Actress Natalie Wood grew up, almost literally, onscreen. From her first credited role as little Margaret Ludwig in 1946’s “Tomorrow is Forever,” as the defiant Judy in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” and to the married Carol in 1969’s “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice,” Wood embodied all the stages of not just growing up, but growing up as a woman. Much has been written about her, and nearly every year on the anniversary of her death the LAPD brings up her tragic drowning in the water off Catalina Island.
It is these tragic circumstances that immediately color HBO’s new documentary, “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind.” Natasha Gregson-Wagner, Wood’s daughter, is the narrator and entry into Wood’s inner circle of husbands, friends, and children, hoping to tell more about the actress than just how she died, and it’s a valid crusade. Wood’s life has been talked about secondhand for nearly 40 years, from her death to accusations she was raped as a teenager. But in all that time, no one’s sought to tell Wood’s story from the people who, presumably, know her best.
Gregson-Wagner and director Laurent Bouzereau start out with the standard life to death story. Using beautiful archival pictures and footage from Wood’s films, her life as a Russian-American actress drawn into stardom is documented. Friends and colleagues, from Mia Farrow to Richard Benjamin, are interviewed, all championing Wood’s inner light and her ability to always be on for the cameras. It’s an element that isn’t lingered on as much as you’d want, but in hearing from so many people about Wood’s talents you also see how exactly how small the actress’ world was, and how intimate.
“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” is at its best when it eschews Wood, the celebrity, and focuses on Wood, the mother. The film’s biggest villain is Wood’s own mother, Maria Zudilova Gurdin, a hypochondriac described as so desperate for attention she’d fake a seizure. Gurdin, who’d die in 1998, is even touted as blaming a close friend of Wood’s for her demise. As a result, it’s easy to see why Wood herself was such a devoted mother and kept her children out of the public eye. Seeing home video of Wood with her daughters, step-daughter, and stepsons, is beautiful and is enough to remind you of why Wood has endured for so long: she was normal.
Hearing about Christmas gatherings, boat trips, and seeing Wood dote and kiss her children shows the beating heart behind the actress. You get a glimpse of her love for others and that love disappearing is acutely felt, particularly in the interviews with Wood’s other daughter, Courtney Wagner. Wood’s youngest daughter lost her mother at the age of seven and is incredibly frank about her struggles with drugs and alcohol but, what’s even more affecting, is hearing Courtney discussing how she feels dissociated from her mother. Much like Wood herself, who desperately tried to separate herself from her onscreen persona, Wagner talks about dreaming that one day she’ll have that connection to her mother that comes through in pictures of the pair.
Unlike other child stars, your Judy Garland’s for example, Wood was driven to stardom by a domineering mother but her rebellion never manifested in drugs or alcohol. To hear Gregson-Wagner and others talk about Wood, there was no rebellion at all. Sure, Gregson-Wagner and others cite Wood’s performance in “Inside Daisy Clover” as drawing from Wood’s issues with stardom, with that character’s eventual mental breakdown being cited as similar to Wood’s. But everyone appears to draw a dark line in the sand that Wood wasn’t necessarily troubled herself.
It’s almost ironic that despite the attempts to give “What Remains Behind” a more authentic mien, so much remains mired in conjecture and hearsay. A possible suicide attempt by Wood is cast aside by Gregson-Wagner with little more than a stated belief that it wasn’t so.
More troubling is when Wood’s relationship with “Rebel Without a Cause” director Nicholas Ray is touched on. Wood, 16 at the time, was in a well-known relationship with the director, who was 44. The talking heads consider it little more than a naughty attempt by Wood to be an adult, with the overall tone being ‘times were just different then.’ The allegations of rape against a teenage Wood, documented in Suzanne Finstad’s comprehensive biography on the actress, doesn’t even warrant a mention.
The documentary’s third act sees Gregson-Wagner sit down with stepfather Robert Wagner for an in-depth discussion about Wood’s final days. Long the source of speculation, aided by podcasts, Dr. Phil, and Wood’s own sister, Gregson-Wagner seems to be putting a definitive statement out there with regards to Robert Wagner and his alleged culpability in Wood’s demise. There are some who will see this as the “Robert Wagner apology tour” — and there’s no doubt they’ll take what he says with a grain of salt.
But there’s something to seeing Gregson-Wagner and the man she calls “Daddy Wagner” talking that is emotional and it’s hard not to be as well. Regardless of the audience’s personal feelings towards Wagner, to see Gregson-Wagner cry upon hearing him recount finding her body is intense.
So it’s only more frustrating to have these moments followed up with Richard Benjamin and crew screaming “how dare you” at the media for purportedly making Wood’s death more than it was. As if rogue news journalists are single-handedly the reason for an interest in Wood’s death? Adding insult to injury is Wagner’s wife, Jill St. John, comparing Wood and her death to Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. Considering how sanitized “What Remains Behind” is with regards to Wood’s rebellious tendencies it’s a strawman argument to situate Wood against famous self-destructive stars. She could be referring to the mysteries around Monroe and Presley’s death but, even then, the argument is tenuous.
For classic film fans who consume any Old Hollywood media, “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” is light on new revelations — but is a sweet eulogy from a daughter to her mother. Go in knowing who’s controlling the narrative and you’ll get what is expected.
“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” premieres Tuesday, May 5 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.