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Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind
*updated June 24 - there is a great new podcast - where the director of the movie is interviewed,- it is a perfect companion piece to the movie-
HBO documentary Film Review
The mysterious and tragic death of Natalie Wood happened almost forty years ago (November 1981) but for those of us who were alive, it is a huge part of our culture history. It has overshadowed her remarkable career as a critically acclaimed actress and Hollywood star of the 1950’s and 1960’s – three Oscar nominations before the age of 25 – with roles in some of Hollywood’s most iconic movies: Miracle on 34th Street, West Side Story, Rebel Without a Cause and Bob and Ted and Carol and Alice. Furthermore, tabloids, gossipmongers, journalists, and even The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department cannot seem to let Natalie rest in peace. The cause of her death was changed from an accident to “unknown” in 2011 when the captain of her and her husband’s private yacht, the Splendor wrote and published his own book implicating Natalie’s husband, movie star Robert Wagner with foul play in her death.
The film was co-written and produced by Wood’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner and she certainly believes that her stepfather, who raised her and whom she calls Daddy Wagner, had nothing to do with her mother’s death. But the film isn’t really about what happened that fateful night, that’s part of it, or even about Natalie’s career, although that too is part of it. But, just as the trailer promises and daughter Natasha hopes, the film is about the person, who was Natalie.
Natalie was earning a living as an actress from the age of four and her mother, a difficult and histrionic person, certainly pushed Natalie to work and make money, so the family could reap the benefits. Natalie grew up fast and never had much of a childhood. She had to become tough in the business, even though Robert Redford tells us she had the biggest heart of anyone he knew. It’s this heart and her ability to touch people and live happily in a remarkable blended family that shines through in the film. Everyone loved Natalie, even her husband’s step sons, from his second marriage to Marion Marshall. Instead of being resentful and stand offish, she embraced Joshua Donen and his brother, the same was true for Wagner’s biological daughter with Marion, Katie. There didn’t seem to be any resentment between Wagner and his ex –wife, or Wood and her ex-husband, Natasha’s biological father, Phillip Gregson. Wagner and Wood were married to each other twice and both were married to someone else in the interval of their marriages.
Wood’s death left a hole in all their lives, but her extended family, and friends’ ability to carry on, and love and support each other, and still stay connected, as a result of all loving Natalie, is the not only astonishing, but is inspirational and heartwarming. That’s the core of the film. But yes, finally Wagner goes on camera interviewed by his daughter-you cannot even call her his stepdaughter, because it doesn’t feel right-and talks about the events of the night of Wood’s death. The film may be biased, but it is clear that he adored his wife and he did nothing to participate in his wife’s death, nor did he try to delay the search and rescue of her. Wagner comes across as credible warm, nurturing and still heartbroken four decades later, even after his happy and current marriage to Jill St. John. Wagner, at 90, still cannot discuss the incident without tearing up.
Incidentally Natalie Wood was a great ally to the LGBT community and one of her closest friends was the playwright, Mart Crowley, who wrote the famous play – Boys in the Band, which Natalie encouraged him to write and she helped promote by bringing her famous friends to the off-Broadway smash. Crowley died earlier this year at 84, but is featured often in the film.
Streaming on all HBO streaming platforms