1.14.2012

Thank you Natalie Wood



My mother always had a thing for Natalie Wood. The actress died when I was a child, and that tragedy most likely heightened my mother's affinity. As children, she sang songs from Westside Story while cleaning the house, especially Maria. She sat us before the television to watch the musical, but it never struck a chord with me, all those Anglos pretending to be Puerto Ricans dancing around with knives.

But two Christmases ago, I finally watched Miracle on 34th Street and for some reason was mesmerized by Natalie as a child. Her wide brown eyes denoted innocence, but from those irresistibly curled lips came a mature tone seasoned with a near jadedness. Shortly after, I rented Splendor in the Grass and she broke my heart. I knew that Natalie Wood had mysteriously drowned off Catalina Island and that Christopher Walken was there, but had no idea she dated Elvis, Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen and and Michael Caine. She had married, divorced and remarried Robert Wagner. She was close friends with James Dean before he died and Dennis Hopper before he made it big. It was the mystery of her death that compelled me to read her biography, but all points leading up to her sad end were just as enthralling.

There is a bar down the street from our cabin called Oyster House Saloon, a dive patronized by friendly locals. While I like the 75 cent oyster tequila shots and homemade peach vodka, this town is full of too many options for me to think much of it. That is until I found out that Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner began their romance there. They had met once when she was 10 and he was 18 at a studio or industry event, but it wasn't until that night at the bar that their ill-fated love affair would commence.

Suddenly, Oyster House Saloon wasn't just the bar everyone in Studio City goes to when they don't feel like driving. It opened my eyes and became a landmark filled with history. The walls are covered with black and white photos and relics from the past that told real stories. Growing up in a suburb where Bennigan's reigned, I tend to forget that the kitsch covering the walls may not have been placed there by a corporate-hired mall chain designer, but a natural extension of decades and decades of good times.

The biography made the saloon feel haunted, as was Catalina Island where she drowned in the sea and Laurel Canyon, where a car crash threw her and Dennis Hooper smashing through the glass and onto the street, left for dead in the middle of a winding mountain road. At the hospital, she was too frightened to phone her overprotective Russian mother, so she and Hooper called director Nicholas Ray. Finally seeing Natalie as more than just a grown child star, the experience convinced Ray to offer Natalie the role opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.
Natalie Wood helped me look at Hollywood the way a Goonie would look at a treasure map. With a mix of innocence and curiosity, this town may not just be a landmine of strip malls and yawn-worthy architecture on the West Side. There are layers that can be peeled back to reveal history, whether sordid Hollywood secrets or rogue tales from the Wild West. I thank Natalie for the reminder.

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