Saturday, July 12, 2008


I was born in 1943 and at about aged ten fell head over heels in love with an older woman, one Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko who was born in 1938. That five year difference was probably too vast a chasm to navigate and surely points to the maturity gap between ordinary male and female of the same age which is estimated to be from ten to twenty years or more and greatly in favor of the fairer sex. No doubt Natalia was proof that the male of the species remains an inferior life form. Natalia understood this when she stated, “The only time a woman really succeeds in changing a man is when he is a baby.” Must be like training a puppy…

Since I was ten and she was fifteen and our first real cogent relationship was the result of the viewing of a still highly replayed Miracle on 34th Street, I seemed to always be at least five years behind this blooming star. I finally did catch up to her by the time West Side Story was filmed and released in 1961. I was doomed from that point on.

As you have already guessed Natalia evolved into Natasha Gurdin and eventually morphed into Natalie Wood courtesy of director Irving Pichel via of producer Bill Goetz who announced to an eight year old Natasha while she was filming Tomorrow Is Forever (1946) that her name was being changed for “marquee value”. We understand that Natalie apparently never legally changed her name from Natasha for as an adult she would sign letters to Russian Family members and old Friends as Natasha.

Sidebar: In order to further engage this cathartic post I will have to admit that in the mid 1950’s I had a short though well documented fantasy affair with Annette Funicello (another older woman by seven months) who in 1955 started her Disney career and evolved as the most popular of the Mouseketeers on The Mickey Mouse Show. To this day I remain forever indebted to Annette for her presence on this planet and the incredible work she has done to combat and find a cure for neurological disorders. God Bless you, Annette.

I never really strayed too far from Natalie though. Her incredible beauty seemed summed up in her haunting brown eyes, incredible laugh and that turned up perky smile that charmed generations of gawky adolescents like me. She acted with an unbridled passion and commitment to her characters that seemed to consume her to the point of exhaustion and breakdown.

In 1961 Splendor in the Grass was filmed and the public saw yet another mature look at Natalie, punctuating her critical success in Rebel Without a Cause. That was followed one year later by Love with the Proper Stranger, probably one of the finest films ever made. As Angie Rossini, a Macy's sales person, she finds herself pregnant and while trying to extricate herself from that predicament finds love. Her interaction with Steve McQueen remains a classic film relationship. Two years later came Inside Daisy Clover, and though the movie was panned Natalie was nominated for the Golden Globe for best Actress in a Motion Picture, Comedy or Musical.

The fact that while she was recognized many times for her exemplary body of work, Natalie never received an Academy Award despite three nominations. Orson Welles’ early observation that, “She is so good, its terrifying.” seems to be right on and sums up her persona and career. She never did anything half way. Much of the failure to recognize her incredible talent seems to have been the hypocrisy of a patronizing Hollywood hierarchy who envied her success and was eagerly awaiting this child star’s inevitable sink into oblivion.

Like many child actors Natalie had been victimized by her overbearing and self-serving Mother, Maria, who would stop at nothing to market her meal ticket. I remember one of Natalie’s quotes that seems to punctuate how her Mother victimized those around her. When asked what her Father died of? she replied: "My mother, I think."

Her Mother would stop at nothing to pursue Natalie’s career and in the process feed the phobias that would haunt Natalie for the rest of her life. During the filming of The Green Promise (1949), an eleven year old Natalie was called on to cross a footbridge over turbulent waters. As part of the plot the bridge had been rigged to collapse and Maria agreed that Natalie shouldn’t be told because, “It might frighten her.” Well, the bridge broke on cue and Natalie nearly drowned and suffered a disfiguring wrist injury and a deep lifelong fear of drowning that literally consumed her. The irony seemed that according to Natalie, “I've been terrified of the water, and yet it seems I'm forced to go into in on every movie that I make.”

Ironically, it was an accidental drowning in the dark, nighttime waters off the coast of Santa Catalina Island on Thanksgiving weekend 1981 that ended Natalie’s life at aged forty three - just when she seemed to be restarting and evolving her life and career. She was on her yacht Splendor appropriately named after the movie believed my many to be her greatest performance.

A piece of me died that day though we are left with her stunning legacy and body of work that will once again take us back to more simple times and remind us all what a great actress she really was.

We will always have to return to Splendor in the Grass in order to properly rekindle our relationship with this special Lady. William Wordsworth in 1807 provided the inspiration for the film with his romantic Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Reflections of Early Childhood that presages her ultimate passing and sums up our feelings for this special Lady.

Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower
We will grieve not, but rather find
Strength in what remains behind. best summed up Natalie’s life, “Reduced to its basics, Wood's life followed a familiar show-biz arc: Obscurity is swept aside by fame and fortune. That turns up the heat on personal demons. Then a hopeful new beginning is cut short by cruel fate. “

Maybe she really was Zenda’s Prisoner, after all…


Ned Buxton

1 comment:

Gabbott said...

As a Natalie fan since childhood I love it when she is remembered this way....Thank you