three years away from acting, Wood co-starred with Elliott Gould in the hit Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), a comedy about sexual liberation. According to Tibbets, this was the first film in which "the saving leavening of humor was brought to bear upon the many painful dilemmas portrayed in her adult films."
After becoming pregnant in 1970 with her first child, Natasha Gregson, Wood went into semi-retirement. She acted in only four more theatrical films during the remainder of her life. She made a brief cameo appearance as herself in The Candidate (1972), reuniting her for a third time with Robert Redford. She also reunited on the screen with Robert Wagner in the television movie of the week The Affair (1973), and with Laurence Olivier and husband Wagner in an adaptation of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976) broadcast as a special by NBC. She made cameo appearances on Wagner's prime-time detective series Switch in 1978 as "Bubble Bath Girl," and Hart to Hart in 1979 as "Movie Star". After her daughters reached school age Wood began to work more frequently.
Film roles that Wood turned down during her career hiatus went to Ali MacGraw in Goodbye, Columbus; Mia Farrow in The Great Gatsby; and Faye Dunaway in The Towering Inferno. Later, Wood chose to star in the disaster film Meteor (1979) with Sean Connery, and the sex comedy The Last Married Couple in America (1980), which bombed at the box office. Her performance in the latter was praised, and considered reminiscent of her performance in Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. In Last Married Couple, Wood broke ground: although an actress with a clean, middle-class image, she used the "F" word in a frank marital discussion with her husband (George Segal).
In this period, Wood had more success in television, receiving high ratings and critical acclaim in 1979 for The Cracker Factory and especially the miniseries film Here to Eternity, with Kim Basinger and William Devane. Wood's performance in the latter won her a Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in 1980. Later that year, she starred in The Memory of Eva Ryker, which proved to be her last completed production.
At the time of her death, Wood was filming the science fiction film Brainstorm (1983), co-starring Christopher Walken and directed by Douglas Trumbull. She was also scheduled to star in a theatrical production of Anastasia with Wendy Hiller and in a film called Country of the Heart, playing a terminally ill writer who has an affair with a teenager, to be played by Timothy Hutton. Due to her untimely death, both of the latter projects were canceled. The ending of Brainstorm had to be re-written. A stand-in and sound-alikes were used to replace Wood for some of her critical scenes. The film was released posthumously on September 30, 1983, and was dedicated to her in the closing credits.
Wood appeared in 56 films for cinema and television. Following her death, Time magazine noted that although critical praise for Wood had been sparse throughout her career, "she always had work".
Wood had two highly publicized marriages to actor Robert Wagner. Wood said that she had had a crush on Wagner since she was a child, and on her 18th birthday she went on a studio-arranged date with the 26-year-old actor. They married a year later on December 28, 1957; it was a union that her mother argued against.
In an article in February 2009, Wagner recalled their early romance:
I saw Natalie around town but she never seemed interested. She was making Rebel Without a Cause and hanging out with James Dean; I was with an older crowd. The first time I remember really talking to her was at a fashion show in 1956. She was beautiful, but still gave no hint about the mad crush she had on me. I later found out she had signed with my agent simply because he was my agent. A month later, I invited Natalie to a premiere on what turned out to be her 18th birthday. At dinner, we both sensed things were different. I sent her flowers and the dates continued. I remember the instant I fell in love with her. One night on board a small boat I owned, she looked at me with love, her dark brown eyes lit by a table lantern. That moment changed my life.
Wood and Wagner separated in June 1961 and divorced in April 1962.
On May 30, 1969, Wood married British producer Richard Gregson. The couple had dated for two and a half years prior to their marriage, while Gregson waited for his divorce to be finalized. In 1970 they had a daughter, Natasha. They separated in August 1971 after Wood overheard an inappropriate telephone conversation between her secretary and Gregson. The split marked a brief estrangement between Wood and her family, when mother Maria and sister Lana told her to reconcile with Gregson for the sake of her newborn child. She filed for divorce, and it was finalized in April 1972.
In early 1972, Wood resumed her relationship with Wagner. The couple remarried on July 16, 1972, five months after reconciling and three months after she divorced Gregson. Their daughter, Courtney Wagner, was born in 1974.
Wood's sister, Lana Wood, recalls this period:
Her marriage was considered to be one of the best in Hollywood, and there is no question that she was a devoted, loving—even adoring—mother and stepmother. She and R.J. had begun with love and built from there. They had overcome each other's problems and had reached an accommodation with time, and the changes time brings. As with anybody else who has settled into making a long marriage work, they were far more determined than most people to make it work ...
They remained married until Wood's death seven years later on November 29, 1981 at age 43.
During the making of the film Brainstorm, Wood drowned while on a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island on board the Splendour. Many of the circumstances surrounding her drowning are unknown; it was never determined how she entered the water. She was with her husband Robert Wagner, Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, and the Splendour's captain, Dennis Davern, on the evening of November 28, 1981. Wood's body was recovered by authorities at 8:00 a.m. on November 29, one mile away from the boat, with a small inflatable dinghy, named the Valiant, found beached nearby. According to Wagner, when he went to bed, Wood was not there. The autopsy report revealed that Wood had bruises on her body and arms as well as an abrasion on her left cheek.
Later, in his memoir Pieces of My Heart, Wagner acknowledged that he had an argument with Wood before she disappeared. The autopsy found that Wood's blood alcohol level was 0.14%, and there were traces of two types of medication in her bloodstream: a motion-sickness pill and a painkiller, both of which increase the effects of alcohol. Following his investigation, Los Angeles County coroner Thomas Noguchi ruled her death an accident by drowning and hypothermia. According to Noguchi, Wood had been drinking and may have slipped while trying to re-board the dinghy.
Wood was buried in Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery in Los Angeles. Scores of representatives of international media, photographers, and members of the public tried to attend Wood's funeral; however, all were required to remain outside the cemetery walls. Among the celebrity attendees were Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Fred Astaire, Rock Hudson, David Niven, Gregory Peck, Gene Kelly, Elia Kazan and Laurence Olivier. Olivier flew from London to Los Angeles to attend the service.
After a thirty-year hiatus, the case was reopened in November, 2011 after the captain of the boat, Dennis Davern, publicly stated that he had lied to police during the initial investigation and that Wood and Wagner had an argument that evening, and alleged that Wagner was responsible for her death.
After nine months of further investigation, Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran amended Wood's death certificate and changed the cause of her death from accidental drowning to "drowning and other undetermined factors." The amended document included a statement that the circumstances of how Wood ended up in the water are "not clearly established". The coroner's office had been instructed by detectives not to discuss or comment on the case.
On January 14, 2013, the Los Angeles County coroner's office offered a 10-page addendum to Wood's autopsy report. The addendum stated that she might have sustained some of the bruises on her body before she went into the water and drowned, but that could not be definitively determined. Forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Hunter has speculated that Wood was particularly susceptible to bruising due to the drug synthroid that she had taken.
Douglas Trumbull, director of Brainstorm, quit directing after Wood's death in 1981. In 2013, he explained that the uncertain circumstances of her death were the main reason for this decision. He has since returned to filmmaking.
In 2011, Walken hired a lawyer when authorities reopened the Wood case, while the LAPD said, "Walken is not a suspect." Authorities stated that Walken is not a suspect.
Wagner has denied any involvement in Wood's death.
Several songs were written about or mention Wood, including "Natalie Wood" (1980, written by Jay Alanski, cover by Jil Caplan), "Natalie's Song" (David Pack), "Eyes Like Natalie Wood" (Kathy Fleischmann), and "I Want to Be Loved Like That" (Phil Barnhart, Sam Hogin, and Bill LaBounty, performed by Shenandoah). In 1999, Julian Daze and the Photon Karma recorded "Natalie Wood", written by singer-songwriter Brian Bell, and released on the Stories of Old album. In 2002 The Handsome Family wrote the song "Natalie Wood," later released on their Twilight album. In 2015, the band TV Girl released a song titled "Natalie Wood". In 2015, an eau de parfum fragrance was released called "Natalie", and featuring gardenia, which was her favorite scent.
A 2004 TV film titled The Mystery of Natalie Wood was directed by Peter Bogdanovich and starred Justine Waddell and Michael Weatherly.