5 Classic Movies Starring Natalie Wood

A former child star who grew into an Academy Award-nominated actress in her adult years, Natalie Wood would best be remembered for her great performances had it not been for her tragic and still unsolved death.

Wood appeared in several small roles as a child before becoming a star from Miracle on 34th Street (1947). She graduated to more adult characters in the following decade, most notably in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and The Searchers (1956), and began earning accolades for her work.

She was nominated for three Academy Awards, one for Supporting Actress and two for leading performances, and would have certainly matured into matriarchal roles had she not mysteriously drowned off the coast of Catalina Island in 1981.

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'Miracle on 34th Street' – 1947

A young Natalie Wood in “Miracle on 34th Street”
20th Century Fox

One of the great all-time classic Christmas movies, Miracle on 34th Street was Wood's first major role and helped turn her into a star. Directed by George Seaton, the film told the tale of Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), a bearded old man who serves as a last-minute replacement for a drunk Santa during Macy's famed Thanksgiving Parade. Kringle is soon hired on to be a department store Santa under the supervision of Doris Walker (Maureen O'Hara), a divorcee whose young daughter, Susan (Wood), has lost the Christmas spirit. Claiming he's the real Santa Claus, Kringle tries his best to win over young Susan and manages to win her over, but finds himself locked up in Bellevue thanks to Macy's in-house psychologist. Kringle is put on trial, where the faith of all is put to the ultimate test in proving that he really is old Jolly St. Nick. While the lion's share of praise was bestowed on Oscar winner Gwenn, Wood's strong performance endeared her to generations of fans.

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'Rebel Without a Cause' – 1955

Natalie Wood in “Rebel Without a Cause”
Warner Bros.

Wood transitioned into more grown-up roles with Rebel Without a Cause, a searing drama about teen angst from director Nicholas Ray. The movie starred James Dean as Jim Stark, a troubled teenager who meets two more teen outcasts after getting arrested for drunkenness: Plato (Sal Mineo), a disturbed kid from a broken home, and Judy (Wood), a rebellious girl who acts out after losing the affection of her father (William Hooper). Jim, Plato, and Judy strike up an odd friendship that quickly grows complicated when Judy's boyfriend, Buzz (Corey Allen), dies in a car crash after challenging Jim to a fateful game of "Chicken Run." With Jim in hiding, the three misfits form a bond while playing acting as a family, but Plato shoots one of Buzz's friends and goes on the run, meeting a tragic end. Wood was exceptional as Judy, a good girl being raised in a dysfunctional home, and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

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'The Searchers' – 1956

Natalie Wood in ‘“The Searchers”
Warner Bros.

Though absent from a large chunk of the film, Wood was the primary focus of this classic Western starring John Wayne. Directed by John Ford, The Searchers starred Wayne as Ethan Edwards, a Civil War veteran who fought on the side of the Confederacy and has a guttural hatred of Native Americans. After an eight-year absence, Ethan returns to his brother's Arizona home, only to see his family get killed and his young niece gets abducted by the Comanches. Ethan and his adopted nephew, Martin (Jeffrey Hunter), spend five years looking for Debbie (Wood) and eventually finds her assimilated into Comanche culture. Wood's brief appearance was still striking and proved to be pivotal to Wayne's stark anti-hero performance.

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'West Side Story' – 1960

Natalie Wood in ‘“West Side Story”
MGM Home Entertainment

A seminal musical adapted from the wildly successful 1957 Broadway show, West Side Story featured Wood in her most famous leading role. Directed by Robert Wise, the film depicted the violent rivalry between two New York street gangs, the Jets and the Sharks. As the war between the two gangs heats up, Jet co-founder Tony (Richard Beymer) finds himself having fallen in love with Maria (Wood), the sister of Shark leader Bernardo (George Chakris). Of course, since West Side Story is a contemporary retelling of William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the love affair between Tony and Maria is doomed to tragedy. Wood shined as Maria, particularly in duets like "Tonight" and "Somewhere" with costar Beymer.

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'Splendor in the Grass' – 1961

Natalie Wood in ‘'Splendor in the Grass”
Warner Bros.

Wood followed up West Side Story with Splendor in the Grass, a romantic drama set in the 1920s and directed by Elia Kazan. She starred as Deanie Loomis, a working-class teenager who has managed to follow the advice of her mother not to have sex with her boyfriend, Bud Stamper (Warren Beatty), a rich kid from the other side of town. Her resistance to Bud's advances leads to both branching off to other romances, though Deanie becomes distraught enough to attempt suicide and land herself in a mental institution. Deanie recovers and eventually outgrows Bud's philandering ways. Wood's performance earned her an Oscar nomination for Best Actress, though she ultimately lost out to Sophia Loren in Two Women.