Natalie Wood has been in the news recently, though sadly for all the wrong reasons. The case on the late Hollywood star’s untimely death in 1981 has been re-opened, and the muck-raking that’s accompanied any mention of her name ever since that day has begun all over again. This then seems like a pretty good time to revisit two of Wood’s greatest films, Gypsy and West Side Story, as a reminder of why she was so beloved during her lifetime and why her early death was such a terrible tragedy.
Both films are musicals and while I’m omitting renowned greats like Splendour in the Grass, Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers, the musicals seem appropriate choices as a way to celebrate her range and the great depths of her talents. I’ll start with Gypsy, because, let’s face it, everyone knows how brilliant West Side Story is and I feel that Mervyn LeRoy’s film is a little overlooked – which is unsurprising really, considering it was released just a year after Robert Wise’s masterpiece.
The fact that Wood is overshadowed in the film is also likely an issue. Gypsy may be named after her character but it’s really Rosalind Russell’s picture. She helped get the project started and she stars in it as Gypsy’s mother, the pushy and driven Rose Hovick. Russell’s performance is big. Really big, in fact. It dominates the film, but never unhinges it. This is a story about the weight of parental expectation and the allure, pressure and dangers of superstardom. As the woman desperately pushing both her children into that spotlight, Russell produces a domineering, almost monstrous turn that still maintains a level of sympathy. It’s easy to hate the character, but her motives are clear. She’s doing it because she loves her kids and wants the best for them.
As one of those kids, Wood is simply divine. She plays Louise (later Gypsy), the sweet and sincere elder sister, and the character could very easily have become schmaltzy and syrupy. Yet Wood laces her with a sense of sadness that’s profoundly affecting. She has two key scenes, both song-and-dance sequences. The first comes on Louise’s birthday, when she sings the sentimental Little Lamb song. Wood expresses a palpable desperation and terrible melancholy here and the way she delivers the last line is utterly heartbreaking. The second song finds her watching Paul Wallace’s Tulsa singing All I Need Is A Girl. It’s a moment of wonderful subtlety as she stands in the background, gently swaying to Tulsa’s movements, her actions saying more about the nature of love and yearning than a thousand lines of dialogue ever could. That was Wood’s talent – she could express emotions with a simple turn of the hand or swish of the hips.
In West Side Story that talent is couched in a visual masterpiece that represents the passion and violence of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet through vivid colour and expressive camera movements. As the story’s Juliet, Wood posseses an innocence that is free of the melancholy she’d later display in Gypsy. This is a young girl full of hope, expectation and love, there’s not a trace of cynicism or darkness within her. It’s a risky choice by Wood, but one that pays off marvelously as the film progresses. If West Side Story has one prevailing theme (beyond the coolness of finger-clickin’ dance sequences), it’s the evil inherent in prejudice. The Jets and the Sharks bring the film’s terrible events on themselves, but they’re not the people who pay – the innocent young lovers they claim to care about are. Wood’s wholesomeness only makes her anger at the film’s end more shocking.
There’s so much more that could be said about West Side Story – the gorgeous cinematography, the still-breathtaking choreography, Saul Bass’s beautifully sombre closing credit sequence – but on this viewing, it was all about Wood for me. She was an amazingly talented actress who was sadly taken long before her time. The only thing more tragic is that her legacy remains so inextricably linked to her death that the talent is lost among the scandal. Let’s hope the mystery subsides and she eventually becomes remembered as Natalie Wood: Actress, not Natalie Wood: Doomed Starlet.