May 6, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Laurent Bouzereau
Culture Representation: This documentary about actress Natalie Wood interviews an all-white group of people who are primarily from the entertainment business, including her family members, friends and former colleagues.
Culture Clash: The documentary addresses Wood’s personal problems, as well as ongoing speculation that Wood’s drowning death in 1981 wasn’t an accident.
Culture Audience: “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” will appeal primarily to people interested in 20th century movie stars and biographical information about Wood that has been widely reported elsewhere.
“Natalie Wood: What Reminds Behind,” directed by Laurent Bouzereau, is more of a tribute than an investigative documentary. But that shouldn’t be a surprise, since her eldest daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner not only produced the film, but she’s also the narrator. Gregson Wagner is also the person who does a rare sit-down interview with her stepfather Robert “RJ” Wagner, who’s been been the focus of controversy over Wood’s 1981 death by drowning when Wood was 43. Robert Wagner and his family members have all vehemently denied speculation and accusations that Wood’s death was anything other than a tragic accident.
A police investigation was re-opened in 2011 over Wood’s death, which happened the night of November 29, 1981, while she, Wagner, her “Brainstorm” co-star Christopher Walken and boat captain Dennis Davern had been staying on Wagner’s yacht Splendour near California’s Catalina Island. Davern now claims that he lied to investigators in 1981 about what really happened on the yacht.
Davern, who co-wrote a 2014 book called “Goodbye Natalie, Goodbye Splendour,” claims that Wagner probably had something to do with Wood’s death and that Wagner threatened him to be part of an alleged cover-up. Natalie Wood’s younger sister Lana has also been in the media with the same accusations. And in recent years, there’s been renewed public interest in Natalie Wood’s death, with some news media calling her death an “unsolved murder.”
“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” addresses the speculation about how Wood died toward the end of the film, as a rebuttal to all the negativity that’s been reported. It’s clear that the documentary was made to also give the family an outlet to rectify what they say is the damage to Natalie Wood’s legacy that the scandal has caused. Gregson Wagner, the talking head with the most screen time in the movie, essentially admits this agenda by saying that she wants her mother to be remembered mostly for how she lived, not how she died.
Before the movie addresses the speculation over Natalie Wood’s death, about 80% of it consists of a mostly glowing overview of her life and career. In terms of biographical information, there’s nothing new that’s uncovered that hasn’t already been revealed in the myriad of media reports and books about Natalie Wood.
The only people who might learn something new from watching this documentary are people who don’t know very much about Natalie Wood. And although family members and friends give personal anecdotes, none of the anecdotes is very surprising or revealing—unless you think it’s important to know that Natalie didn’t wear makeup when she was relaxing at home, or you like to see people name-drop the list of celebrities who used to go to the family’s house parties. It also comes as no surprise that she’s described as a devoted and loving mother, to the point where any flaws she might have had as a mother are not mentioned at all.
Natalie Wood (whose birth name was Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko) was the middle child of three daughters born to Russian immigrants. Her mother Maria was domineering and highly superstitious, while her father Nikolai was quiet and passive. Maria was the parent who pushed Natalie into having a showbiz career. Natalie started out as a child star and evolved into a true movie icon. She was at the peak of her fame with films such as 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause,” 1961’s “West Side Story,” 1961’s “Splendor in the Grass,” 1962’s “Gypsy” and 1963’s “Love With the Proper Stranger.”
By the time she was 25, she had received three Oscar nominations for Best Actress, for “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “Love With the Proper Stranger.” Her other well-known films included 1969’s “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice” and the 1979 TV miniseries remake of “From Here to Eternity,” for which she won a Golden Globe.
It’s hinted in the documentary that she had “daddy issues,” since she preferred to be romantically involved with men who were older than she was. And when her sexual involvement with “Rebel Without a Cause” director Nicholas Ray is mentioned in the documentary—she filmed the movie when she was 16 and he was 43—it’s glossed over as consensual, because Natalie supposedly told people that she was “in love” with Ray.
Natalie’s relationships with the two men she married are also covered in a predictable manner for a documentary financed by one of her daughters: Problems in each marriage are mentioned briefly, but the widespread reports and scandalous details of alcohol-fueled rages, physical fights and emotional abuse are not mentioned at all. Robert Wagner (eight years older than her) was her first husband, from 1957 to 1962. Long before their first date, which Robert Wagner said was on her 18th birthday, she had a very public crush on him.
In a documentary interview with stepdaughter Natasha, Robert Wagner blames the failure of this first marriage to Natalie on “the pressure on her and her career.” And he admits that he would have handled their marital problems better if he had been “older and more experienced” at the time. Robert Wagner went on to marry actress Marion Marshall; they were married from 1963 to 1971, and had a daughter together named Katie Wagner, who’s interviewed in the film.
The movie also hints at but never fully explores the well-documented stories that Robert Wagner was a jealous and controlling husband, which led to numerous fights between him and Natalie. In the documentary, Robert Wagner admits to being very upset by Natalie’s two-year relationship with her “Splendor and the Grass” co-star Warren Beatty, which began after the movie finished filming and while she was separated from Robert Wagner.
“I was ready to go after him,” says Robert Wagner. “I can talk about it easily now, but at the time, it was a little bit difficult, as you can imagine.” Playwright/author Mart Crowley, who became a lifelong close friend of Natalie’s, starting when he was a production assistant on “Splendor in the Grass,” insists that the romance that Natalie had with Beatty was not the cause of her failed marriage to Robert Wagner.
Other men she dated after the divorce included Frank Sinatra, Henry Jaglom, Michael Caine, David Niven Jr., Arthur Loew Jr., and Kadislav Baltnik—the latter two men she was also engaged to but never married. Niven is briefly interviewed in the documentary, and he says he was an anomaly for her paramours because he was younger than Natalie.
In 1969, she married British agent-turned-producer Richard Gregson, and had daughter Natasha with him in 1970. But that marriage fell apart in 1972, after he cheated on her with her secretary. Gregson died in 2019, but he is interviewed here with Parkinson’s disease, and he admits that his infidelity was the main cause of the divorce. Although he mostly praises Natalie, he does say that her temper could be pretty fearsome: “When she let go, she let go,” he comments. It’s yet another vague reference that isn’t followed up with more details.
Natalie’s issues with mental health is also not new information, since she revealed back in the 1970s that she was in psychiatric therapy for years. The documentary mentions that in 1964, she intentionally overdosed on pills while she was staying at Crowley’s place, who remembers that she banged on his door to get help immediately after taking the pills. The incident is explained by daughter Natasha as “not really a suicide attempt” but more of a “cry for help.”
But even her serious problems with mental health get a very positive spin in the documentary. Natalie is also given almost saint-like treatment when Robert Wagner says: “She convinced me to go into analysis … and it saved my life.”
In 1972, Natalie remarried Robert Wagner (who’s called “the love of her life”), and they remained married until her death in 1981. In 1974, Natalie and Robert had a daughter named Courtney together, who’s also interviewed in the documentary. The couple raised Courtney and Natasha, while Katie lived with them part-time. Natasha said she called her biological father Daddy Gregson and her stepfather Daddy Wagner.
Not surprisingly, the children have nothing but good things to say about their parents. Natasha says that Robert raised her as if she were his biological child. And as for her mother: “We weren’t raised by someone who seemed like a movie star at all. She seemed larger-than-life not because she was famous but more because she was her.”
Courtney Wagner, who was 7 when her mother died, gets teary-eyed when commenting: “My memory of her is ever-evolving. I hope I can get to a place where I can access the true feeling that this was my mother, that I came from her, and she was mine for a short time. It’s been very hard to hold on to that.” It’s mentioned in the documentary that Courtney is a recovering addict/alcoholic whose trauma has a lot to do with losing her mother at such a young age.
The documentary includes the expected film clips and archival footage, but the film mostly serves as a series of flattering commentaries about Natalie Wood from people in her inner circle. They include Josh Donen, Robert Wagner’s stepson who lived in a guest house on Wood/Wagner property for years (Donen is the biological son of Robert Wagner’s ex-wife Marion Marshall); Liz Applegate, who was Wood’s personal assistant from 1977 to 1981; and close friend Mia Farrow, who describes Natalie as “smart” and “incredibly well-organized.”
There are also numerous former colleagues of Natalie Wood who sing her praises. Robert Redford gives her credit for giving him his big movie breakthrough, because she insisted that a then-unknown Redford co-star with her in the 1965 film “Inside Daisy Clover.” Redford was also the best man at the wedding of Natalie Wood and Richard Gregson, who was Redford’s agent at the time.
Redford comments, “It’s a tough business, and to survive in that business, you have to have a tough side to you, and I think she [Natalie Wood] had to develop that, but it wasn’t comfortable [for her]. What she really wanted to do was to laugh and have fun and be a regular person. But mainly, she had a big heart, and that showed in her work.”
One of the more interesting things that the documentary points out is how Natalie Wood was one of the first actresses in Hollywood to break out of the sexist oppression of the studio system, by demanding and getting equal pay for herself and her male co-stars who also received top billing. Farrow says of Natalie Wood’s Hollywood clout: “In a town where women weren’t always respected … she was an exception.”
Other former colleagues who pay their respects to Natalie Wood in the documentary include actors George Hamilton, Richard Benjamin, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon, George Segal and Tonya Crowe, as well as directors Peter Hyams, John Irvin and Douglas Trumball. The documentary also has commentaries from publicist Alan Nierob, film critic/author Julie Salamon, photographer Martin Childers, Delphine Mann (one of Natalie Wood’s close friends) and Julia Gregson, who was married to Richard Gregson after Natalie Wood divorced him.
Several people in the documentary (including Natalie Wood’s children) share painful memories about the day that they found out that she died. Meanwhile, Julia Gregson remembers the star-studded party held at the Wood/Wagner mansion the day after Wood’s funeral as being “bizarre” and “surreal” because Elizabeth Taylor was there with a crystal ball, and Shirley MacLaine was trying to “heal RJ.”
Natasha, Courtney and Katie also talk about how disturbingly intrusive the media could be after Natalie’s tragic death, by taking photos of them in their backyard and following them around. The daughters and Applegate (Wood’s last personal assistant) give a lot of credit to the family’s African American nanny Willie Mae Worthen (who died in 2017, at the age of 90), for being a source of strength before and after Natalie’s tragic death. Applegate describes Worthen as “very brusque but loving.”
Robert Wagner’s current wife Jill St. John—who married him in 1990, after they were live-in partners for several years—also chimes in, by saying about her relationship with him: “We did fall in love, but not immediately.” She also talks about how it was difficult for Courtney and Natasha to accept her as a stepmother, but Natasha says they were able to get through it with a lot of therapy.
People who believe that Natalie Wood’s death was not an accident say that Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner’s marriage was volatile at the time that she died. “Brainstorm” co-star Walken was rumored to be in a romance with Natalie, and their relationship was allegedly causing problems in her marriage. But according to what people say in this documentary, rumors of a Wood/Walken affair are completely untrue.
The 1983 film “Brainstorm,” which Trumball directed, was Natalie Wood’s last movie. In this documentary, Trumball insists that Wood and Walken were not having an affair. He says of the sex scene that Wood and Walken had together in the movie: “There was almost no physical charisma between them at all.” Robert Wagner’s stepson Donen also echoes this belief Walken was never Natalie Wood’s lover, and Donen says that Natalie Wood told him that directly.
As for what happened that fateful night on November 29, 1981, Robert Wagner says in the documentary that everyone on the boat had been drinking heavily, and he admits that he was also “high,” but he doesn’t elaborate on which drug(s). And although it’s mentioned elsewhere in the documentary that Natalie Wood had a well-known phobia of being immersed in open waters at night—fueling speculation that she would never have climbed into a dinghy alone that night, which is Robert Wagner’s version of what led to her drowning—he never addresses that phobia in the documentary.
He also repeats what he’s said in other interviews: He and Natalie had been arguing about Walken, the argument got violent—he admits to smashing a bottle during the fight—and he told Walken to stay out of Natalie’s life. Walken is not interviewed in the documentary, and he has rarely spoken publicly about Natalie Wood since her death. In the documentary, Robert Wagner says that Walken was a gentleman and that no one should be blamed for Natalie’s death.
Early in the documentary, Robert Wagner is shown getting emotional when says: “There hasn’t been a day that’s ever gone by where I haven’t thought about Natalie and how much she meant to me in my heart and in my soul. We started so young, and to see her evolve over the years to the woman she was, was very special.”
As for how Robert Wagner feels about being named by police as a “person of interest” in the re-opened case, he says defiantly in the documentary: “I don’t pay much attention to it. They’re not going to redefine me. I know who I am.”
Natasha replies, “It bothers me that anyone would think that you would be involved in what happened to her, because you would’ve given your life to my mom.” Wagner says, “We all would’ve.”
The “villains” portrayed in the documentary are boat captain Davern, the tabloid media outlets that keep fueling stories that Natalie Wood was murdered, and Natalie’s younger sister Lana. The documentary’s view of Davern is that he’s a greedy opportunist who changed his initial story to sell his book; that the media also push the murder theory for money reasons; and that Lana Wood is looking for attention because her career as an actress was never as successful as Natalie’s career. (Davern and Lana Wood are not interviewed in the documentary, and it’s not mentioned if the filmmakers contacted either of them for a comment.)
Courtney Wagner says of her aunt Lana’s push to have Robert Wagner charged with the murder of Natalie: “I don’t think she believes what she’s saying. I think she’s just angry. I can understand that … but it’s so hard to imagine when [my father] experienced a true nightmare.”
Whatever people might believe about how Natalie Wood died, this family feud is a very sad epilogue to the tragedy. If you take the documentary for what it is—a family tribute to Natalie Wood, not a tell-all chronicle to expose the family’s dirty laundry—then “Natalie Wood: What Reminds Behind” will fulfill those expectations. It’s obvious that there’s a lot of love that went to making this film that honors Natalie Wood. Just don’t expect to learn anything that strays from the movie’s themes that she was a great mother, wife and actress, and that her death was a complete accident that was no one’s fault.
HBO premiered “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” on May 5, 2020.