It’s a bit frustrating that I have to start this review of a documentary about one of my favorite classic film actresses by discussing the gossip and innuendo that has surrounded her death but, unfortunately, that’s the world that we live in nowadays.
It’s been nearly 40 years since the death of Natalie Wood and the circumstances of her drowning are still debated, largely by people who know nothing about the incident beyond what they’ve read online. In 2011, when an employee of Wood and her husband, Robert Wagner, suddenly changed the story that he had been telling for 30 years, the Los Angeles Police Department reopened the investigation into Wood’s death. Suddenly, all over twitter, people were accusing Wagner of having killed Wood, either deliberately or accidentally. Interestingly enough, Christopher Walken was also on the boat on the night that Wood drowned but very few people accused him of having anything to do with it, largely because Walken is better-known to most twitter users than Wagner. (It’s easier to accuse someone of murder when he’s not a celebrated cultural icon.) Things were not helped when the LAPD announced that Wagner a “person of interest” in the case. Of course, “person of interest” is a vague term that can mean anything.
Also not helping matters was that Lana Wood, Natalie’s sister, publicly accused Wagner of having something to do with Natalie’s death. I can still remember that bloviating gasbag, Dr. Phil, having Lana on his show and asking her if she thought Wagner murdered Natalie. Footage from that interview appears in the HBO documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind.
Fortunately, in the documentary, Robert Wagner is also interviewed about the night that Natalie Wood drowned and there’s a marked contrast between the obviously emotional Wagner who appears in the documentary and the monstrous caricature of Wagner that’s been presented by many Wood conspiracy theorists. If I didn’t already think that Wagner was innocent and that Wood’s death was a tragic and terrible accident, this documentary would have convinced me.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is a documentary about the life and, sadly, the death of Natalie Wood. It’s hosted by her daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner. The film is tribute to Wood and her career, featuring interviews with the journalists who wrote about her, the photographers who snapped pictures of her, the stars who co-starred with her, and finally, the members of of her family. There’s also a good deal of archival footage of Wood talking about her life. One thing you quickly realize, while listening to Wood, is that she knew how to play the PR game. In her interviews, Wood always said enough to be interesting while, at the same time, keeping up enough wall that she remained somewhat enigmatic. Natasha, for her part, describes her mother as being a down-to-Earth person who, when she had to, could play the role of the glamorous film star.
The film examines Natalie’s career, from her time as a child actor to stardom in the 50s and 60s. As the documentary points out, Wood was an actress who literally grew up on scree. The film also takes a look at her semi-retirement in the 70s. (She was making a comeback at the time of her death and Wagner, in fact, admits to getting into a rather loud argument with Christopher Walken about whether or not Wood should have been accepting more film roles.) The documentary candidly discusses her difficult relationship with her mother, along with her occasionally tumultuous private life. The film provides a look at both what made Wood a star and why her performances continue to resonate with so many of us.
(For the record, my favorite Natalie Wood performance will always be Splendor in the Grass.)
But, sadly to say, Wood’s death and the rumors surrounding it casts a shadow over almost every minute of the documentary. Again, that’s the world we live in. It’s a world dominated not only be innuendo and gossip but also a desire to destroy anyone who has ever led a public life. As a result, there’s no way to make a documentary about Natalie Wood without discussing the conspiracy theories surrounding her death and it’s tragic that a few publicity hungry individuals continue to attempt to capitalize on the tragedy of Wood’s passing. The film gives Wagner a chance to tell his story and for that, we should be both thankful. This is film that will inspire viewers to celebrate Wood’s life and to despise those who have exploited her death.