The girl reclines on a poolside lounge chair reading a script. Having paused, she raises her head. She is deep in thought. It seems a relatively commonplace photograph of a starlet: a young woman in repose while also at work. It illustrates the promise of Hollywood; of stardom, wealth, and ease. The image of effortlessness belies the labor of acting, of fame. There is, of course, one unusual element: the girl is surrounded by stuffed animal tigers. The girl is Natalie Wood—the child actress turned ingénue turned well-respected actor turned icon of tragedy. It was not uncommon for Wood, a young woman at the time, to be photographed clutching her tigers to her body or placing them around her as she performed various tasks. When I saw these photographs for the first time, I became fascinated with what they could mean within the history of Wood’s life as well as the larger history of Hollywood itself. They are playful and fun, but they are also dark and upsetting, a meditation on loneliness and trauma passed off as lightness, as the mere childishness of a charming young woman.
The troubled child star has long been a cliche, but, as with many cliches, there is a kernel of truth to it. Natalie was an example of this. From a young age, her mother, armed with sheer determination and a fortune teller’s assertion that her daughter was destined for greatness, moved the family to Los Angeles to pursue Natalie’s career as an actress. The mother, domineering at best, abusive at worst, pushed Natalie to approach men that she believed could better her career. Natalie’s career became the predominant concern of the family and everything else, including the other children, was neglected. In this atmosphere of intense scrutiny, even Natalie was neglected. If she was not satisfied with the emotional resonance of a take, Natalie’s mother was known to force her into moments of emotional distress, reminding her of traumatizing events in her life in order to make her cry. According to biographer Suzanne Finstad, it was then that the boundaries between reality and fiction began to blur for Natalie. Never allowed to spend time with children her own age, Natalie never developed a sense of self outside of the characters that she played. Her identity became wrapped up in the stories that defined her work. She became unable to discern reality from fantasy, life from movie-making. And so singularly focused was the mother on living through her daughter’s successes, that she failed to see the girl in front of her.
Later, as a young woman, Natalie was subjected to many of the horrors that have long been a staple of Hollywood. On the set of Rebel Without a Cause, her director, Nicholas Ray, positioned himself as a mentor to his young stars and used the excess of time spent with Natalie, who was then sixteen, to initiate a sexual relationship. He was forty-three years old and the affair was unquestioned—an accepted secret on the set.
As she grew older, she knew that sustaining her career meant navigating the tricky transition period from child star to mature actress. As such, she was seeking roles that would showcase her range and ability. She had, once again, been put in a position where she had to prove herself. One night, Natalie had a meeting in the hotel room of a famous and well-respected actor. He told her that he had a possible role for her. He had been an idol of hers since childhood. She went to the hotel room and he raped her, telling her that if she ever spoke about it, he would end her career. She would never publicly name her attacker, but she would be forced into his presence at parties and movie premieres. Natalie had been robbed of her choices, her options, and her agency. The studio surely would have protected him and discarded her; she was, after all, only one of thousands of potential starlets. This trauma is what actually lived behind the illusion of elegance that Hollywood projected of itself. Natalie was just one of the many women sacrificed to bolster the illusion—pain and suffering became the price of that specific artificial beauty.
Natalie Wood’s story is an exercise in extremes; a childhood sacrificed for a heightened, superficial world, a world that she had been forced into by a mother who was anything but nurturing. It soon became the only reality she knew. Her life and her identity were never truly her own and she struggled with them for the remainder of her life. She was forced to endure a long succession of people who preyed upon her and they were often the very people who were supposed to protect her. Hers is also a story that serves as proof that the Hollywood dream is no more than a fabrication, a glimpse of beauty that can come crashing into a life with unrelenting force. She was the image of the ideal, the non-threatening girl next door. Armed with large, expressive eyes, she became an image of sweetness without substance, of a body without a self. She became Hollywood’s dream of itself, all of its aspiration, its hopes of grandeur and triumph. But much like Hollywood, there was a hidden reality, a darker reality—a collection of secrets lying below the surface. And Natalie Wood is that reality. She is the history of Hollywood, in all its worst impulses and all its most egregious violations.
When I see these photographs I think of this other story, the one that took place far away from the glamour, the lights, and the artifice. At first glance, they might signal the remains of a whimsicality, of a sweet girlishness. But to me they seem to be so much more than that. They demonstrate darkness and frailty, the need to be comforted and seen, the ways we cope or fail to cope, and the basic necessities of existence that, in an attempt to seem strong or invincible, are often deemed unimportant. I see a beautiful girl trying her hardest to find some lasting solace, some companionship. But I also think that these photographs are an indispensable part of her legacy. To me, they offer a more intimate glimpse into her life than any other photograph taken of her. A far cry from production stills or studio sanctioned dates, these images show isolation. They show a person dealing with the trauma of their life in any way possible, grasping for peace. They show a person. A real person. Not an actress and not a role, but the one thing that Natalie Wood had wanted to be so badly for her entire life.
Finstad, Suzanne. Natalie Wood: The Complete Biography. New York, Broadway Books, 2020.