It’s always been difficult for me to have one single favorite movie star. I hold a deep and sincere appreciation for a number of actors at any given time, and I’ve often said that I adore classic film stars even more than the classic films themselves. Despite this, only one deserves the recognition of being the first actress to become the object of my affection, and that honor goes to Natalie Wood. For this reason and many more, I can hardly think of anyone more deserving of a tribute from me. My first brush with Natalie came when I watched West Side Story (1961) in my third grade music class, making it the second classic movie that I ever took notice of after Singin’ in the Rain (1952). Even then, however, Natalie didn’t appear on my radar, as Richard Beymer was the star who captured my interest in the picture right off the bat. Another saying of mine is that my discovery of classic movies was like pulling at a long string of yarn; once I discovered and enjoyed one actor’s work, I’d watch another film of theirs, and then discover another star that piqued my interest in that film, which would lead me to continue pulling at the string and discover a whole new world of cinema. This is how my discovery of Natalie Wood occurred too.
In our youth, my sister and I were decorating the walls of our bedroom. While she had some classic celebrities mixed in with some modern ones, I was putting up pictures of Errol Flynn before finding a photo of James Dean in his iconic red jacket from Rebel Without A Cause (1955). It really struck me, so much so that I knew that I simply had to watch the movie from which the picture originated, and only then did Natalie Wood truly appear in my consciousness. Natalie’s performance was so powerful, and I found her character to be so relatable as I was also coming of age when she appeared as Judy and was also struggling to fit in with multiple friend groups. All too quickly after that I became more and more aware of her. I found out that my grandmother had her autograph in her collection, which impressed me to no end, and I began to learn more about Natalie’s life, work, and her tragic passing. I gave West Side Story (1961) another try and became enamored with it. This time I was really captivated by Natalie, and to this day it remains the classic film that I’ve watched more than any other, with most of those viewings remaining in my younger years. I would watch that movie over and over, adoring Natalie and singing her part in all of the songs.
Upon our next trip to Hollywood, my sister and I visited Westwood Memorial Park, perhaps the most quaint and star-studded cemetery in existence. Westwood truly made me fall in love with cemeteries, and to this day I still enjoy paying my respects to my favorite stars in their final resting places. By far Westwood is best known for containing the final gravesite of Marilyn Monroe, and once we walked the grounds a bit my sister practically anchored herself next to Marilyn’s crypt. I was interested in and devoted to Marilyn, of course, but some force led me elsewhere, and I found the grave of Natalie Wood. It was overgrown and dirty, which broke my heart and made me cry. I remember sitting in front of her grave for at least an hour, brushing off the dirt and picking the weeds with my hands as I talked to her. It might have seemed strange, but it certainly didn’t feel strange to me at the time. I sang “I Feel Pretty” to her and wondered if many people still remembered her (the overwhelming amount of love and support for Natalie this week has definitely given me my answer). Before I left, I picked some gardenias off of a nearby bush, leaving them on her plaque and feeling more of an attachment to her than I have to any other star. Something in me really feels like she was listening to my twelve-year-old self that day.
Fast forward to my freshman year of high school, and my love for Natalie still hadn’t wavered when my English teacher gave us the topic for the day’s essay: Who do you look up to the most? While nearly all of the other students wrote about one of their family members, I didn’t hesitate once when I wrote about Natalie Wood and the profound impact that she and her films had on me. Upon receiving my essay back, I discovered that I wasn’t alone, as my teacher wrote in the margins all about her adoration for Natalie too, giving me recommendations for her films as well. To this day Natalie is beyond compare in my eyes, and I’m always the quickest when it comes to defending her, even to the point of cutting a friend out of my life after hearing her make jokes about Natalie’s death. To me, Natalie’s upcoming birthday is bittersweet. It’s wonderful to look back on her life and career with many other fans on this momentous occasion, but I also feel a twinge of pain when I think about how under the right circumstances Natalie could have easily been here to celebrate with us, and how she left this world much too soon.