The new biography of Natalie Wood is at once unusual, impressive, disturbing and revelatory. This sort of carefully researched, in-depth study of a life is unusual among Hollywood biographies, which more often focus on the performances and careers of their subjects. Finstad’s prodigious research — encompassing 400 interviews, coroner’s documents, ships’ logs, photographs, movies and visits to the places where Wood lived, worked or visited — is impressive in its detail, in the author’s careful examination of the information, and in the way it is skillfully woven into the story.
The information she has discovered about Wood’s horrific childhood, her anxiety-ridden stardom, and her mysterious death is deeply disturbing. To her credit, Finstad deals evenhandedly with revelations about Wood’s ruthlessly controlling mother, Maria, about her stressful double life as movie star/real self, and about the strangely unsatisfactory investigation of her death.
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Although nearly 50 pages of this book are devoted to the drowning incident off Catalina in 1981, the saga is not sensationalized. She documents that the drowning climaxed two days of excessive drinking and emotional turmoil involving Wood, husband Robert J. Wagner and “Brainstorm” co-star Christopher Walken. Dennis Davern, the captain of the Wagners’ yacht Splendour, was a participant in the drinking and close observer of the arguments.
Finstad points out that the most disconcerting piece of this case is the commonly accepted theory that Wood went down the ladder at the back of the boat and onto the swimstep, possibly to board the dinghy — all in defiance of Wood’s lifetime fear of water.
From early childhood, Wood’s mother had filled her with a fear of “dark water” because a fortuneteller had prophesized that Maria would drown, and she transferred this and many other fears to her child.
When filming “The Green Promise” as a 10-year-old, Wood was terrified to play a scene in which she had to cross a bridge over raging water, a bridge that was rigged to collapse the moment she reached safety. Her mother assured her that it would be perfectly safe, but when she reached the midpoint of the bridge, it collapsed and she was thrown into the water, barely clinging to part of the bridge. Director William D. Russell yelled, “Keep the cameras rolling,” while the terrified child with a broken left wrist struggled in the water.
Her fear of water became such a phobia that friends and family recall she was afraid to have her hair washed and had recurring nightmares about drowning. And again, at the age of 14, because of a last-minute script change, she was given the choice of jumping off the back of a boat or losing her role in “The Star” with Bette Davis. She jumped and immediately became hysterical.
Finstad’s insistent pursuit of this and other themes from Wood’s childhood gives validity to her thesis that Wood was her mother’s creation. Maria transformed the child — born Natasha Zakharenko — into the movie star Natalie Wood by brainwashing her daughter with fantasies and fears.
According to this telling, Maria was the stage mother from hell who manipulated every aspect of her child’s behavior and pushed aside all else — including her other two daughters — to pursue Wood’s success. She forced the child to curry favor with powerful people and threatened her with punishment if she forgot her lines.
Book says Maria set up her 15-year-old daughter to be seduced by 38-year-old Frank Sinatra. “Her mother was a pimp,” noted one friend in disgust. Two years later, Maria looked the other way while Wood had an affair with 43-year-old Nicholas Ray that landed her the starring role in Ray’s film Rebel Without A Cause,” which launched Wood’s “adult” career.
Despite being robbed of her childhood and subjected to cruel traumas in her youth, Wood survived to star in such memorable films as “Splendor in the Grass,” “West Side Story” and “Inside Daisy Clover.” In the last decade of her life she also had found great happiness in her second marriage to Wagner, “her one-and-only, her fantasy fulfilled.” And by every report she was a devoted and loving mother to her three daughters.
But Finstad demonstrates that Wood had a double life. She never ceased to be haunted by the fears, obsessions, and conflicts instilled in her by Maria, even though she hid them to show the world a confident, carefree movie star. She died young, at 43, and the reader is left to conclude sadly that those childhood demons played a part in her early tragic demise.
Critic Digby Diehl’s most recent book, “Angel On My Shoulder,” was co-authored by Natalie Cole.