Monday, July 20, 2015

Birthday Take: Natalie Wood in "Rebel Without a Cause" (1955)

Natalie Wood in Rebel Without a Cause
Welcome to The Birthday Take, a column dedicated to celebrating Oscar nominees and winners' birthdays by paying tribute to the work that got them noticed. This isn't meant to be an exhaustive retrospective, but more of a highlight of one nominated work that makes them noteworthy. The column will run whenever there is a birthday and will hopefully give a dense exploration of the finest performances and techniques applied to film. So please join me as we blow out the candles and dig into the delicious substance.

The Facts

Recipient: Natalie Wood
Born: July 20, 1938
Died: November 29, 1981 (43 years old)
Nomination: Best Supporting Actress in Rebel Without a Cause (nominated) as Judy

The Take

Among the canon of memorable Hollywood rebels, there's James Dean. He is synonymous with a singular film thanks to his momentary output before an unfortunate death. Much like the other great rebel movies, such as The Wild Ones and The Public Enemy, he embodied something integral for why someone would dare to defy societal norms. While the film's plot and reputation haven't quite aligned (there's actually a different rebel in the third act), it has remained an integral piece of film culture thanks to Dean's performance. Also, it is more of a reflection on the young and hopeful who wish to be more than their limited means. The film served as an expose of sorts on the changing tides of culture, as evident in Dean's loud and defiant persona that spouted so many now iconic lines.

Then there was the actress who was around long before and after. Natalie Wood started off her career at 5-years-old in The Moon is Down. It would be awhile before she had any major traction. With three Oscar nominations, she already has an impressive resume before you realize that she was also the lead in West Side Story (which didn't get a nomination). She was charismatic and had a lot of potential up until her unfortunate death in 1981 where she allegedly drowned in a death that still occasionally is questioned on if it was a potential murder. Even then, she left behind an impressive resume that also included a role in The Searchers and Splendor in the Grass

Yet there wasn't anything quite as appealing as the young Wood. While everyone remembers Dean as the central focus of Rebel Without a Cause, there was Wood as Judy. She was the quiet type who didn't necessarily leave much of an impression at first glance. She didn't pick fights or get arrested with a regularity. She was the good girl. Yet, in an astounding twist of fate, she got an Oscar nomination and Dean didn't. It wasn't a fluke, as Wood turned out to be quite the great supporting role. As the chaos swivels into odd corners, she is there as a commentary piece. She notifies Dean of his faults and tries to make him a better man as his sister. It is a role that is only tragic in that she has to watch everything, sort of helpless.

With an impressive career, it is interesting to look back at this film and see how prophetic it was socially. It was a film that didn't solve its problems with rebelling violently. It was one where the issues were more about how one found themselves in society. In some cases, there were some outbreaks of action. But for the most part, it was in being brave in foolish ways and finding a way to matter. For a rebel, that was the way to be seen. As a teenager, the changing dichotomy was also prevalent in finding your identity away from your parents. There's a lot at play in Rebel Without a Cause that is both dated and timeless. Both themes fight themselves into finally coming up with a catalyst that is powerful and representative of something greater.

When considering Wood's best work, most of them were about how society was changing. West Side Story talked about interracial relationships. The Searchers was more explicitly about racism. Even if it wasn't intentional, her films had a purpose and her desire to be part of the change was reflective in her roles. Even if she died too young, she left behind a body of work that even at a young age showed something greater in society. While there's roles that she was probably better in, Rebel Without a Cause epitomizes what made her appealing as a performer. She wasn't always the shiniest or most memorable part of the equation. She was always there, supporting great performances and making the general films better. She could be heartbreaking in ways that aren't explicitly clear.

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