The Life of Natalie Wood: A Tragedy from Act 1
- Created on Saturday, 13 September 2014 03:16
I just finished reading Natasha by Suzanne Finstad, a biography of Natalie Wood. I am drawn to reading the biographies of people with incredible life arcs, which was certainly true of her. By rights, she should have been born in Russia because both of her parents were Russian immigrants who spoke little or no English upon arriving here. Natalie Wood was bilingual; she spoke Russian. And not too many of her fans know that.
As usual, I am going to review her life from the health standpoint, since this is a health blog. Natasha was extremely petite; she was short, and she was small. She only reached a height of 5'0", and that was often hidden in her films, not just by her wearing heels but through other tricks. She was small-boned, small-chested; everything about her was small, and it enabled her to play teenagers well into her 20s. It seems her diet growing up was a combination of standard American fare with the addition of special Russian dishes that her mother made. Poverty may have been a factor in compromsing her nutrition in the early years, that is, until she hit in big in 1946 in Tomorrow is Forever at the age of 8. From that point, she was the breadwinner of the family, and lack of money would never again prevent her from eating well. However, there is a lot that is already set in stone by the age of 8, including her dietary habits.
Natasha's education went through high school, and it was a combination of studios schools, in which they brought tutors to the set to teach child stars, and regular public school. It seems like it was about half and half. And when she went to public school, she tried to fit in and be a regular kid. It so happens that she attended the same junior high school that I did: Sutler Jr. High in Canoga Park, California. And then she went to Van Nuys High, which was close to where I went. And it mentioned her doing typical high school things like going to Bob's Big Boy on the weekend nights to get burgers and fries, and that was the cool thing to do during my time attending high school in the San Fernando Valley. It said that she could eat a lot of that kind of food without gaining weight. In fact, if anything, her tendency was to be too thin. All references to food in the book were to unhealthy, junky stuff. Never was a fruit or vegetable mentioned. Yet, she stayed thin. Typically, she weighed 93 to 95 pounds in her younger years. But later on, her weight became a problem, and she would have to diet before she started filming. She lost that waifish look.
Natasha did not exercise. For one thing, her mother discouraged it. And for two, she just had no jock tendencies whatsoever. But one thing she did take up as a teenager was smoking; and she was a heavy smoker. She became a chain smoker. Of course, that's bad for anybody at any age, but to start it as a teenager is especially bad because you haven't even finished growing and developing yet.
She also took up drinking. As a teenager, she was just as rebellious as any teenager you might know. Her drinking fluctuated; if she was with someone who was a big drinker, then she would drink heavily too. It's important to realize that females do not metabolize alcohol as well as men do. They are more adversely affected by the same amount of alcohol as are men. But then, in addition, being a small 93 pound person, the same amount of alchol affected her more than a 160 pound person. So, because of her gender and her diminutive size, she really couldn't handle alcohol. And it had a lot to do with her death.
There was no mention of her taking any street drugs, however, it was also in her teen years that she started taking sleeping pills. And I don't mean once in a while but every night. She would joke that when it was time for bed, she would wash her face, brush her teeth, and take a sleeping pill. Back then, the sleeping pills available were very harsh: barbituates, such as Seconal. She was taking it every night as a teenager, and it continued until the night she died.
The first movie in which she got to play someone other than a little girl was Rebel Without A Cause in 1955. And that cast, consisting of Jimmy Dean, Dennis Hopper, Sal Mineo and Natalie, they were rebels alright. Smoking, drinking, and wild driving in which Natalie almost got killed. (Note: she had several near-fatal car accidents in her life). But if that wasn't enough, she was also having an affair with the 43 year old diretor, Nicholas Ray. She was 16. And then, if that wasn't enough, she got brutally raped by a leading Hollywood actor. The author didn't name him directly, but the strong implication was that it was Kirk Douglas, and that seems to be the unanimous conclusion in cyberspace that Kirk Douglas raped Natalie Wood. Google it if you don't believe me.
Natalie's love life was filled with pain and disappointment. Her first marriage to Robert Wagner ended when she caught him in bed with a man (according to the author). Then, she took up with Warren Beatty, her co-star from Splendour in the Grass, where, ironically, they didn't even like each other during the making of the movie. All of the passion they had to show each other onscreen was pure acting. But, they became a couple after her divorce, and it flew high for a while only to crash and burn. She had numerous other men, but then met British producer Richard Gregson. She married him with high hopes, but just months after the birth of her daughter Courtney, she caught him in bed with another person, but at least it was a woman this time- her own secretary. So, that marriage ended, and Gregson went back to England. He pretty much forfeited his daughter too. Then, she married Robert Wagner a second time (which is amazing when you consider how the first marriage ended). But, they had a baby together right away, and they both strove hard to make it work.
Natalie's career in the last decade of her life was mostly disappointments. She usually received praise, but most of the movies were considered second-rate. It seems that Rebel Without a Cause, Splendour in the Grass, and West Side Story will always be considered her greatest movies, with Miracle on 34th Street as her best childhood movie. I can tell you, unfortunately, that her very last movie, Brainstorm, was a dud. It wasn't her fault, and she only had a supporting role in it.
I've mentioned her heavy smoking, her drinking, her drug use, and the fact that her diet was far from optimal. And all of that took a toll, more than the public realizes. She developed dark circles under her eyes, which they would cover with make-up. But, some days, it was so bad that they couldn't make her look good. They would just have to stop shooting, tell her to go home and sleep and come back when she was refreshed.
Natalie Wood died in 1981 at the age of 43. The cause of death was drowning. Somehow, late at night, she wound up in the cold water off the coast of Catalina where their boat, the Splendour, was moored. The irony, which the author emphasized repeatedly throughout the book, is that her lifelong fear was of drowning in dark water. And that is exactly how she died. I won't attempt to piece together the events of that night, which are still shrouded in mystery and controversy. But, I will point out that the amount of alcohol that she and Robert Wagner, and their guest Christopher Walken, and their hired skipper Dennis Davern, consumed was staggering. It was a prodigious amount of alcohol.
It was an incredible life, one that no one could envision or imagine except her obsessed and driven mother Maria, who was apparently the ultimate Hollywood mother. Was Natalie's life happy? At times, I suppose, but overall, I would say no. She had so much pain and disappointment and anguish in her life, which led to at least two suicide attempts. What can we learn from it? For one thing, celebrity is a mixed bag, and there is a lot to be said for anonymity. For two, even celebrities often succumb to the same destructive practices that destroy regular people. Smoking, drinking, drugging- it wrecks the beautiful people just as surely as the Average Joes and Average Janes. And note also that Natalie Wood didn't get her Seconal from a street vendor; doctors prescribed it. Just as with Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, and other tragic figures, doctors were complicit in Natalie Wood's downfall. Celebrity doesn't save people from medical stupidity either. Hooking a teenager on Seconal should be considered a crime- regardless of who the teenage is and who the doctor is.