Review: ‘The Ghost of Peter Sellers,’ starring Peter Medak

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Peter Sellers, Peter Medak and Spike Milligan on the set of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” as seen in “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” (Photo courtesy of 1091)

“The Ghost of Peter Sellers”

Directed by Peter Medak

Culture Representation: Taking place in England and Cyprus, the documentary “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” features director Peter Medak and an all-white group of other senior citizens talking about his disastrous 1973 experience making the comedy film “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” starring Peter Sellers.

Culture Clash: Several people in the documentary say that Sellers was a nightmare to work with and that he deliberately sabotaged production of the movie.

Culture Audience: Aside from obviously appealing to Sellers fans, “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” will also appeal to people who are fans of 1970s European cinema and behind-the-scenes stories about difficult filmmaking experiences.

Peter Medak in “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” (Photo courtesy of 1091)

In 1973, director Peter Medak had such a traumatic experience making the comedy film “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” starring British actor Peter Sellers, that he made a documentary four decades later to talk about what went wrong. That documentary is “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” which is part therapy session, part quest for redemption and part cautionary tale about what can happen when a director of a movie loses control to a mentally unbalanced movie star. Sellers has been dead since 1980 (when he passed away at age 54), but it’s clear from watching this aptly titled documentary that the self-pitying Medak is still haunted by Sellers and won’t let go of the past.

Medak begins the documentary (which mixes new interviews with archival footage) by giving a brief background about himself and then describing how he got to direct “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” When Medak met Sellers in 1972 at Alvaro restaurant (a celebrity hotspot) on King’s Road in London, Sellers was riding high as one of the biggest comedy stars in the world (he was best known for the “Pink Panther” movies), and Medak (who was born in Hungary in 1937) was a director whose career was on the rise, thanks to his breakout 1972 film “The Ruling Class.”

Sellers asked Medak if he wanted to direct a comedy film called “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” which would star Sellers and co-star Spike Milligan, a frequent collaborator of Sellers. Milligan (who died in 2002, at the age of 83) was a well-known comedic actor/writer, whose credits included previous collaborations with Sellers, such as “The Goon Show,” “The Idiot Weekly, Price 2d,” “A Show Called Fred” and “Son of Fred.”

“For a director, it was irresistible,” Medak remembers of being offered this opportunity. But in hindsight, he says, “Like an idiot, I said yes.” What could possibly go wrong? Well, almost everything.

For starters, “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was greenlighted for production based mostly on a concept rather than a well-written screenplay. Evan Jones and Milligan were credited with writing the screenplay, while co-writer Ernest Tidyman was uncredited. Jones’ previous film screenplay credits included 1963’s “The Damned” 1966’s “Funeral in Berlin” and 1971’s “Wake in Fright,” also known as “Outback.”

Here’s the gist of the very convoluted, messy plot of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun”: In the 17th century, on a pirate ship, an Irish cook named Dick Scratcher (played by Sellers) and three accomplices kill the pirate captain Ras Mohammed (played Peter Boyle), and Scratcher takes over the ship as the new captain. Scratcher and his crew then go on a quest to find the treasure that was buried by the murdered captain, using a treasure map as their guide. A series of misadventures ensue for the treasure hunters, including landing in the wrong country; kidnapping a boy who can see ghosts; threats of mutiny; and encountering Scratcher’s old friend Billy Bombay (played by Milligan).

What the filmmakers did not plan for and severely underestimated was how difficult it would be to make a movie that takes place on an unsteady boat. The film production in Cyprus was plagued by bad weather, a boat that kept breaking down (including an incident when a drunk navigator crashed the boat), and worst of all, according to people interviewed in the documentary: a star of the movie who went out of his way to ruin the film because he didn’t want to do the movie anymore.

In “The Ghost of Peter Sellers,” Medak revisits a lot of the people and retraces a lot of the steps to places in England and Cyprus that were part of the torturous process of making “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Medak is accompanied to many locations by his screenwriter friend Simon Van Der Borgh, who seems to have no real purpose in the documentary, other than as emotional support for Medak.

In London, Medak shows Van Der Borgh the location were Alvaro used to be. They also visit Norma Farnes, who was Milligan’s agent. Medak and Farnes hadn’t seen each other in about 42 years, but their reunion looks a little rehearsed and staged. (In fact, the beginning of the movie shows Medak asking someone to reshoot a scene where they’re supposed to greet each other.)

And there are also meetings/interviews with some members of the cast and production team of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” including producer John Heyman, who helped financed the movie but was not given producer’s credit; Film Finances managing director David Korda; actors Murray Melvin, Costas Demetriou and Joe Dunn (who was Sellers’ stunt double); boat recovery operations worker Costas Evagoru; and costume designer Ruth Meyers. (Heyman died in 2017, which gives you an idea how long ago some of these interviews must have been filmed.)

Also interviewed are several people who knew Sellers well, including personal assistant Susan Wood; his daughter Victoria Sellers; his American agent Maggie Abbott; and his London agent (from 1964 to 1968) Sandy Lieberson. Victoria Sellers was only 8 years old when “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was made, but she seems to be in this documentary only so Medak can have an additional person in of a long list of people talking about how Peter Sellers was a difficult and deeply unhappy person.

Medak even includes an interview with Rita Franciosa, widow of actor Tony Franciosa, who co-starred in “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” as Pierre Rodriquez, the only gentlemanly pirate on the ship. She says that Tony took the movie more seriously than Peter Sellers did. There’s no mention of Rita actually being on the film set, so her observations are second-hand at best. It’s just another example of Medak trying to gather a chorus of people in the documentary to validate the narrative that Peter Sellers was horrible, unprofessional, and largely to blame for the movie being a nightmare.

Medak also has a three-way commiserating session with director Piers Haggard (“The Fiendish Plot of Dr. Fu Manchu”) and director Joe McGrath (“The Goon Show”), where they talk about how working with Peter Sellers was an unpleasant experience for them. Robert Wagner, who co-starred with Sellers in 1963’s “The Pink Panther,” also says in the documentary that Sellers was a terrible co-worker.

In a separate interview, John Goldstone of Monty Python Productions weighs in with his opinion (even though Peter Sellers wasn’t affiliated with Monty Python) by saying that the way Medak was treated by Peter Sellers was awful and not how a comedy film set is supposed to be. This echo chamber of Peter Sellers bashing is Medak’s way of saying, “See, I’m not the only one who feels this way.”

Besides having extreme mood swings, being very fickle, and demonstrating a huge ego, Peter Sellers is described as someone who went out of his way to make life miserable for the cast, crew and other people on the team of “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Things got off to a bad start because the first day of filming in Cyprus was shortly after Sellers had ended his tempestuous engagement to Liza Minnelli. “He was catatonically depressed,” Medak remembers.

Some of the people in the documentary speculate that Peter Sellers probably had an undiagnosed mental illness. He would go through extreme emotional “ups” and “downs.” And he would change his mind on a whim, by being in love with an idea one minute and then hating it the next minute. Regardless of what was going on in his personal life or mental health, Sellers made it clear to everyone after filming started that he didn’t want to do the movie.

According to Medak, Peter Sellers resorted to various tricks, such as not showing up for work for several days, by claiming he had a serious medical problem requiring him to be bedridden, and he had a doctor’s letter to “prove” it. But Medak remembers finding out that the illness was a lie when he saw a newspaper article with a photo of Peter Sellers gallivanting around London with Princess Margaret on a day that Sellers claimed to be sick in bed at home. In the documentary, Medak interviews Dr. Tony Greenburgh (Sellers’ personal doctor), who admits that writing a fabricated letter is something he probably would have done for Sellers at the time. “He was a good friend,” says Greenburgh.

Peter Sellers also began acting as if he, not the director or producers, were running the show, according to Medak. He demanded that producer Thomas Clyde be fired. (Clyde got to keep his producer’s credit, along with producer Gareth Wigan.) Robin Dalton, who was Medak’s agent from 1968 to 1975, says in the documentary: “It’s the only time I ever remember where the producers got sacked after the first week [of filming] by the star.”

Medak remembers one day on the film set that Peter Sellers began barking orders at people and declaring that he was now in charge. Medak says that the way Peter Sellers was acting was very much like the domineering Fred Kite character that he played in the 1959 comedy film “I’m Alright Jack.” Needless to say, Medak and Sellers clashed on the film set.

But Peter Sellers also had problems with co-star Milligan. Medak says that Sellers and Milligan had an intense rivalry with each other, with each one trying to outdo the other to prove who was funnier. Things got so bad between Sellers and Milligan that Sellers demanded that he not share any scenes with Milligan. Certain scenes had to be rewritten and reshot because of these demands.

And why didn’t Medak quit? He says in the documentary that he couldn’t afford to quit because his wife was expecting their second son, and the family needed the money at the time. If Medak had quit, not only would he have to give up his director’s fee, but there would also be a possibility that he would be sued for breach of contract.

But it wasn’t just about the money. Medak admits that he was also thinking about his reputation, and he felt that he had something to prove by finishing this disaster of a movie. Peter Sellers was so desperate to get out of filming “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” that he offered Medak half of his actor’s fee if Medak quit the film. Sellers hoped that Medak quitting would shut down the film for good. Medak refused to quit, which no doubt fueled even more of Sellers’ resentment toward Medak.

In the middle of all this turmoil about the movie, there was a bizarre interlude when Peter Sellers filmed a series of cigarette commercials directed by Medak. Antony Rufus Isaacs, a producer of the commercials, is one of the people briefly interviewed in the documentary. After they filmed the commercials, they went right back to the torment of getting “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” completed.

Medak’s quest in reliving this trauma comes across as earnest but a little pathetic. He has a large scrapbook for “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” which he carries around in the documentary like someone who had a love/hate relationship with high school would carry around their high-school yearbook. And more then once, some people in the documentary (such as Heyman and Farnes) essentially tell Medak: “Get over it.”

Multiple times in the movie, Medak breaks down and cries when he talks about how the experience of making “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” scarred him for life. But it’s hard to feel complete sympathy for him when he later admits that he walked off the job on several other movies that he was hired to direct after “Ghost in the Noonday Sun.” Medak blames this unprofessional behavior on the bad experience that he had with Sellers.

In the beginning of the documentary, Medak makes it sound like Sellers and “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” ruined his career. In reality, which he admits toward the end of the film, Medak had a long career in directing movies and TV shows after that negative experience. There’s even a photo sequence during the documentary’s end credits showing Medak on the sets of many of these subsequent projects.

And this is where Medak’s privileged blind spot is on display. Despite having his own history of being difficult and unprofessional on jobs that had nothing to do with Peter Sellers, Medak still continued to get opportunities to direct movies and TV shows for decades. If a director who’s a woman or a person of color ever behaved in the same way, they wouldn’t be given as many opportunities as Medak was given.

Therefore, all of Medak’s whining about Peter Sellers in the documentary makes Medak look like a schmuck. Peter Sellers was never a longtime collaborator of Medak’s. They did just one movie together, so Medak’s career wasn’t as intertwined with Sellers as he would like viewers of this documentary to think it was.

Heyman put it best in the documentary when he comments on making “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” and how it really affected people’s careers : “I don’t know how many nails there are in a coffin, but this [“Ghost in the Noonday Sun”] is a very small nail. We’re all to blame.” In other words: Yes, the movie was a disastrous flop, and other people besides Medak were affected too, but it didn’t ruin anybody’s career.

Therefore, Medak really can’t blame any subsequent career decline on Peter Sellers, whom Medak seems obsessed with on unhealthy level. During one of Medak’s crying bouts in the film, he admits that one of the reasons why he feels so hurt is because he was and still is a huge fan of Sellers, whom Medak calls a “genius.” Yes, but you only worked with Sellers on one movie all the way back in 1973. Move on.

And this is the other problem with the documentary not being entirely truthful and very slanted to make Medak look like a “victim.” At the end of the documentary, it’s mentioned that Columbia Pictures thought “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was such a mess that the studio shelved the film. While it’s true that “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was never released in cinemas, it was eventually released in 1985 on home video.

This home-video release is never mentioned in the documentary, because the documentary misleads viewers into thinking that “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” is locked away somewhere, never to be seen by the public. Because the documentary omits that “Ghost in the Noonday Sun” was released (just not in cinemas, as Medak had hoped) and is available to be seen by the public, it’s just another example of how Medak has a “poor me” attitude that is unrelenting and ultimately very annoying.

In the beginning of the documentary, Medak gripes about “Ghost in the Noonday Sun,” by saying, “For 43 years, I covered up this very dark spot on my life. I carried this grudge against myself … for all these years.” Now that Medak has directed this documentary and aired out his grievances about Peter Sellers, perhaps he can find better use of his time, by appreciating the good things in his life instead of blaming his career problems and self-identity on a dead one-time co-worker and a little-seen bad movie he made decades ago.

1091 released “The Ghost of Peter Sellers” on digital and VOD on June 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,’ starring Natasha Gregson Wagner, Robert Wagner, Katie Wagner, Courtney Wagner, Robert Redford and Mart Crowley

May 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

A 1975 photo of Natalie Wood and her daughter Natasha in “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind”

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 (center) with members of her business team in “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” (Photo by Billy Ray/HBO)

“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.