'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind': Actress was 4 when her 'narcissistic' mother pushed her into Hollywood

Wood's mother, Maria, pushed her toddler daughter into acting to the point that Natalie became the family's breadwinner as a child actress


                            'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind': Actress was 4 when her 'narcissistic' mother pushed her into Hollywood
Natasha, Maria, Natalie Wood (HBO)
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HBO's 'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind' is a documentary chronicling the life and career of celebrated actress, Natalie Wood, through candid accounts put forth by her husband, daughters and close friends who cherish her dearly. Wood began her career at the tender age of 4, but not by her own will. It was her mother's decision. As sparkling as Wood's life is as one of the biggest names in Hollywood, the reality of her childhood is just as shocking.

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Natalie was the daughter of Russian immigrants Nikolai and Maria Zakharenko and she was born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in San Francisco. Wood's father was a daily-wage worker and he often displayed violent outbursts driven by his alcoholism, while her mother was a rather manipulative taskmaster.

As a young girl growing up in Russia, her mother had dreamt of becoming an actress or a ballet dancer, but circumstances did not let her achieve her goals. When toddler Natalia garnered attention from members of a crew during a film shooting in Santa Rosa, her mother realized her daughter's potential. Maria then decided that the family would move to Los Angeles so Natalia could pursue an acting career. Biographer Warren G Harris wrote in 'Natalie & RJ' that because of the family's "needy circumstances", Wood's mother shifted her own ambitions onto her second daughter. 

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Natalie Wood on the set of 'Tomorrow is Forever' in 1946 (HBO)

Maria, who has been described by Wood's children as an "attention-seeker", "dramatic" and "narcissist" in the documentary, pushed her young daughter into acting to the point that Wood became the family's breadwinner, according to Suzanne Finstad's biography on the actress.

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Maria's pressure on Wood transpired from an incident in China when she lived there as a refugee, escaping from the perils of the Russian civil war. She had her fortune read by a gypsy, who told her that her second daughter "would be a great beauty, known throughout the world". However, she also warned her to "beware of dark water". While Maria told Wood about the frightening bit of the prophecy, she also incessantly cajoled her daughter into fulfilling the first part of that prophecy.  

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Wood also recalled in one of her later interviews, "My mother used to tell me that the cameraman who pointed his lens out at the audience at the end of the Paramount newsreel was taking my picture. I'd pose and smile like he was going to make me famous or something. I believed everything my mother told me."

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Maria became a stage mother, coercing her daughter to pursue acting, which was initially her holy grail. Soon after Wood's success with small roles, Maria was determined to make sure she was cast in bigger films. In 1946, Wood auditioned for a role in 'Tomorrow is Forever', alongside Orson Welles, for a character of an emotionally-fragile German orphan. To bag the role, Wood had to be able to cry on cue, which her mother worried she wouldn't be able to do. So she pulled her daughter aside and whispered to her asking her to think about her family's death in order to shed tears.

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Natalie Wood, her sister Lana and their mother Maria (HBO)

According to Finstad's biography of the late star, however, Maria went much further than that.

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"Her mother pulled her to the side, where no one else could see, ‘took a live butterfly out of a jar and tore the wings off it'. Tenderhearted Natasha (Wood's nickname) went into hysterics as her mother called out, 'she’s ready!' grabbing her by the hand and pushing her in front of the camera," Finstad wrote. However heartless the move, it worked because Wood got the part and her role in the film impressed the studio executives, earning her a long-term studio contract. 

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Wood's children, Natasha, Courtney and Katie, all described their grandmother to be extremely dramatic and hysterical, who once even faked trembling as if she was having an epileptic fit just to seek attention. Nikolai, their grandfather, however, was much more reserved and was apparently never on board with his wife's ambition to launch his young daughter into Hollywood stardom.

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'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind' premiered on May 5, at 9 pm on HBO Max.