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This article originally appeared in the Dec. 2 issue The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
The Hollywood Reporter review said Warner Bros.’ Rebel Without a Cause could “capture the Blackboard Jungle type of audience and be a real money picture.”
It was right about the box office — made for $1.5 million, it brought in $4.6 million and was a big hit in Europe — and also about the October 1955 release having “some extraordinarily good acting” by James Dean (who famously died in an auto accident three weeks before its opening), Sal Mineo and Natalie Wood.
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For Wood, 16, who’d been in 20 films since she was 5, getting the part of Judy would be her chance to transition to adult roles. The problem was that every actress from Debbie Reynolds to Jayne Mansfield was being considered.
But between the time Wood interviewed with director Nicholas Ray, 44, and did a screen test, they’d become lovers rendezvousing in a Chateau Marmont bungalow.
This still didn’t seal her getting the part, though.
According to Wood in a 1974 interview, on a drunken night out with Dennis Hopper, she was in a car crash, and Ray came to the hospital, where the doctor called Wood a “goddamn juvenile delinquent.” She yelled: “Did you hear what he called me, Nick? He called me a goddamn juvenile delinquent! Now do I get the part?”
Whether this worked or not, Ray did write a memo to Warner Bros. that read: “We just spent three days testing 32 kids. There is only one girl who has shown the capacity to play Judy, and she is Natalie Wood.”
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It was a wise decision: The teenager would go on to receive the first of her three Oscar nominations.
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