Thursday, July 20, 2006

What kind of wood doesn't float?

Natalie Wood...

...who would have celebrated her 68th birthday today, had she not drowned in a still-mysterious boating incident in 1981.

(And yes, a quarter-century later, that morbid joke still draws a laugh. We're sick creatures, we humans.)

An interesting tidbit about the late Ms. Wood is the fact that, in her younger days as a Warner Brothers contract ingenue, she was frequently called upon by the studio to "play the beard" for closeted gay actors, being seen on public dates with them to alleviate any suspicions about their orientation. Among the stars for whom Wood served as a just-pretend girlfriend: Raymond Burr, Nick Adams, Tab Hunter, and her Rebel Without a Cause costar, James Dean.

Wood was one of the few child stars (Miracle on 34th Street, anyone?) of her generation to go on to acclaim and success as an adult actor. She was nominated for seven Golden Globe Awards, winning two (Most Promising Newcomer in 1957; Best Actress in a Television Drama for From Here to Eternity in 1980), and also earned three Oscar nominations.

Although universally beloved by her colleagues on and off camera, Wood had a reputation for being somewhat difficult with the press. The Hollywood Women's Press Club twice tagged her with their annual "Sour Apple Award" as the least cooperative actress in Hollywood.

My favorite Natalie Wood performances, beyond her best-known roles, are her two costarring stints with Robert Redford, Inside Daisy Clover and This Property is Condemned. She was also probably the best thing about Paul Mazursky's notorious (although relatively tame by today's standards) mate-swapping comedy, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. (Wood played Carol, in case you were wondering.)

Hollywood doesn't produce stars like Natalie Wood anymore. (Catherine Zeta-Jones is probably the closest.) But then, that's why God created DVD.

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