September 28, 2020, 6:02

The New Natalie Wood Documentary Doesn’t Have the Answers

The New Natalie Wood Documentary Doesn’t Have the Answers

It takes a little more than an hour to discover what the new HBO documentary “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” is really about, if only because we’ve been thrown off the scent. At the beginning of the film, directed by Laurent Bouzereau, Wood’s older daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, describes hearing, at age eleven, of her mother’s shocking and mysterious death, in 1981. “Since then, there’s been so much speculation and focus on how she died that it’s overshadowed her life’s work and who she was as a person,” says Gregson Wagner, who is a producer of the film, and whose memoir about her mother coincides with the film’s release.

The documentary then weaves through the story of Wood’s life and career: her child stardom, in movies such as “Miracle on 34th Street”; her breakthrough adult roles in “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendor in the Grass,” and “West Side Story”; her unusual romance with the actor Robert Wagner, whom she married twice, with another marriage, to the producer Richard Gregson, in between; and her struggle to balance domesticity and work later in her career. There are interviews with friends and co-stars, including Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Elliott Gould, who attest to Wood’s fortitude and heart. There’s a brief but intriguing sequence about Wood’s rebellion against the studio system, when she battled Jack Warner for the right to choose her own projects. (She chose “West Side Story.”) And, as it’s told from a daughter’s perspective, there are fond recollections of Wood’s ability to host fabulous birthday parties and New Year’s Eve bashes, backed up by home movies and family photos.

Then, with half an hour to go, the film returns to the inescapable subject: that fateful, foggy weekend in late November, 1981, when Wood, Robert Wagner, and her latest co-star, Christopher Walken, took off in a yacht called Splendour to Catalina Island, off the California coast. On the evening of November 28th, Wood, who was forty-three, somehow wound up in the water. The next morning, her body was found a mile from the boat, near an inflatable dinghy. Decades of conjecture about what happened have, indeed, overshadowed Wood’s life: Was it an accident? Or did Wagner push his wife overboard, the result of too much booze or perhaps some sort of love triangle with Walken? In the documentary, Natasha sits across from her stepfather, with whom she is close—she calls him “Daddy Wagner”—and walks through his memory of the events. (Walken is not interviewed.) And here the film reveals its underlying intent: to exonerate Robert Wagner.

The actor, now ninety, describes a fight he had with Walken that night. Walken and Wood were starring in the movie “Brainstorm,” part of her comeback after years of staying home to raise her children. When Walken proclaimed that she was a great actress and it was important that she keep acting, Wagner recalls responding, “I think it’s important that you stay out of our life.” (They had been drinking wine, and Wagner says that he was high.) Wood, he says, went down to the bedroom, below decks. Wagner smashed a bottle in fury and followed Walken out to the deck, berating him. Wagner and the captain cleaned up the broken glass, and by the time Wagner went down for bed, Wood had disappeared. He called the shore patrol and then the coast guard, but there was no sign of her. “That night’s gone through my mind so many times,” Wagner says. Father and daughter agree that Wood was sensitive to noise and might have been trying to re-tie the dinghy into a quieter position, and she could have hit her head. The coroner reported that Wood had been drunk, and had wine and Champagne in her system. “It’s important to me, Daddy, that people think of you the way I know that you are,” Natasha says, “and it bothers me that anyone would ever think that you would be involved in what happened to her.”

The alternate narrative—murder!—is laid at the feet of Wood’s sister, Lana, who detailed her suspicions in a 1984 memoir and in appearances everywhere from “Dr. Phil” to CrimeCon. Lana is herself an actress, whose credits include the series “Peyton Place” and the James Bond film “Diamonds Are Forever,” and the documentary paints her as a hanger-on who tried to capitalize on her sister’s fame; as Wagner’s current wife, Jill St. John, notes, “Her name was not Wood, but her mother changed it to Lana Wood.” “I don’t even think she believes what she’s saying,” Natalie’s younger daughter, Courtney, says, of her aunt. By now it’s clear that we have entered an interfamilial blood feud. Minutes before the end credits, Natasha, speaking directly to the camera, says, “She’s literally accused my dad of killing my mom, when that’s the farthest thing from the truth.”

Wood’s death was clearly shattering for her young children, and decades of public sleuthing only compounded the tragedy. But it’s possible to sympathize with the family’s unresolved grief—and even to believe in Wagner’s innocence—while feeling unsettled by the film’s unspoken agenda, which gives it the sheen of a “nothing to see here” Hollywood P.R. job. For anyone willing to go down the rabbit hole, there’s an exhaustive body of literature on the other side of the scale: not just Lana’s tell-all but a comprehensive biography of Natalie Wood by Suzanne Finstad, which came out in 2001 and was rereleased this year, with new information about the circumstances of Wood’s death. “People would come to see, as I had, that Natalie Wood’s drowning was not an accident,” Finstad says, of the new evidence, which includes the recollections of Dr. Michael Franco, who was an intern at the L.A. Coroner’s Office at the time, and saw suspicious bruising on Wood’s thighs and shins that suggested that she was pushed. When he pointed them out to the coroner, Franco claims, he was told, “Some things are best left unsaid.” The deckhand, Dennis Davern (who has co-authored his own book), has said that he initially lied to the police and in fact overheard a fight between Wagner and Wood that night, in which Wagner yelled, “Get off my fucking boat!” In 2011, the L.A.P.D. reopened the case after receiving new information, and, as of 2018, Wagner has been named a “person of interest.” Wood’s official cause of death, originally recorded as “accidental drowning,” is now “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Few things are as intoxicating as a Hollywood mystery; people are still trying to solve the murder of the director William Desmond Taylor, in 1922. As convincing and heartfelt as “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” may be, it makes sense only in the context of the last decade of renewed speculation, which the new film is more likely to exacerbate than to quell. It’s a shame that the documentary doesn’t stick more to its ostensible goal: to refocus attention on Wood’s life and work. A film critic or historian, for instance, might have shed more light on Wood’s transitional place in film acting, as a product of the old studio system who, along with James Dean and Marlon Brando, injected movies with an explosive kind of neurosis. (She did great nervous breakdowns, notably in the bathtub scene in “Splendor in the Grass.”) Unlike Dean and Brando, Wood didn’t train in Method acting, but she spent years in Freudian analysis and learned to use her “demons” onscreen. She attempted suicide multiple times and suffered from debilitating phobias instilled by a superstitious and unstable mother, who was told by a fortune-teller that her daughter would die in “dark water”—a detail almost too ominous for a Hollywood screenplay. Her relationship with Nicholas Ray, the much older director of “Rebel Without a Cause,” when she was sixteen, makes her a #MeToo victim decades before the phrase gained notoriety.

The documentary does give glimpses of Wood’s conflicted psyche, as revealed in a 1966 essay that she wrote for Ladies’ Home Journal but never published, titled “Public Property, Private Person.” “How do you separate reality from illusion,” she wrote of her first, failed marriage to Wagner, “when you have been trapped in make-believe all your life?” Her screen legacy now seems trapped in the mystery of her demise, skewing and obscuring what came before. We’ll probably never know how Natalie Wood died—Finstad calls it a “Chekhovian tragedy with no resolution short of a confession”—but her dual existence, as both public property and private person, remains a captivating paradox.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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