Dame Elizabeth Taylor has been deemed as the only actress to ever successfully transition from child-actor to film star. But what about actress Natalie Wood? Would she accurately fit into this limited category as well?
With beginning her career at the tender age of four, Natalie was given only ten seconds of screen time in the film “Happy Land” (1943). At seven, Natalie co-starred with her first pair of Hollywood heavyweights, Orson Welles and Claudette Colbert, in “Tomorrow Is Forever” (1946). In the film, Natalie played Orson Welles’ adoptive daughter “Margaret.” Later, Welles commented on Natalie as being a “born professional” and “She was so good, she frightened me.” And by the time she was nine years old, she was the one of the most popular child actors at the time thanks to her delightful performance in the surprise blockbuster “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947). By this time, she had made over twenty films as a child star!
And Natalie certainly handled her career well during her awkward teenage years . Natalie was contracted to playing mostly “girlfriend” type characters in B-films. However, at sixteen years old, her girlfriend days were over when Natalie co-starred with James Dean in “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955). With her strong portrayal of “Judy,” she won her first Oscar nomination for “Best Supporting Actress” category. The following year, Natalie co-starred with John Wayne and Jeffery Hunter in the classic western “The Searchers” (1956). It was said that her friends would wait with her after school in order to catch a glimpse of Wayne and Hunter picking her up to drive her to set.
At twenty-three years old, Natalie hit her peak as a film star starting with her portrayal of “Maria” in the film adaptation of the musical “West Side Story” (1961). Despite Natalie’s singing voice being dubbed, the light charm she brought to Maria was and still intoxicating to watch, especially when she gleefully dances around the seamstress shop during the song “I Feel Pretty.” In the same film, she demonstrated her fine dramatic skills in the scene where she loses her brother Bernardo to a street fight and later in the final scene in which her lover, Tony, dies. She did not receive any accolades for her performance as “Maria”, but in the same year, Natalie starred in “Splendor In The Grass” (1961) where she was nominated for a BAFTA, Golden Globe and her second Oscar nomination for her portrayal as “Deanie.”
By the time Natalie turned twenty-seven, her focus was more on family than Hollywood. Natalie was married to her second husband and raising two daughters. She continued to appear in a few films, most of them being television movies. She appeared as herself in “The Candidate” (1972) which starred her good friend and former co-star Robert Redford. It was unfortunate that once she started accepting roles in theatrical films again like the hilariously underrated comedy “The Last Married Couple In America” (1981), Natalie’s life was cut short at 43. Her controversial and mysterious drowning left Natalie’s film “Brainstorm” (1983) unfinished with only “lookalikes” and “soundalikes” to fill the void she left behind. At the time, Natalie was attached to two more projects which had to be abandoned because of her death.
As to answer the question we proposed in the beginning, our answer is yes. In her short life, Natalie Wood had a remarkably solid career which was devoid of scandal, breakdowns or drug abuse. We think Natalie Wood should be counted among the very few actors who made a successful, albeit quiet, transition from child star to movie star. And she will be remembered forever for her beauty and talent in the films she made.