Natalie Wood: An Icon

Natalie Wood was only 5 years when she made her first film debut. In the hands of an ambitious mother figure, Natalie was pushed into the spotlight at an early age. Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, her parents were Russian immigrants, Natalie’s mother, Maria, grew up in China and there it was where she met a fortune teller who predicted Natalie’s international success. She also warned Maria that somebody in the family would die in dark waters. Growing up, this would become one of Natalie’s greatest fears.

At the age of 10, while shooting “The Green Promise” an accident occurred and the bridge that Natalie was to cross, collapsed earlier than planned. She fell into the waters and instead of helping her, the cameras kept on rolling. Natalie almost drowned, but she was never taken to a doctor. This resulted in her suffering a broken wrist which never healed so she always wore a bracelet to hide the protruding wrist bone. In an interview with OK! Magazine her sister Lana Wood remembers how she would eventually never learn how to swim.

Natalia soon became a child actress and provided for the family. Her older sister Olga later recalls in “Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography” how she taught Natalie to always think of something sad when she needed to cry on cue. Olga advised her to envision the moment when their dog was killed by a truck. ” “I got her to cry,” recalls Olga. Maria, hoovering nearby, made mental notes of the techniques.” This surely had its consequences for Natalie.

“From that time on, whenever I did a movie, I always counted the crying scenes… That was a barometer of how difficult the part was going to be for me.”

“Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography”, Suzanne Finstad, p. 38

During the screen test of “Tomorrow is Forever” (1946), Olga “applied her crying technique” on 6 year-old Natalie. Natalie would later share with actor Robert Redford that on that day her mother also pushed her to the side and ripped apart a butterfly in front of her eyes just to send her back, crying on set.

Natasha grew up to be very disciplined, always showing up on time, knowing everybody’s parts. She became one of the most professional young actors in Hollywood. At just 17 years old she got to play alongside James Dean in the iconic movie “Rebel without a cause” and received her first Oscar nomination. In those days Hollywood studios were arranging dates for celebrities so on her 18th birthday Natalie went on a date with a then 26 year-old actor Robert John Wagner. Natalie had a crush on RJ Wagner, ever since she was 10 years old. She told People’s Magazine:

“I turned to my mother and said, ‘I’m going to marry him.’”

A year after their first date, they got married but it didn’t last long and only 4 years later they divorced. Both Natalie and R.J. went their separate ways, Natalie remarried producer Richard Gregson and gave birth to her older daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner. This marriage also didn’t seem to last long, according to tabloids Natalie caught Gregson cheating and in 1971 this put an end to their marriage. In the following months, Natalie started regularly talking to Robert Wagner and so they began dating again, just to shortly after – remarry. 

During their second marriage Robert Wagner continued his successful acting career in the show “It Takes a Thief” (1968). Meanwhile Natalie focused on their children and left her career aside.

On November 28th 1981 Natalie, her co-star at the time Christopher Walken, R.J. Wagner and Dennis Davern, the yacht’s captain, went on a weekend boat trip to Santa Catalina Island. What follows next is still unknown. The three were drinking until Robert Wagner smashed a bottle against the wall. According to Dennis, R.J. was jealous of Christopher Walken and then he claims, Natalie and R.J. started arguing.
Not long after, Natalie was gone. On the next day, November 29th 1981 her body was found floating in the water. Her death was determined to be an “accidental drowning”.

In 2011 the case was reopened and new witnesses came forward, claiming to have also heard a fight between Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood that night. However, R.J. has refused to talk to detectives ever since. In 2012 new evidence surfaced and so was Natalie’s cause of death changed to “drowning and other undetermined factors”. 

Natasha Gregson Wagner argues that the mysterious death of her mother seems to have overshadowed the persona of Natalie Wood. Natalie Wood was a three-time Oscar nominee, a fashion icon, a mother and a wife. A new HBO documentary, “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind”, created by Natasha herself gives an interesting insight into Natalie’s life. The film features interviews with Robert Wagner and Robert Redford. 

Photo source: Pixabay

Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography. 2020. FinstadSuzanne
Star Bodies and the Erotics of Suffering. 2015. Rebecca Bell-Metereau, ‎and Colleen Glenn
“Inside Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner’s Tumultuous Relationship” Biography.Com. 2020. Colin Bertram
Robert Wagner ‘Person of Interest’ in Natalie Wood’s Death: What You Need to Know: Rolling Stones. 2018. Amelia McDonell-Parry
Natalie Wood’s Dark Waters: Huffpost. 2013. Varla Ventura
People’s Magazine. 1976. Barbara Wilkins
OK! Magazine. 2018.

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