Elia Kazan, who directed her to one of her three Oscar® nominations, for Splendor in the Grass (1961), may haave summed her up best when he said, "The quality I remember about her was her sweetness. When her persona fitted the role, you couldn't do better." As one of the few child stars who did not go through an awkward period, actually becoming a bigger star than ever during her adolescence, Wood seemed to have made sweetness her stock in trade. Even when playing naughtier characters like Gypsy Rose Lee in Gypsy (1962) or the pregnant unmarried girl in Love With the Proper Stranger (1963), Wood had an inner decency that always seemed to win the day.
She was born Natasha Nikolaevna Gurdin in 1938, and got her start with a bit part as a girl crying over a dropped ice cream cone in 1943's Happy Land, which was filmed in Santa Rosa, California, her home town. That was enough to convince her mother, a one-time ballet dancer, to move the family to Hollywood, but it would be three years before another film job came her way. Happy Land's director, Irving Pichel, remembered her well enough to cast her as a war orphan in Tomorrow Is Forever (1946), and she broke audience's hearts. A year later she scored her biggest triumph as a child star when she played the little girl who learns to believe in Santa Claus in Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
Wood made the transition to more mature roles when Warner Bros. decided to cast real teens in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) (they'd originally considered Jayne Mansfield for the female lead). Her playing opposite James Dean and Sal Mineo was so on-target that she won her first Oscar® nomination. She solidified her box office standing with other meaty roles - the young pioneer girl kidnapped by Indians in The Searchers (1956) and the half-black girl fighting prejudice when she falls for Frank Sinatra in Kings Go Forth (1958). When she married fellow screen favorite Robert Wagner in 1957, they made the covers of all the fan magazines. Inevitably they teamed up, as lovers from the wrong side of the tracks in the big-screen soaper All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960).
But their dreams fell apart off-screen when she divorced Wagner in 1963, followed by a troubled marriage to British producer Richard Gregson and some disastrous love affairs, including a relationship with Warren Beatty that led to a suicide attempt. And despite such box office smashes as West Side Story (1961), The Great Race (1965) and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice (1969), her career hit a downswing in the 1970s. Fortunately, she and Wagner rekindled their romance, wedding again in 1972, and she began finding more sympathetic roles on television. For the small screen, the two co-starred in The Affair (1973) and an acclaimed production of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1976). She had even returned to features, bringing her trademarked sweetness to her role as Christopher Walken's estranged wife in Brainstorm (1983), when her life was cut short in a boating accident.
* Titles in Bold Type will air on TCM
by Frank Miller