Equipped for Stardom, Alas- Natalie Wood’s Unhappy Career

Natalie Wood: A Life , by Gavin Lambert. Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $25.95.

A lot of writers will tell you that the last star created by the studio system was Elizabeth Taylor, but a lot of writers are wrong. Years after Elizabeth Taylor, there was Natalie Wood.

MGM gave Elizabeth Taylor Lassie Come Home , National Velvet and Father of the Bride , and had the good sense to loan her to George Stevens for A Place in the Sun . Four films of that quality before you’re 20 years old will go a long way toward creating a legend.

But by the time Natalie Wood landed at Warner Bros., after a middling career as a sober little changeling of a child actress, Jack Warner was more interested in shafting his brother Harry out of the studio than he was in nurturing a young actress. He gave her a good part in a very good film ( Rebel Without a Cause ), followed by a bad part in a great film ( The Searchers ), and then she had to make do with hopeless cases like Marjorie Morningstar , The Burning Hills and Bombers B-52 . That segued into a brief musical-blockbuster phase ( West Side Story , Gypsy ), followed by irredeemable disasters like Penelope and Sex and the Single Girl .

Natalie Wood survived a lot of bad movies and retained her appeal-no small achievement. But ever since her drowning death off Catalina Island in 1981, she’s been slowly easing into that limbo populated by stars who don’t transcend their period.

Which is probably why the estimable Gavin Lambert has written an authorized biography of a woman who managed to become a major star without ever earning the bona fides of a major actress.

She would have been a star in any era, especially the silents-her best features were her luminous eyes and luscious figure. Those glowing eyes were always knowing and bright, but her line readings were often flat and gauche. One very wise friend of mine passed up the chance to meet her at a party because he knew that he would go weak in the knees if he tried to form a coherent sentence in her presence-the same sort of reaction people of an earlier generation had to Lana Turner, a personality pull that supersedes considerations of talent. On a certain level of stardom, with someone who can make people happy just by showing up-Julia Roberts, anyone?-who cares if they can act?

On the evidence of Mr. Lambert’s book, Natalie Wood had a life that might gently be termed “uneasy.” Born Natasha Gurdin, the fruit of an extramarital affair, she was pushed into show business by her mother, a real-life Mama Rose. Natasha was very Russian, very emotional: She lost her virginity to the bisexual, addictive personality who went by the name of Nicholas Ray and served as another notch on Warren Beatty’s bedpost, which seems to have induced a mysterious suicide attempt.

Wood had rotten luck, some of it self-induced. While she was filming the hideous Penelope , Mr. Beatty offered her the role of Bonnie in Bonnie and Clyde , but she turned it down because she didn’t want to be separated from her psychiatrist by a long location shoot. She turned down William Wyler’s The Collector in order to do Gavin Lambert’s own adaptation of his novel, Inside Daisy Clover . Both films were downbeat hothouse flowers, but Wyler wasn’t about to be manhandled by the studio, while Inside Daisy Clover was bound to be. For too much of her limited time, Wood was stuck churning out gilded turds like The Great Race .

She knew it, and so put a lot of emotional energy into her relationships. She was a spectacular friend, warm and supportive to her circle, which included Guy McElwaine, Mart Crowley, Howard Jeffrey, Asa Maynor and the late Norma Crane. What Natalie wanted in a friend was humor, intelligence and emotional directness; to qualify, one had to pass what Norma Crane called “the kindness test.”

It’s all very odd: In life, she was sharp and funny (“What killed your father?” she was asked. “My mother, I think,” she replied), but you couldn’t say she was a natural screen comedienne. It’s almost as if acting was some sort of violation of her essential nature, even as it fed her need for drama, for notice.

Physically, Wood was the quintessential star-emotionally, too. She was nervous and prone to short-term liaisons with inappropriate men: Dennis Hopper, Henry Jaglom, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra and, most ridiculous of them all, Ladislow Blatnik, known as “The Shoe King of Venezuela.” Then there was Jerry Brown, at the time California’s secretary of state, whose equipment Wood described as being “like a wand.”

She had a perceptible lack of foundation. Tom Mankiewicz (the wisest of Wood’s friends) says that “studio life from an early age had cut Natalie off from so much, and she was eager to make up for it, but I often had the impression that she never knew exactly how to live her life.”

Unhappy about her career, Wood took time off to focus on her family. She didn’t make a picture for four years. Then the itch hit her and she wanted to go back to work, but suddenly the parts weren’t there. “After being put on a pedestal when she was young,” said Sydney Pollack, “she became a victim of changing times, when the new stars were ‘people like ourselves’ rather than iconic.” After Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice , she came back to … Peeper , The Last Married Couple in America and Meteor -movies to make you pine for Marjorie Morningstar .

The last time Mr. Lambert saw her, she asked him if she looked her age. She was thinking of Barbara Stanwyck, who had seemed bitter and lonely when Wood had dinner at her house. “To stay on an even keel,” Mr. Mankiewicz said, “Natalie needed all her cards, and she was very afraid of losing her beauty card.”

Reduced to nothing parts in theatrical movies and ostensibly meaty parts in déclassé TV movies, Wood began planning a comeback on stage as Anastasia.

When Christopher Walken sparked to her on the set of Brainstorm -yet another lousy movie-it seemed like a chance for creative rebirth. He was from New York, handsome, serious about acting, “edgy.” He was also younger. The woman who told friends that she had never cheated on Robert Wagner was smitten; Mr. Lambert believes there was an affair. Certainly, she was drinking during working hours and behaving in a less-than-professional manner.

The psychodrama continued on board Wagner and Wood’s yacht. Everybody was drinking; Mr. Wagner isn’t entirely clear about exactly when Wood left the cabin, or what a woman who had always been terrified of the water was doing trying to get into a dinghy. The last notation in Wood’s daybook reads: “This loneliness won’t leave me alone.” Song lyric or ruthless self-appraisal?

Wood’s vivid personality and turbulent life compel a certain amount of attention, but the career is punctuated by dreary failure. She helps render West Side Story unwatchable on those too-frequent occasions when Jerome Robbins’ dancers aren’t snapping their fingers. And if you’re looking for proof that Jack Warner was way over the hill, there’s the otherwise inexplicable fact that he didn’t shut down Gypsy after the first week of shooting, recast every part and fire Mervyn LeRoy.

Thanks to the ridiculously furtive Robert Redford-it’s as if he were embarrassed to be seen acting-Wood is the best thing in Inside Daisy Clover . And yes, she’s very moving in Splendor in the Grass , but Elia Kazan could have drawn good work out of Lash La Rue. (Mr. Lambert reveals that Kazan’s first choice for Deanie was the doomed Diane Varsi-not sexy enough; his second choice was Jane Fonda-too sexy.)

For me, the best performance Wood gave was Love with the Proper Stranger , directed by the underrated Robert Mulligan. It’s a part-nice Italian girl gets knocked up-that requires being, not acting. Freed up from the big emotional arias that tended to reveal her structural flaws as an actress, Wood’s natural likeability and charm came through.

Gavin Lambert’s most valuable quality as a biographer-aside from an unforced but erudite style-is empathy. He was Wood’s friend as well as a co-worker, but he doesn’t engage in special pleading. He has a lovely dry wit (I especially like the way he continually calls Jack Warner “Producer”-which is how the studio was referred to in contractual boilerplate).

Mr. Lambert’s book leaves a residue of sadness-not just for the way Natalie Wood died, but for the frustrated, apparently unfulfilled way she lived. In art as in life, choices matter and timing is everything.

Scott Eyman’s Lion of Hollywood: The Life of Louis B. Mayer will be published by Simon and Schuster in 2005.