Review: “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind”

The questionable circumstances revolving around actress Natalie Wood’s untimely death have frequently overshadowed her prolific career and reputation as a caring wife and mother.  Now, her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner attempts to alter the way we remember her mother as producer of the new documentary “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind.”

Directed by Laurent Bouzereau, the film jumps around in time a bit as it outlines Natalie’s life and career, which began at age five and lasted up to her death at age 43.  Through footage, photographs, and interviews with those closest to her (interviews that are often conducted by Natasha herself, in addition to sharing her own memories), we are given a sense of what made Natalie so special, and her career so fascinating.  As Natasha points out, Natalie did some that many actresses then (and now) rarely accomplished: she was able to age into her roles, from the cynical little girl in “Miracle on 34th Street” to the rebellious teen in “Rebel Without a Cause,” to the mature portraits of love and marriage in films like “Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice” and the TV movie “The Cracker Factory.”  One of the best things about the documentary is that so many of the home movies and photos shown have never been seen before, offering an intimate peek at Natalie’s life at home with her family.  This includes a chronicle of her three marriages, first with actor Robert Wagner, then to agent and producer Richard Gregson (Natasha’s father) from 1969-1972, and then again to Wagner, from 1972 until her death in 1981.  Among those interviewed for the film are Wagner, Gregson (filmed just prior to his death last year), Natalie’s other daughter Courtney Wagner, her stepchildren, friends like Mart Crowley (also recently passed away), Robert Redford, and Mia Farrow, and Wagner’s current wife, actress Jill St. John.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood

But even this film can’t avoid going in depth into the events immediately before and after Natalie’s death by drowning off Catalina Island.  The opening of the film features a chilling voiceover as Natasha recounts first hearing of her mother’s death on the radio before being picked up by her stepfather (“Daddy Wagner,” as she refers to him).  The final third of the film recounts the circumstances of her death step-by-step from those who were there.  There’s something extremely moving in watching Natasha and Wagner tearfully remember that time together that makes you realize how deeply all the public speculation surrounding the loss of someone they both loved deeply hurt them.  It also feels like the film is trying extremely hard to set the record straight (a popular opinion is that Wagner was directly involved in his then-wife’s death), and the interviews somewhat take on the tone of a confessional.

“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” overall doesn’t offer any new information about the actress.  It is a lovely remembrance of her, however, from those who knew her best; but even in attempting to direct attention away from her tragic end, they cannot avoid it altogether.

“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” is available to watch now on HBO. Runtime: 105 minutes. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

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