Rebecca Sullivan's Natalie Wood is a part of a series produced by the BFI on film stars. The book is not a biography rather it is an analytical look at some of Wood's best known films and how they, and her, fitted into the changing sexual, racial, and feminist roles of the 40s-80s.
Sullivan begins by talking about two of Natalie's early films, Tomorrow is Forever and Miracle on 34th Street. She argues that as a child Natalie was something of a 'child-women' with a maturity and knowledge beyond her years, which made her a less mercurial child star than Shirley Temple. The book then deals with the sexual and racial aspects of such films as, Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, Kings go Forth, All the Fine Young Cannibals, West Side Story, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Inside Daisy Clover and The Last Married Couple in America. Sullivan believes that many of Natalie's roles begin with sexual rebellion but then end up with her character fitting into the socially accepted roles of young women in middle class America.
"her performances in Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass remain exemplars of American womanhood on the cusp of sexual revolution and suggest an imperfect, hesitant but nonetheless crucial moment in Hollywood's attempt to deal with radical and sexual upheaval" p. 66
Sullivan discuses Natalie's frequent schism between wanting to be a 'serious actress' and wanting to be a 'hollywood star'. In many ways these two aspects of herself were never reconciled.
"This tossing between past and future, contentment and restlessness speaks to how she more than anyone else expressed women's ongoing conflicts to find their rightful place in post-studio American cinema" p. 129
"Wood often commented in the press on her desire to play rolls that meshed with her own experiences, sometimes to the point of losing sight of where her identity ended and the character's began" p. 37
My only critique of the book would be that whilst Sullivan claims to want to reassess and establish Wood as a major and important part of American culture and cinema, she often seems to side with the criticism that she allegedly seeks to rewrite. Sullivan makes frequent references to Wood's limitations as an actress, some of which I personally disagree with. Perhaps being a fan I have a biased view, but I have always found Natalie to be a strong actress in even the most uninspiring of film roles. She rises above the script and no matter what role connects with her audience. I was also surprised that Sullivan didn't write about Love with the Proper Stranger, a film which, surely marked a transition in American cinema?
It is wonderful to have another book about Natalie, and it was fascinating to learn more about her film roles and the part they played in the changing face of America in the post war period. I also loved how the book dealt with films from all stages of her career, from her childhood, to some of her final roles. It also reinforced how important an actress Natalie was for young women, and how she continues to have an impact to this day.