Natalie Wood: A Life, By Gavin Lambert

Suicidal despair and a 'Hello!' lifestyle
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The Independent Culture

Presentiments of a watery death haunted Natalie Wood from her early childhood. Her mother, Maria, once encountered a Gypsy fortune-teller who told her to "Beware of dark water". She also predicted that one day Maria would drown in it. It was a story Maria, who relished drama, would often relate to her young daughter. Maria, who claimed to be a White Russian aristocrat, was married to fellow Russian émigré Nick Gurdin, a feckless handyman. She was ambitious, he was an alcoholic.

Lambert's biography of Wood is an expert assembly job that puts together the elements - the Hollywood star system, the American ideal of domesticity, and the contrasting reality of a dysfunctional family - that helped create the woman. He also gives her career a fair hearing, noting her talent for comedy, her charm and her ability to convey searing pain and transcendent joy just by looking at the camera. Although he was close to Wood, he is wary of joining the memoir-writing friends and relatives who exploited the mystery surrounding her death by churning out books that revealed nothing but their own hunger for notoriety and a fast buck.

When Natalie was five years old she and her mother visited a location shoot for Happy Land, directed by Irving Pichel. The crew were rehearsing a street scene. When she saw Pichel was alone, Maria whispered to her daughter, "Make Mr Pichel love you," and sat her on his lap. Wood later recalled "singing a little song" for Pichel, who was captivated.

Discord at home meant that the studio lot became a refuge. Her happiness shone through the screen, most memorably opposite Orson Welles in Tomorrow is Forever and as the little girl who doesn't believe in Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street. She was still only nine years old when, at home, her father pointed a knife at her pregnant mother's belly (he suspected he wasn't the father). By this time she was averaging $3,000 a movie.

Her childhood passed in a succession of movies. What really comes through in Lambert's biography is that for a girl who grew up in a dream world, Natalie Wood was remarkably shrewd. And love was always bound up with work. She lost her virginity to the director Nicholas Ray who cast her in Rebel without a Cause. She then proceeded to seduce her co-star, Dennis Hopper, who comments on "the cool way she handled two affairs at the same time" at the tender age of 19. She earned an Oscar nomination and an appetite for dramatic love affairs. Warren Beatty, Frank Sinatra, Nicky Hilton were all lovers and, if Lambert were a different type of biographer, this book would be a kind of retrospective Hello! - listing the clothes, the men, and revelling in the glamour of it all. But Lambert is keen to impress upon us the nervy despair that propelled Wood into bed and on to our screens as well as the sincerity and warmth that informed her relationships.

When she married Robert Wagner in 1957, Lambert was on hand to notice that, despite the depth of their feelings, they did not seem "quite real". They were the starriest couple in the world and they divorced with a crushing inevitability, and there ensued a series of destructive relationships and a suicide attempt. By 1972, when they re-married, her film roles were diminishing, his TV series (Hart to Hart) was flourishing. They started to build a family, and for a while motherhood fulfilled her. But Lambert shows us a woman in terrible conflict. Ever since childhood she had been asked to cry on demand for the cameras. She realised, a friend comments, that "if she could cry authentically, everyone adored her, and she soon established a connection between love and pain". Lambert traces the events leading up to her death with forensic precision. Loaded with tranquillisers and alcohol, on a boat trip where she was caught between a jealous Wagner and predatory Christopher Walken - caught, mind you, in a situation of her own making - she sought escape, as she had been doing all her life, only this time she wasn't acting.