[This is the first of four essays on the career of Natalie Wood, and is part of a continuing series. The other three thusfar are: Natalie Wood: On the cusp 1960-1963 (Part One); Natalie Wood: (Part Two) On the cusp 1960-1961; and Natalie Wood: Love with the Proper Stranger (The Queen of WB in 1963). If you find this post of interest, you’ll likely find the others even more worthy of your attention. There will be future installments as well. Get automatic updates: become a follower of 11 East 14th St (see the instructions in the far right margin of this page) Thanks for visiting!]
From the upper terraces of the Sherry Netherland Hotel, Fifth Avenue at 59th Street, Natalie Wood surveys the City, the Park and her future as yet unwritten. It is 1963. She is 24 years old, hardly more than a child in years, but old with life experience: three career incarnations — child actress in the ‘40‘s, teenage heartthrob in the ‘50‘s, glamorous Hollywood superstar in the 1960‘s second only to Elizabeth Taylor as the highest paid actress on Earth; one failed marriage (Robert Wagner), one recent failed love affair (Warren Beatty), and one soul-sucking mother from whom she seems to have finally reclaimed her own life.
You can see it in her breathtakingly beautiful face with perfect, prominent cheekbones and wide, dark, almond eyes — eyes inherited from her maternal ancestors of the Central Asian Steppes (though it seems she only spoke publicly of her Russian, paternal heritage). The eyes are lined in the manner of ancient Egypt — or, more accurately, in the manner of “Cleopatra” — not the legendary last Ptolemaic Pharaoh, but the Taylor/Burton/Mankiewicz/20th Century Fox epic, just days from its New York City premiere. This seems odd, but only in the sense that Natalie was not typically a trend follower, but a leader. Her fashion sense was cutting edge, as were her hair styles from the late-50’s through the 60’s, especially the classic look seen here, the one I always think of as the Natalie Wood look.
A Best Actress Oscar nomination for 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass” and lead role in “West Side Story” the same year, nominated for 11 Oscars and winning ten — including both supporting actors. Has any film actress had a better year? Or a more disappointing one? At the same time? No matter. She will soon garner a third nomination for the role she is about to play, in the film she has come to New York to make, “Love with the Proper Stranger.” She is Angie Rossini, a young, vivacious but already world-weary Italian-American girl who is smothered by her family and pregnant by Steve McQueen’s Rocky Papasano, an irresponsible douche-bag musician, after what was to him (but not her), a routine, drunken one night stand.
It is 1963. And John F. Kennedy has yet to be murdered in Dealey Plaza, the concrete of the Berlin Wall is barely dry; the war in Vietnam has yet to escalate. The digital world touches no-one because it does not yet exist. Though she and McQueen would depart our physical realm far too soon and only one year apart, 1980-81, Natalie Wood and Steve McQueen are, here, young and very much alive. (Damn! Where’s that f’ing time-travel machine when you really need it!)
The expression on her face with wide-open eyes, hand on hip, acknowledging the past and its failures, not fearing the future. Like Garbo’s Queen Christina, she stares unblinking, unflinching, at the challenges ahead. It is 1963. And she is ready.