Musings on Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind documentary

I’ve subscribed to HBO for a month so I could watch season 3 of Westworld. Well, I finished on Friday night and this documentary’s key art on the HBO’s interface and decided to watch it.

The film began with the narration of Natalie Wood‘s own daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, who was only 11 years old when her mother died, saying that so much has been written about her mother’s mysterious death that it practically overshadowed who she was as a person. I think that’s a real tragedy because as I was watching the film, I learned just how accomplished she was as an actress.

Now, I personally wasn’t at all familiar with the legendary performer. I’ve only seen one of her films, Rebel Without A Cause, but news about her death surely hasn’t let up for decades. Even though I haven’t read up much about it, I did remember reading about her case being reopened as late as 2018!

Wood’s husband at the time of her death, Robert Wagner (known as RJ to those close to him), was never charged but was still a ‘person of interest’ in the case. But before we got to that case, the first two acts pretty much focused on Natalie’s story since childhood, born to Russian immigrants, and how she got discovered. She was one of the most accomplished child actors who’ve made a successful transition as a formidable Hollywood star. She began acting at the age of 4, got her first starring role at the age of 9 in Miracle on 34th Street (1947) and received three Oscar nominations before she was 25.

It was really fascinating and moving to see all the archival footage and photos of Wood in various productions, from the not-so-well-known films to the iconic ones such as ‘Rebel’ and West Side Story. Interesting that one of the people interviewed said if she were alive today, she would’ve never gotten the role that made her famous as she played a Puerto Rican character in the famous musical. One thing for sure, Natalie Wood is much more than just a pretty face. Though she was definitely one of the most beautiful Hollywood stars, in her home life she’s shown as down to earth and a dotting mom. She was also intelligent and ambitious, and wanted to take charge of her career. One photo that strikes me the most is this one of her in a film board meeting sitting confidently at a table surrounded by all-male studio honchos. It’s definitely not the kind of photo I often associated with Natalie Wood, who’s often painted as a victim. So it’s good for her daughter to show the world a different side of her late mother.

Now, the third act did address her mysterious death. It’s the huge elephant in the room that everyone expects to be covered in the film. The one-on-one interview between Natasha and her stepfather RJ is no doubt the most emotional moments of the film, both of them looked quite emotional talking about her death. Robert himself was quite candid when talking about their careers. Though he was more famous when they first met, soon her career far outpaced Robert’s, which became a strain to her marriage. Even Robert himself admitted to being so jealous when, after their first marriage ended, she started dating her Splendor in the Grass‘ co-star Warren Beatty. But never did the film ever paint Robert as the guilty party in her death. If anything, it showed how much Natalie loved him and vice versa. I learned that she ended up marrying him twice after both had remarried after their divorce.

It’s clear that from Natasha’s and the doc’s director Laurent Bouzereau‘s perspective, Wood’s death was a tragic accident. Natasha and her younger sister Courtney even said that it’s hurtful to them that the media, and Natalie’s sister Lana Wood, constantly pointed their finger at their stepdad RJ. That fateful night started with RJ having an argument with Natalie’s co-star in her last film Brainstorm, Christopher Walken, but then RJ couldn’t find her, which led to him instigating a search involving the coast guards, etc. But even with the film covering some of the details about that fateful night, we’re still left in the dark about what happened to Natalie. We probably will never know the real truth, only Natalie would know… as Walken himself said at the end.

It’s definitely an intriguing documentary for film fans, especially if you’re a fan of her work. Given it’s produced by her own daughter, it feels personal and full of heart. I’m never bored in the entire 99-minute running time as the film seamlessly combines archival footage and talking heads featuring the who’s who of classic cinema: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, George Hamilton, Elliot Gould, etc. There are also a myriad of photos and clips from her family, as well as those of her famous parties featuring famous Hollywood guests. I mean, according to IMDb, the pallbearers at her funeral were Rock Hudson, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Olivier, Elia Kazan, Gregory Peck, David Niven and Fred Astaire.

I’m glad I watched this beautiful tribute to a legend that’s equally fascinating and heart-wrenching. I can’t help feeling sad as I’m watching it… Natalie Wood was such a stunning bright star who left us far too soon. I’m glad I got to see just how much she meant to her family as well as her legacy in the film world.

4/5 stars

Have you seen this documentary? What are some of your favorite film(s) of Natalie Wood?

12 thoughts on “Musings on Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind documentary

  1. I have seen most of this and I always wondered what happened to Natalie Wood and it’s a shame that her death has overshadowed all that she’s accomplished and who she was as a person, as a wife, and as a mother. I feel bad for her daughters and for Robert Wagner as I thought he was guilty but now I realized that he didn’t do anything. I think what happened was that he and Natalie had an argument and Natalie was like “oh fuck this, I’ll go on the boat myself”

    I have seen a few things she’s done and she is a great actress though I often felt she was one of the weak links in West Side Story only because she didn’t look nor sounded Puerto Rican though to be fair. It was the times and there wasn’t a big-time Latin star in those times. She was great in Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers. I also liked in how she just went for roles that she wanted to do rather than have some studio exec tell her what to do. Now that is a woman.

    1. Hi Steven, yeah her mysterious death definitely has overshadowed her. I’m glad her daughter decided to celebrate what she has accomplished in this film. From watching the film and the interview, it’s hard to imagine Robert had anything to do w/ her death. They were in good terms at the time and he was actually arguing with Chris Walken, not with his wife that night. But it’s possible she was inebriated and fell to the water.

      Yeah I think West Side Story wouldn’t have been made today w/ her as the lead, but it was a product of the time. Yep, she was quite a brave actress who went after the roles she wanted, plus she was also very talented!

  2. It must be so hard to survive a conspiracy theory. This sounds like an interesting perspective on a loss that has followed this family for a long, long time.

    1. Hey Sean! Yeah I think it’s worth a watch from the perspective of those closest to her. Plus there’s a lot of classic Hollywood trivia as you’re watching it.

  3. I don’t know much about her either. Besides seeing her films Rebel Without A Cause, The Searcher and Westside Story. But I’ve heard so much about her mysterious death, I did see a trailer for this doc on HBO. I’ll eventually watch it once I’m done with other shows I’m currently watching.

    1. I’m curious about The Searchers now, and Splendor in the Grass w/ Beatty. Hey Ted, since you have HBO, what films do you recommend on there?

      1. The Searchers is a very good western but like a lot of older films, it’s the product of its time.

        I don’t really watch movies on HBO, just their original shows. I think you said you wanted to see SUCCESSION right? The first two seasons is on there so you can watch them all. Then there’s TRUE DETECTIVES, you can watch all three seasons now. I really enjoyed the new WATCHMEN that aired last fall, it’s a sequel to the graphic novel, not a sequel to Snyder’s film version.

        1. Hey Ted, I’m watching WATCHMEN now and though I’m not familiar at all w/ the comics and have forgotten all about Snyder’s movie, I’m enjoying it.

          Say, are you done w/ SUCCESSION? Would you do a write up on that one, or even WATCHMEN too if you like, I probably won’t review that one.

  4. Just watched this the day before yesterday and found its perspective an intriguing one. I’ve always been a big fan of hers and have read quite a bit about her so the info dispensed wasn’t new but hearing from her children and some of her friends was an interesting facet.

    I remember when she died, and though she wasn’t quite as big a star as she had been in her 60’s heyday she was still a major top line name, add into that Wagner was starring in the major success Hart to Hart at the time and the mysterious circumstances it was front page news for months and now years. It’s fascinating in its way but also very sad and has overshadowed her work for most of the generations that have come along since.

    Through the years I’ve managed to see all her films and there are some really fine ones and as she’d be the first to admit some real dogs that the studio forced her into. She could be a spotty actress at times but if she connected with the character’s inner workings she could be very powerful and she always radiated star magnetism whether the film was good or bad.

    She’s a good representation of why a few rare child performers make the treacherous leap from kid performer (in interviews she was always very clear that she wasn’t a child star but a successfully reliable utility performer whom her studio plugged into whatever part she fit) to adult star. When you watch her films as a child there is the shadow of her adult self, very much like Elizabeth Taylor and Jodie Foster. Others like Margaret O’Brien who was a huge star after Meet Me in St. Louis or Peggy Ann Garner who was similarly popular after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn saw their careers tank when they hit their late teens because they changed radically from their childhood selves.

    Since you’ve only seen Rebel (you’ve never seen Miracle on 34th Street!?) I’d recommend starting with her other two Oscar nominated roles-Love with the Proper Stranger and especially Splendor in the Grass which is considered her best performance.

    After that I’d say Gypsy, Marjorie Morningstar, The Great Race and Miracle on 34th Street. Of her films as a child she was in many enjoyable pictures (One Desire, The Star, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir etc.) but was rarely the focus though she is very funny in the Fred MacMurray/Maureen O’Hara comedy Father Was a Fullback. She also has a key but small role in The Searchers which is a great film. Most of the her others are either piffle or flyaway but most are harmless enough and made worthwhile by her presence.

    Oh there is Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice which was a huge success when it came out but is horrendously dated now.

    1. Hi Joel! Thank you for your perspective on this from someone who’s read a lot about her and have seen all her movies. Ahah yeah I have NOT seen Miracle on 34th Street (crazy I know) but they showed clips of her in that movie in this doc.

      I’ve been wanting to see Splendor in the Grass so I should do that soon. I’m not sure I’m interested to see her movies when she’s a kid though. So yeah I’ll start w/ her two films where she’s nominated for Oscars.

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