Happy Birthday, Natalia.

Natalie Wood - Backstage Cigarette

The incredible Natalie Wood (Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko) would be 82 today, if I’m counting right, born on July 20, 1938, and gone tragically and much too soon in 1981. Seen above during dance rehearsals (for West Side Story or Gypsy, I’ll assume) and below in 1963, from a series of publicity shots done during the filming of Love With The Proper Stranger.

Natalie-Wood 1963

Guilty Pleasures, And Not A Noir: Love With The Proper Stranger (1963)

Love With The Proper Stranger 1

No, not a film noir or even a crime melodrama, Love With The Proper Stranger is one of my guilty pleasure movies. I suppose we’d call it a romance, and though there are multiple scenes that are — if not downright comedic, then certainly played for laughs – it’s hard to think of it as a period rom-com. This is the story of young Angie Rossini, a Macy’s store clerk eager to spread her wings and escape the crowded family apartment shared with an overbearing mother and two vigilant older brothers, all of them anxious to lock her into marriage with a bumbling neighbor. But Angie’s recent one-night stand with roving jazz musician Rocky Papasano (Steve McQueen) leaves her pregnant, so she tracks him down for the name of a doctor and money for a backroom abortion. Doesn’t actually sound like the setup for a light-hearted romance, does it?

Directed by Robert Mulligan from an Arnold Schulman script, the film is unrelentingly gritty and claustrophobic, capturing mid-twentieth century big city life beautifully…beautifully grim, that is. Released on Christmas Day in 1963 (and often listed as a 1964 release), the film may not have been a huge financial success, but did snag five Oscar nominations, including one for Natalie Wood. Schulman penned a novelization of the film, which may have been an expanded version of the original treatment, including some scenes handled differently or not even in the movie, the story told more from Rocky Papasano’s POV.

Love With The Proper Stranger 2

I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this site that a late 1950’s/early 1960’s Natalie Wood became the model for my imaginary ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’ character, and specifically, it’s her performance in Love With The Proper Stranger – her look, wardrobe, demeanor, and the neatly crafted juxtaposition of assertiveness and vulnerability.  Natalie Wood is stunning here in an incredibly real everyday person kind of role, one that countless young women surely could relate to back in 1963. If you get a chance to see this one, check it out.


Remembering Natalia (11.29.1981)

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Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in 1938 in San Francisco, the Russian emigre family name later changed to Gurdin, but we knew her as Natalie Wood, first appearing on film at age 4, lighting up the screen in the original Miracle On 34th Street at only 8, later to create memorable screen roles in Rebel Without A Cause, Splendor In The Grass, West Side Story, This Property Condemned, and my personal favorite, Love With The Proper Stranger from 1963/1964…earning three Oscar nominations along the way.

Sadly, it was on this date, November 29th in 1981, that Natalie Wood drowned off the Catalina coast in a boating accident that’s still shrouded in mystery.

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To say I’m a fan isn’t quite enough. Of course, Wood never played a true ‘femme fatale’, much less a gun moll, film noir heroine or even a real crook, unless you want to count the silly mid-sixties farce Penelope. But for some reason, it was always Natalie Wood that I pictured when envisioning my own creation, ‘The Stiletto Gumshoe’ – Sharon Gardner (real name Sasha Garodnowicz, changed for obvious reasons), a 22-year old trying to make her way in the gritty brown-bricked bungalow rows of Chicago’s ethnic southwest side in 1959. Specifically, it’s the look of Natalie Wood from the early 1960’s, and her Angie Rossini character from Love With The Proper Stranger, like the NYC publicity shots shown above from that film. As Sharon Gardner herself relates, surveying the crowd from her all-too-familiar perch on a barstool in Silky’s cocktail lounge:

“…A decent looking type out for a few snorts after work on a Thursday evening was more likely to go for the loudmouthed lushes squeezed into their sparkly cocktail dresses. But enough liquor can turn me into Natalie Wood, when a fellow wants to believe it. Minus a few curves. And if it’s dark. Which Silky’s usually is.”

Natalie Wood Dance 1

Maybe she got screwed by producers when it came to showcasing obvious singing and dancing talents. Maybe it took a while for her to acquire well-deserved cred for her acting ability and to overcome the child-star label. No question that her prime years included some silly roles, the kind every star was arm-twisted into during the waning days of the studio system. But I just refer anyone unfamiliar with Wood’s work to some of those key films listed above. ‘Nuff said.

Natalie Wood: July 20, 1938 – November 29, 1981. Gone at only 43. We can only imagine the work she left undone at such a young age, but will always have the work she left us with. Yeah, I’m a fan, and always will be.

Natalie Wood Dance 3

Happy Birthday, Natalia

Natalie Wood 1963

No, she never played a ‘stiletto gumshoe’. Never appeared in a noir, and to call any of her films mystery or crime movies would be a stretch at best. Say she doesn’t belong here, and I say too bad. I’m a star-struck fan, always have been.

Many writers model characters on recognizable celebrities, TV and film stars, at least for their general appearance. It keeps an easily recalled image in mind when writing, may even help the reader, and can be a kind of shorthand to avoid overly detailed descriptions. I chose a young Natalie Wood as the physical model for my current project’s main character, Sharon Gardner (real name Sasha Garodnowicz), the ‘Stiletto Gumshoe’, who’d only be a year older than Natalie Wood as the first novel opens in the Spring of 1959, and who concedes that she looks like the actress. Well…sort of. Here’s a short bit, for instance, the opening paragraphs from the in-progress sequel to the first novel, when Sharon Gardner wonders why she headed out to a neighborhood cocktail lounge she’d been avoiding for months…

The woman didn’t throw a dirty look my way when I eased atop the last open seat at Silky’s bar. But she didn’t exactly look pleased either, probably looking for someone else to grab that empty barstool, someone handsome and with a billfold handy.

The cocktail lounge was packed, as it ought to be on a Friday night, and she played to the crowd when she slid her things over to make room for me, making a real production out of arranging her purse, smokes and a fancy lighter on the bar, then rearranging herself with a tug on the hem of her shiny sea green dress, crossing her legs dramatically once she was done. While I tried to catch the bartender’s attention, the woman winked at me, eyes a shade darker than the dress, and her red lips managed something like a smile. So I gave one back. I guess I could have offered more, said thanks or maybe introduced myself.

I would’ve, if I’d known she’d be dead later that night.

The bartender slid a highball my way before I even had a chance to order. Which confirmed I was a regular, or at least, used to be. It had been over four months, after all. I popped my purse open, but he patted my wrist and shook his head, so I pulled out my Viceroys instead of my wallet.

Maybe it was the change of seasons? Who knew what lured me back, but I just couldn’t take another Friday night mixing my own seven-and-seven’s with 77 Sunset Strip on the television for company. I was already curled up on the living room sofa with a glass in hand when I changed my mind and ran a bath instead. I only fussed a little. Well, maybe a little more than a little. Twisted a few curlers into my hair while I got ready, tried a touch more makeup than I’d wear to the office, and a spritz of perfume from the row of Avon samples on my dresser. My one decent black dress had been hiding inside a dry cleaner’s bag for months, and it almost seemed to sigh when I slipped it off the hanger. It was an unremarkable thing, but it fit me like a glove, and once I stepped into my heels and grew a few inches, I knew I looked somewhere on the pretty side of cute. Hell, a fellow could almost mistake me for Natalie Wood.

Well, Natalie Wood minus some curves.

If the lights were dim and he’d already had a few, that is.

And the lights were always nice and dim at Silky’s. When I stepped inside, it was like coming home.

Love With A Perfect Stranger 1963

For me, it’s Natalie Wood in 1963’s Love With The Proper Stranger with Steve McQueen, for which she received an Oscar nomination. Sure, it’s four years late for my project’s 1959 setting, but styles didn’t change all that much till the British Invasion erupted later and the whole mod thing swept the U.K. and America.

Miracle On 34thStreet, Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story, Splendor In The Grass, Love With The Proper Stranger, This Property Is Condemned…what a resume. She didn’t do costumed dramas. There were no Elizabethan courts or frontier women that I can think of. But I sure do wish she’d managed a film noir, or at least a noir-ishly flavored crime caper, or took a turn as devilish femme fatale. One can only imagine what Natalie Wood might’ve done with that.

Natalie Wood was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko on this date, July 20th, 81 years ago in in 1938. She was taken from us at only 43, her death still shrouded in mystery, one which may never be solved, in fact. But like so many great actors and artists, she’s not really gone, with a body of work that will live forever. And she’s in my mind often, darn near every time my fingers are poised over the keyboard and I’m about to get some work done, always seeing Natalie Wood in one scene or another from Love With The Proper Stranger (which I’ve watched more times than I can count) or even those New York publicity shots shown above that she took to promote the film.

So, Happy Birthday, Natalia.



A Gun Moll For Giggles.

Natalie Wood And Bob Hope 4

To say that I’m a Natalie Wood fan would be an understatement. This Property Condemned, Inside Daisy Clover, West Side Story, Love With A Proper Stranger…I love them all, the awful 1960’s comedies and the edgy dramas alike. In fact, my in-progress Stiletto Gumshoe (Sharon Gardner, real name Sasha Garodnowicz, a streetwise girl in the ethnic blue-collar bungalow belt of 1959 Chicago’s south side) describes herself as looking more or less like Natalie Wood, “minus some curves, and if a fellow’s had a few and the lights are low” as she likes to put it.

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Wood’s not the first person you’d picture doing slapstick with comedian Bob Hope, but she was a guest on The Bob Hope Show (variously titled the Chevy Show, The Buick Show and The Chrysler Show depending on the sponsor and dates), tap-dancing in top hat and tails, hamming it up as a 1920’s flapper, trading one-liners as a black leather jacketed juvenile delinquent opposite Hope’s motorcycle cop, or here as ‘scarface’s’ gun moll, a fetching femme fatale who, based on the brief bits available on YouTube, has trouble keeping a straight face or even keeping up with the notorious ad-libber Hope. Makes me wish she managed just one role as a real gun-toting moll, serious crook, or even a ‘stiletto gumshoe’ in her incredible career.

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