Natalie Wood was a dazzling Hollywood star, with three Oscar nominations and iconic turns in such classic films as Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, and Gypsy. Yet for all the glitz, glamor and an incredible cinematic legacy, her legend has long been overshadowed by the horrible way she died. The new HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind aims to right this wrong by exploring the life and times of this adored actress through the eyes of her colleagues, friends, and family.
Directed by prolific documentarian Laurent Bouzereau, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind offers interviews with the late actress’s contemporaries, including Elliot Gould, Robert Redford, and Mia Farrow, who recount what a joy Wood was to work with. Film critic Julie Salomon gives context to Wood’s career, detailing how America got to watch this charismatic and vulnerable girl grow into an unapologetically bold woman. Her close friends, Mart Crowley and Delphine Mann Friend give insight into how the actress balanced work and home, public life and private. But the core of this doc lies with Wood’s daughters, Katie Wagner, Courtney Wagner, and Natasha Gregson Wagner.
In individual interviews, the sisters recall who Wood was to them, offering a bevy of home movies and family photos to fill in the gaps between archival red carpet shots and clips from her many films. They also speak to that horrible morning in November of 1981, when “Daddy Wagner” returned home without her.
For decades, dark speculation has suggested Wood’s husband Robert Wagner had a hand in her drowning death. While What Remains Behind initially aims to focus on Wood’s life, its second half leans hard into defending Wagner and his firm declaration of innocence. The climax of the doc comes when Wagner sits down for his interview, which is conducted not by some off-camera director, but by his stepdaughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, who is the spitting image of her mother.
Gregson Wagner is not only a subject and interviewer on this film, but also she’s one of its producers. Her passion for telling her mother’s story is clear as she serves as host, guiding us through family anecdotes and “that was a different time” tales of Hollywood shadiness. However, it makes this climactic confrontation between stepfather and stepdaughter feel frustratingly flubbed. Wagner tells much of his story with vague details and muted emotion while she nods and smiles comfortingly. She will not press him for specifics. She will not ask about the conflicting witness reports. In some instances, she will even fill the gaps in his story, as if she’s heard it many times before. She is clearly a loyal and loving daughter protecting the parent who saw her through her mother’s death. This doesn’t make her suited to convincing those skeptical of Wagner’s innocence.
The dueling goals of Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind ultimately seem at odds. The doc’s initial aim to refocus Wood’s story on her life is marred by the insistence of discussing her death throughout. The first act offers a pretty standard—albeit rushed—biography. By minute 34, it mentions the deadly night on the Splendour, the yacht where Woods was last seen alive. The doc assumes you know the basics and won’t go into all the details. Instead, it’ll leap back again to Wood’s childhood, specifically her upbringing by a superstitious stage mom. Gregson Wagner will brush through the macabre legend that a fortuneteller had foretold the star’s death by warning Wood’s mother that her second child would have great fame but should be wary of “dark water.” As evidence Wood didn’t take this premonition seriously, there’s a peppering of photos of the star and her kids frolicking in a swimming pool. Gregson Wagner also notes her mother loved to swim and scoffs at her mother’s reported fear of dark water, saying, “I mean, who does like dark water?”
The plotting of the doc becomes increasingly unfocused, feeling as if it’s retelling the first act with a darker edge that includes the deadly prediction, a casting couch confession, combatting sexism at the studio, mental breakdown, and marital problems. It feels less like Bouzereau is crafting a portrait of Wood as a complicated woman, and more like the documentarian didn’t trust his audience to stay interested without a scandalous edge. So, his film teases the death half-hour in, then lays on a bunch of tabloid-worthy bits before delivering the strange Gregson Wagner-on-Wagner interview.
I come again to this interview because it feels both intimate and performative. Much of the doc’s interviews are pretty standard: a talking head addresses unheard questions while looking slightly off-camera. Here and in the Crowley interview, Bouzereau cuts between an establishing shot of Gregson Wagner facing her subject in cozy scenarios, like across a kitchen table or in a living room. Their answers are not addressed to a director. Instead, they are delivered to the sympathetic face of Natalie Wood’s daughter. Their responses include words like “your mother,” while she refers to Wood as “Mommy.” As such, there’s an eerie air that we’re voyeurs spying in on a private conversation. But they know the cameras are there. So we are left to wonder how much of this intimacy is sincere and how much of it is as staged as the pristine, white living room where Wagner stoically recalls the night his wife went missing from their yacht.
All in all, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is a jarring watch, but likely not in a way it intends. It does complicate the image of Wood, revealing her insecurities and flaws with earnest empathy. However, this same complexity is barely extended to Wagner, who is chiefly portrayed as a saintly widowed father worn down by decades of false accusations. This may be the case, but the doc makes it so poorly you can’t help but wonder.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind premieres today at 9:00pm ET/PT, exclusively on HBO.
Header Image Source: HBO