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50 Years Ago in Pop Culture: I Feel Pretty

West Side Story, released in 1961, won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

Pretty and witty and wise. Photo by: thefoxling

The romantic tragedy,  adapted from the 1957 Broadway production, was based on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.   It was originally conceived as a love story between an Irish Catholic boy and a Jewish girl to be titled East Side Story.

Only six cast members from the stage made it to the big screen, and none of them had leading roles.

For the movie, director Robert Wise wanted Elvis Presley to play Tony, the lovelorn hero trying to escape his gang affiliation.  However, the part went to Richard Beymer in his best known role.  He was a strapping, handsome guy, but he couldn’t carry a tune and his voice was dubbed.

Natalie Wood replaced Carol Lawrence as Maria. Although her songs were dubbed, too, many consider her performance in West Side Story one of her finest. That’s saying something as she was nominated three times for Academy Awards, as well as a Golden Globe for Gypsy, in which she sang, danced, and stripped.

And, boy, was she pretty.  Hollywood’s leading men thought so, and she dated many of them – Michael Caine, Steve McQueen, and Warren Beatty, to name a few of her boyfriends.

But Natalie was always taken with actor Robert Wagner.  A year after the studio arranged a date, they married in 1957, much to the consternation of her mother.  She was only 19 years old; he was 27.  They divorced five years later, married other people with whom they had children, and remarried in 1972, only a few months after her divorce from her second husband.  Her mother again protested to no avail.

Yet it seemed to work for them.  In a 1977 interview, Wagner, smiling, stated, “I’m sure glad it all worked out.”  Added Wood,  “I guess we do [belong together].  Yeah, I think we do.”

Until death do ‘em part.

On Thanksgiving weekend 1981 Natalie died by accidental drowning, or so the coroner ruled.  The couple was relaxing on their 60-foot yacht Splendour near Catalina Island off the California coast with Wood’s co-star, Christopher Walken, from the movie Brainstorm.  They were also drinking a lot – Bloody Marys, Margheritas, beer, and wine – and arguing loudly.

Here the story gets murky.  At some point Natalie, after retiring to her stateroom, returned to deck and either attempted to tie up the boat’s 10-foot rubber dinghy or decided to go ashore, despite being terrified of the water, and fell in.  Upon realizing his wife wasn’t in bed, Wagner and the captain searched the yacht for her with no success and called the Harbor Master to see if anyone had seen Wood.  Witnesses on nearby boats heard her crying for help, but the Coast Guard wasn’t called in for a couple of hours.

Natalie’s body was found after dawn the next morning about a mile away from the yacht.  She was clad in a down jacket and nightgown with socks, sans underwear.

A star was born. Photo by: Caveman Chuck Coker

Thirty years later the case has been reopened.  The captain, whose memoirs have just been published, has accused Wagner of a cover up and stated that he lied in previous probes.  Still, he passed a polygraph test in 2008.

Through his spokesman Wagner declared he supports the sheriff’s department, assuming the new information on which their efforts are based come from “a credible source or sources other than those simply trying to profit” on the anniversary of Wood’s death.

Now, several weeks later, the hubbub has died down, but the investigation will take months.  Is this a tragedy or publicity?  A wrong being righted or much ado about nothing?  Whatever the case, Natalie Wood, RIP.

© 2011 Susan Marg – All Rights Reserved

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