Considering that Natalie Wood was only 25 years old when she received her nomination for the romantic comedy/drama Love with the Proper Stranger, many Academy voters probably thought that she would have enough time in the future to finally take the gold home. After all, this was not only her first but already her third nomination. At the age of 17, she was nodded as Best Supporting Actress for her performance opposite James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and then in 1961 for her devastating role as a young women suffering a nervous breakdown from sexual confusion in Splendor in the Grass. So, her nomination in 1963 was surely not seen as a situation of ‘now or never’ nor was her loss to Patricia Neal regarded as an oversight in any way. After all, who would have thought that, at the age of 25, Natalie Wood was already past her prime and would never be nominated again? Of course, she continued to be one Hollywood’s most popular actresses and starred in various more hits – but the time of true critical acclaim was over. Well, this can be seen in two ways – as the typical under-appreciation of a young and popular actresses who was never fully able to be taken seriously or as a much more than fair share of recognition for an actress whose talent very often rather divided the critics than united it. Well, the truth can probably be found somewhere in the middle. Sure, Natalie Wood was not the greatest actress that ever graced the screen – she often struggled to find true credibility in her roles, failed to leave a certain awkwardness in her line delivery behind or simply suffered from being put into roles that neither fit her talent or personality nor made it able for her to stretch herself as an actress. But on the other hand, one cannot help but admire the fact that she was one of the few child stars who made the transition to adult parts, that she could captivate the audience for so long – and that she sometimes was willing and determined to either take a risk that paid off, overcame the obstacles that laid in her way or simply had the right instincts and charm for a role that made it very enjoyable despite not being truly outstanding. Her work in Splendor in the Grass was the risk that paid off – a difficult and challenging part that Natalie Wood brought to life with shocking and exhausting realism and surely stands as the highpoint of her career. Her Maria in West Side Story was her overcoming of large obstacles – probably not everybody agrees here but I see her performance in this as truly heartbreaking and unforgettable. She may be straightened by her accent and her wooden screen partner but she still fills West Side Story with her own kind of energy and life that may not come from any dancing or singing but the liveliness of a young, emotional woman caught between feelings and responsibility and overwhelmed by her own passion – and her final on-screen moments are simply devastating and considering that this performance came in the same year as her other career-best performance in Splendor in the Grass, it's rather surprising that she failed to take home the Oscar that year. And Love with the Proper Stranger? This is the last case – a performance that was maybe not on the same level of her previous excellence nor a true powerhouse in itself and the writing also did not do her any favors by constantly dropping every bit of dramatic possibility for the sake of some quick laughs but Natalie Wood’s charm, personality and way of filling her part with a style that is light enough for the style of her movie while also catching some more serious undertones occasionally nevertheless were able to captivate the viewer and, even though not in a completely satisfying manner, made her work both entertaining and provoking.
It’s famously noted that 1963 saw not only one but two actresses nominated for performances in which they played unmarried women who had to deal with sudden pregnancy (‘Girls with technical difficulties’, as Gregory Peck put it at the awards show). But Leslie Caron and The L-Shaped Room took a much different approach to this subject than Natalie Wood and Love with the Proper Stranger. The L-Shaped Room is not a dark movie in any way but still presents a more realistic picture of a young woman caught in an unknown situation, dealing with its consequences and trying to find a new way of life for herself. The L-Shaped Room is not overly dramatic but it also does not take it matter or its leading lady too lightly. And Leslie Caron also focused more strongly on the inner struggle of the character she played. Natalie Wood was in a different situation that mostly demanded of her to play Angie Rossini from the outside since it was never truly interested in her personal fight but in the question ‘How do we get these two together in the end?’ Of course, there are moments when Natalie Wood found a deeper layer in this woman and showed that she did not play her with the demanded combination of smiles and tears but also with a true understanding of her personal situation – of only Love with the Proper Stranger had been more interested in those moments, then Natalie Wood could certainly have risen to a higher level in her part. But considering that her movie never saw the need to give the controversial topic of abortion and Angie’s own inner struggles any true focus and instead always put every plotline in the overall context of a wanna-be romance, she still got a lot (maybe even the most) out of it.
So, there seem to be a lot of obstacles in this role which would make it seem that this performance may actually rather fall into the ‘West-Side-Story-category’ – but unlike her Maria, Natalie Wood’s Angie is not a creation that overcame all these obstacles. Her very often temperamental and fiery interpretation sometimes don’t connect with her more quiet moments because they don’t come across as another side of the same character but rather as another side of Natalie Wood’s acting. Her attempts to appear clumsy and a little confused when she it having dinner at the house of her suitor feels a bit too forced and uninspired. And most of all, her chemistry with Steve McQueen, which is the major foundation of Love with the Proper Stranger, often feels strangely unsatisfying because neither actor seems to be quite sure of what to do with his and her character and where to take them. Their relationship feels too forced into the movie despite actually being its major part and Natalie Wood often seems to be acting more ‘independently’ from Steve McQueen instead of trying to build a union between them. And unlike Leslie Caron, Natalie Wood also does not make it completely believable that this young woman would actually get into the kind of trouble she finds herself in – Leslie Caron played Jane with a certain melancholy and acceptance that made it plausible that she would just go to bed with a man because they both wanted to do it. Natalie Wood makes Angie often too resentful and distant to make this aspect truly acceptable. So, all this shows that neither the movie nor Natalie Wood’s performance are flawless – but, as stated before, her performance is still able to fall into the third category of her work as it that shows that her instincts are often right and her charm mostly helpful enough for the occasion.
Her first on-screen moments, as just mentioned, are maybe the highlight of her performance but there is still much to enjoy. Most of all, Natalie Wood knows how to handle the comedy in her performance without overdoing it. When she is arguing with her stereotypical Italian family, slamming doors, shouting through the apartment, packing her bags to leave forever only to come back a few moments later, she does it in a way that is somehow completely unexpected in a movie likes this simply because she does not try to go for any dramatic intensity but mostly emphasizes all these scenes with a slightly exaggerated acting style that is genuinely…funny. Yes, she may miss to craft the character of Angie in these moments and, just like the movie itself, drops dramatic depth and development for the sake of short-term entertainment but within these limitations, it’s still a refreshing and sometimes actually touching approach because it works as a nice contrast to later, more dramatic scenes. Natalie Wood also may not truly work well together with Steve McQueen but what she does achieve is the captivating portrayal of a woman who is looking for help only to realize that the man who is supposed to help her actually needs her much more – not in any romantic way but only regarding the pregnancy, a topic that Angie handles with much more maturity and practicality than him. Of course, Angie’s determination to have an abortion does not last long and soon changes when she is faced with the dark reality of an empty, hidden room and a woman who is willing to risk the life of young girls for the sake of some money. Natalie Wood’s silent horror as she slowly undresses and later her breakdown are again moments that may seem slightly over-the-top but still work very well and leave a haunting impression. Unfortunately, Natalie Wood again forgot to go for a deeper approach here for the sake of the obvious drama – would Angie also have rejected the abortion in the end if she could have gone to a normal hospital? What does she truly feel about the baby? How does she see her life in the future? While Leslie Caron showed a woman who was constantly dealing with these thoughts and questions, Natalie Wood underestimated their impact and overestimated the possibilities of superficial drama. But despite all this, her characterization does feel strangely complete – the relation with Rocky, with her family, with herself, it all somehow comes together in the end and while she did not really tell the audience much about Angie than apart from what the screenplay told us anyway, she still gives the illusion of having done much more.
So, Natalie Wood gives a performance that never goes beyond the surface but still works surprisingly well because her charm, her ability to handle comedy and drama, and her clear display of Angie’s journey are still so intriguing, entertaining, poignant, funny and provoking. Neither Natalie Wood nor Love with the Proper Stranger aimed for grand drama but settled for a lower level on which Natalie Wood was able to impress nonetheless. Like Shirley MacLaine in Irma La Douce, she could have done more if a) the screenplay had allowed her to and b) she had actually been willing to do it, but her quiet moments of self-realization during a moment alone with Rocky, her desperate attempts to find her own life while being aware that she is falling in love with Rocky after all or simply her strong screen presence are enough to applaud her even so. In the end, for all her efforts she receives