NATALIE WOOD: A Life

Gavin Lambert, Author . Knopf $25.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-375-41074-1

Unlike the sexually explicit Natasha , by Suzanne Finstad, or Lana Wood's Natalie: A Memoir by Her Sister , Lambert's take on the luminous star of Gypsy and West Side Story is a relatively discreet, affectionate examination of Wood's short, turbulent life. Groomed by a fanatically controlling stage mother, Wood (1938–1981) enchanted audiences in 1946's Tomorrow Is Forever and prompted Louella Parsons to proclaim, "Natalie Wood eats your heart out." Lambert follows her from such childhood triumphs as Miracle on 34th Street to her breakthrough adult part opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause . Wood's overlapping affairs with Rebel director Nicholas Ray and cast member Dennis Hopper, and brief romance with Elvis Presley, will be familiar material to aficionados. But Lambert reveals deep sensitivity and understanding of her development as an actress, and he's one of the few authors to capture the depth and beauty of her relationship with Robert Wagner. Lambert also effectively highlights Wood's shrewd professional moves, including her pretense to boss Jack Warner that she didn't want to star in Splendor in the Grass , because she knew he would refuse to let her appear in it if she displayed enthusiasm. The shooting of Wood's film with Robert Redford, Inside Daisy Clover , has special authenticity, since Lambert wrote the screenplay and witnessed her frustrations after several crucial voice-overs were cut from the final print. Details regarding Wood's tragic drowning are inevitably speculative and vital questions remain unanswered. But Lambert eloquently clarifies the self-destructive reasons behind Wood's addictions and insecurities, and in the end, readers will feel they truly know the subject more than they do in most biographies. 65 photos. (Jan. 9)

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