Natalie Wood (Wikimedia Commons / NBC / Elmer Holloway)
Born July 20, 1938, Natalie Wood was one of the rarest types of actors there is – the child star who seamlessly transitions into teenage ingénue before a successful move to adult stardom. Few former child stars make movies in their 40s that are as well-loved as the ones they made when they were still in single digits. But Wood, who would have been 75 today, pulled it off.
How did she do it? Maybe it was her mother's influence – Russian immigrant Maria Stepanovna made it clear to her daughter that she was going to be a star and, as Wood said, "I believed everything my mother told me." Maybe it was her stunning beauty, one that bewitched the public and attracted many a Hollywood leading man. Over the years Wood was connected to Steve McQueen, Elvis Presley, Tony Curtis, Warren Beatty and more, including husband Robert Wagner. Or maybe it was her notable talent – when Orson Welles directed the 7-year-old in Tomorrow is Forever, he said that the young actress was "so good, she was terrifying."
More likely, it was a combination of the three that propelled Wood into a spotlight that followed her throughout her too-short life. Even after her death, Wood has remained in the news on and off to this day as a bewildered fan base searches for answers about what happened to her. We may never know the truth behind Wood's mysterious drowning death Nov. 29, 1981. But one truth we can count on is the talent she displayed on the big screen – from her earliest days to her last.
Wood got her start at the tender age of four with a brief scene in Happy Land. Several small roles followed, but it was in 1947, when she was 8, that she would make her big breakthrough in Miracle on 34th Street. The Christmas classic made Wood a star not just because of the movie's heartwarming story, but because she was talented beyond her years.
As Wood grew up, she remained a popular young actor – but once a child star reaches the teen years, it can be difficult to avoid fading into obscurity. Wood needed a bold movie to jump-start her teen career. She found it in Rebel Without a Cause. The legendary tale of teen angst gave Wood the opportunity to show off her sex appeal opposite equally sexy James Dean, and to prove that she was ready to shed her childhood and take on more mature roles.
As Wood moved into her early 20s, she faced the possibility of a career decline. After her star turn in the box office flop All the Fine Young Cannibals, she needed another career jolt. She found it in Elia Kazan's Splendor in the Grass, considered by some critics to be Wood's finest hour.
Wood's transition to adult stardom was fully realized with 1969's Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, the infamous comedy about sexual liberation. It paved the way for further roles in movies and on TV.
Wood grew up on camera and along the way gave us more than 50 movies to remember her by. Had she not died so young, perhaps she would have given us 50 more.
Written by Linnea Crowther