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A certain splendor

Special to The Times

“We need a fawn in the forest,” assistant director Robert Relyea remembered someone saying to casting director Lynn Stalmaster when he was considering actresses for the role of Maria for the 1961 movie musical “West Side Story.” Relyea continued, “When [Stalmaster] mentioned Natalie Wood, I believe paper cups were thrown at him. They said, you’ve got to get some fresh ideas.”

Perhaps Wood, already a seasoned veteran at age 22, was simply too right for the role of Maria after she had successfully played a number of wounded, dewy-eyed does in “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Marjorie Morningstar” and “Splendor in the Grass.” But what landed her the role, and indeed what set her apart from most Hollywood ingenues of the day, was her rare gift for conveying an intensely personal emotional pitch woefully absent from most contemporary actresses.

Gavin Lambert, screenwriter and author of the newly published “Natalie Wood -- A Life” (who will introduce four of her films at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s tribute to Wood on Friday and Saturday), lovingly remembered her in a recent telephone interview.

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“She called me one day, having heard that Alan Pakula had bought the rights to ‘Inside Daisy Clover,’ and she said, ‘I’d kill for that part,’ and I said, ‘You won’t have to, because we all want you,’ and for the rest of her life we were very good friends.”

Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko to Russian emigre parents, the actress was fascinated by her Russian background. “She was very aware of, and very proud of being Russian.” Lambert recalled, “She had extremes of mood. When she was up she was very up, and when she was down, she was very, very down.”

Lambert lauded Wood’s acting ability in the many tempestuous characters that crowded her body of work. “Think of the hysterical scene in the bathtub in ‘Splendor in the Grass’ or her breakdown in the sound booth in ‘Inside Daisy Clover.’ She had an intensity that was quite unique. These kinds of characters interested her very much.”

She was a product of Hollywood when the definition of the term “movie star” was undergoing an inevitable metamorphosis. In the mid-'50s and throughout the ‘60s, Wood and her generation blazed a trail from a time when actresses were praised for on-screen grace, glamour and poise to an era that anointed upstarts, outcasts and bad girls. Wood pioneered the persona of the good bad girl who unrepentantly flew in the face of the racial conflicts and changing social mores of her day.

Off-screen, Wood was far from playing Miss Goody Two-Shoes as well. “She had a very strong, healthy sexual drive, which I think she inherited from her mother, who had quite a considerable romantic life too,” Lambert said. “In fact, her mother was pregnant when she married the man who may or may not have been Natalie’s father.”

Wood’s liaisons included her deflowering at age 17 by director Nicholas Ray during “Rebel Without a Cause”; courtships with the industry’s most eligible leading men, including James Dean, Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper; marriage and then divorce with Robert Wagner and remarriage to him after a famed liaison with Warren Beatty; and marriage to producer Richard Gregson. But the subject that haunts Natalie Wood’s legacy remains her mysterious drowning death on a yachting excursion off Catalina Island with husband Wagner and “Brainstorm” co-star Christopher Walken. Long the subject of conjecture in the tabloids and behind closed doors in Hollywood, Lambert was able to reconstruct the events of that fateful evening in 1981 as best he could with the help of Wagner, although Walken declined to comment. But as Lambert pointed out, “there was no witness, so no one can say with absolute certainty what happened.”

The mystery that Lambert unraveled painted a vivid picture. “It’s no secret that everybody had been drinking quite a bit when [Wagner] and Walken had a disagreement.”

“At one moment,” Lambert continued, “Walken said [Wagner] should allow Natalie more freedom in her career. She got fed up and went to bed in the stateroom below. They had a motorized dinghy attached to the boat, and when the sea was rough that night, its rope loosened and would bang against the side where the stateroom was.” Lambert went on to hypothesize that Wood might have left the stateroom for the dinghy at sea level and attempted to tighten the noisy rope. “Now, if between the time she untied it, but before she could tie it up again, [it’s possible] she lost her balance and drowned. There were scratch marks on the side of the dinghy from fingernails, like someone had fallen in the water and was trying to get back in.”

It is regrettable that Wood’s true gifts were eclipsed by her untimely death. Lambert lamented the headlines -- “that she was killed, that she tried to kill herself, that she took the dinghy out at night.” Lambert recalled, “For me it was very sad that the real Natalie disappeared under it all. Nobody talked about what a good actress she was, and how remarkably many good films she had made, considering that as a child actress she had to do what she was told when she was under contract to Warners -- and then she hit her stride in the ‘60s.”

And what a stride she hit. Between 1961 and 1966, Wood created a gallery of heroines that no other actress could have played to better effect. Try to imagine the tempestuous girl-to-woman angst in hit musicals “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” without her heartbreaking pathos.

Of course, she delivered the goods in commercial fluff like “Sex and the Single Girl” and “The Great Race.” But even at her fluffiest, Wood was nearly immune to making patently false choices.

As with almost every other movie star since the dawn of celluloid, when the blush of youth began to fade, so did Wood’s career. “By the end of the ‘60s, she wanted to do serious work, and it was becoming more and more difficult,” Lambert said.

In the coming decade, Wood appeared in forgettable TV movies, most memorably as Maggie in Tennessee Williams’ “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.” Naturally, there were attempts to revive her career in feature films. Even when “Meteor” and “The Last Married Couple in America” landed flat, she was still blazing the comeback trail, with “Brainstorm” nearly in the can at the time of her death.

“If she’d lived, she’d have done more,” said Lambert. “In the last months of her life, she was interesting in playing Zelda Fitzgerald, [but] couldn’t get it set up.”

The public’s fascination with Wood’s life and tragic death is evidenced by continued book sales and soon, maybe Nielsen ratings as well.

On March 1, ABC will air “The Mystery of Natalie Wood,” a new TV movie directed by Peter Bogdanovich starring newcomer Justine Waddell as Wood, with Michael Weatherly as Wagner and Matthew Settle as Warren Beatty.

The film was co-produced by Wood’s sister Lana.

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‘Gavin Lambert on Natalie Wood’

“Splendor in the Grass”: Wood got an Oscar nomination for this 1961 dramatic romance, directed by Elia Kazan. The story of repressed love in the 1920s was Warren Beatty’s screen debut. Color. 124 min. Friday, 7:30 p.m.

“Rebel Without a Cause”: Wood plays the romantic interest for delinquent James Dean in this 1955 film. She got a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for the role. Directed by Nicholas Ray. Color. 111 min. Friday, 9:40 p.m.

“Inside Daisy Clover”: Lambert wrote this 1965 tale of an overly ambitious 1930s movie star. It costars Robert Redford, Christopher Plummer and Roddy McDowall. Directed by Robert Mulligan. Color. 128 min. Saturday, 7:30 p.m.

“Love With the Proper Stranger”: Wood got a best actress Oscar nomination for this 1963 role, in which she’s in love with a jazz musician played by Steve McQueen. Mulligan directed. Black-and-white. 102 min. Saturday, 9:45 p.m.

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles

Cost: Double-feature tickets, $8; $6 for LACMA and AFI members, seniors and students

Contact: (323) 857-6010 for information; (877) 522--6225 for advance ticket purchase


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