The horrifying death of movie star Natalie Wood has overshadowed her life. “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” a film by longtime documentarian and behind-the-scenes DVD featurette director Laurent Bouzerau, tries to correct that, by focusing on the beloved actress’ career and life as a woman, mother, wife, and experience as the child of Russian immigrants. There’s plenty here about her work in “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendor in the Grass,” “West Side Story,” “Miracle on 34th Street,” “Love with a Proper Stranger,” “Inside Daisy Clover” and other classics, as well as her struggle to succeed in a male-dominated industry that tended to sexually exploit and discriminate against women. Actress Natasha Gregson Wagner, daughter of Natalie Wood and British film producer Richard Gregson, serves as an unofficial audience surrogate and “host.” In addition to sitting for on-camera interviews, Gregson Wagner addresses the camera directly and is often seen in the same frame with interview subjects sitting across a table, as if having a casual lunch. The interviewees include Mia Farrow, Richard Benjamin, and of course Wood’s stepfather Robert “RJ” Wagner, whom Wood married, divorced and remarried, and who was on the boat with Wood the night she died and has been an object of suspicion ever since.
But despite its intention to redirect public attention to the actress’s life and art, the film ultimately starts to seem as anxious and evasive as a witness in a murder investigation who talks around the subject that questioners are most interested in.
This is not to say that “What Remains Behind” is without value, much less that this writer subscribes to any of the more sinister theories about how Wood died. All we know for certain is that she disappeared from a yacht near Catalina Island, where she’d anchored with passengers that also included Christopher Walken, her costar in her last film “Brainstorm,” and that the Coast Guard found her drowned corpse a few hours later. The simplest explanation for what happened is that Wood, who was staying in a cabin below deck with Wagner, got up at the end of a rainy night to tighten the rope on a dinghy that had been banging against the hull and disturbing her sleep (something family members said was a source of regular irritation for Wood whenever they sailed), then slipped on the wet deck, fell overboard, and drowned.
Nevertheless, Wood fans, Hollywood conspiracy theorists, and some representatives of law enforcement have speculated on darker explanations—and not just because Wood was said to have a fear of “dark water” and got injured on a film set as a child actress when she broke her wrist falling into a water tank while shooting a flood scene. (Gregson Wagner and other witnesses discount that particular legend; her daughter notes that her mom loved swimming in the family pool, and asks, “Who doesn’t have a fear of dark water?”) Theories abound that Wagner killed Wood, either with malicious intent or as the result of a drunken argument that inadvertently caused her to fall overboard. These theories were amplified by rumors that either Wood had been having an affair with Walken on set, or that Walken and Wagner were having an affair off-camera, and that one spouse confronted the other and things got ugly.
Walken, who declined to appear in “What Remains Behind,” doesn’t get to address infidelity within the context of the narrative, except in the form of an old “Entertainment Tonight” clip where Walken refuses to speculate on what happened and expresses irritation that people won’t stop spinning theories. Douglas Trumbull, the director of “Brainstorm,” says Walken and Wood displayed zero physical chemistry in their sex scene, and this is presented as conclusive proof that nothing untoward was happening off-camera. But actors who have the hots for each other offscreen can be sexless onscreen and actors who hate each other’s guts can strike onscreen sparks, so that proves or disproves nothing. Trumbull’s take doesn’t acknowledge the Wagner and Walken theory, which the film avoids completely. Wagner says on camera that in the weeks preceding Wood’s death, Walken had been admonishing Wood to concentrate on her career rather than her domestic life, and that Wagner lost his temper with Walken because he thought it was none of his business, but stops short of connecting that to Wagner’s final moments, saying only that she went up on deck when he wasn’t around and vanished.
A few weeks prior to the release of this documentary, Wood’s younger sister Lana Wood published a book insisting that Robert Wagner had something to do with the tragedy, and claiming that Wagner is a closeted bisexual and that his 1961 divorce from Wood was sparked by Wood catching him with another man. In 2011, Los Angeles police reopened the investigation into Wood’s death, changed the cause on her death certificate from “drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” and named Wagner as a “person of interest”—though not a “suspect,” an important distinction. There have been further charges that police quashed a more thorough investigation because Wood and Wagner were major figures in the film industry and there was pressure to let the family grieve and move on. Dennis Davern, the yacht’s captain, has speculated in a book and a podcast that Wagner pushed Wood overboard; Davern also said he had initially lied to police about what happened, and has accused Wagner of locking him in his cabin that night to prevent him from notifying authorities of Wood’s disappearance.
I can imagine Bouzerau and Gregson Wagner, a coproducer on the film, reading this review and growing angry or sad that it downplays the never-before-seen documents, photos, and home movies, as well as the details about Wagner’s life and work, including her relationships with Wagner, her emotionally unstable mother Maria, and her “Splendor in the Grass” costar Warren Beatty (which some have speculated was the cause of Wood’s divorce from Wagner), and the way she took control of her own career with a vigor was unusual then. (Wood even publicly battled her boss, Warner Bros. head Jack Warner, to get more control over her choice of film projects, and succeeded.)
But “What Remains Behind” is structured and told in such a frustrating, often counterproductive manner that it feels like an official product of the Wood-Wagner family. It confines the renewed controversy over Wood’s death to the final twenty minutes and confines its interviews to Wood and Wagner’s trusted inner circle, which includes two of Wood’s publicists and Wagner’s second wife Jill St. John. Wagner is repeatedly addressed on camera by Gregson Wagner as “Daddy,” and referred to by other family members and in Gregson Wagner’s narration as “Daddy Wagner.” The non-presence of Walken, Davern, Lana Wood, and others who might dispute the movie’s take on the tragedy doesn’t enhance its aura of trustworthiness. Nor does its railing at the tabloid media—which is often sleazy but not always factually wrong—and its digs at Lana Wood, portrayed as a parasite leeching off her big sister’s stardom and showing no interest in the rest of the extended Wood-Wagner family.
And how curious and unfortunate it is that Robert Wagner turns out to be his own worst advocate. When he offers his version of what happened that night, his lingering pain over Wood’s death is undeniable. But the way he coughs sharply before launching into the story of what happened on the yacht and makes less frequent eye contact with his stepdaughter during the next section of their conversation comes across as a profound shift in self-awareness, one that neither his interviewer nor the film’s director seem to have noticed. And Wagner’s admission that he grew so furious with Walken that night that he broke a wine bottle against a table, shattering glass all over the cabin, hints at an uncontrollable and potentially lethal rage, a subject the film declines to delve into further, and that surely isn’t the impression that he hoped to put across.
Taken together with other documentaries and written biographies, “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” could serve as a compelling piece of a larger puzzle. But its many curious or self-defeating choices ensure that it ends up feeling like a defense brief for a trial that will never occur in court, but that’s been going on in the public eye for four decades and will probably never end.
Premieres on HBO on Tuesday, 5/5.