'Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
A solid documentary about a full but tragically truncated life.

Laurent Bouzereau's HBO doc revisits the life and death of the star of 'Splendor in the Grass' and 'West Side Story.'

Natalie Wood was a movie star for 35 years and she’s now been gone for longer than that, so this fulsome account of her career and life is an entirely welcome arrival. Very much a family-endorsed affair, one prominently populated by her husbands, children and friends, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind inevitably deals directly with her tragic death off Catalina Island in 1981 but adds nothing new to the record in that regard. Like the subject herself, the documentary makes for appealing and congenial company, with lively clips and an abundance of hitherto-unseen homemade material, Still, it’s all more agreeable than it is compelling, despite the romantic melodrama and dreadful ending.

The essentials of Wood’s life are related in general terms in the film’s first act. The child of Russian immigrants, she was discovered in 1941 and put into films at age 4 (she owes her surname to one of her first directors, Sam Wood); was an engaging child actress in films such as Miracle on 34th Street and Driftwood; James Dean’s co-star as a teenager in 1955's Rebel Without a Cause; excellent under Elia Kazan’s tutelage opposite Warren Beatty in 1962's Splendor in the Grass; the (dubbed) star of 1962's West Side Story; and a three-time Oscar nominee by the time she was 26. 

Wood was married twice to actor Robert Wagner, once from 1957-62, then again in 1972, and they had a daughter, Courtney. In between came second husband Richard Gregson and daughter Natasha Gregson. They and other participants describe a not-uncomplicated but bountiful and, in the end, close-knit family life, and the subject herself comes off as friendly, well-balanced and un-neurotic, certainly by Hollywood child-star standards.

Veteran Hollywood documentarian Laurent Bouzereau (Five Came Back, in addition to countless “Making of” promos) gets cooperative and informative interviews from family members in addition to a raft of friends and insiders — Mia Farrow, Robert Redford, playwright Mart Crowley, stepdaughter Katie Wagner, David Frost, Richard Benjamin, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon, George Segal, Peter Hyams, Douglas Trumbull and a host of other lesser-knowns. Home movies of the family’s annual Christmas parties reveal a who’s-who of world entertainment personalities impressive by any standard.

But after skating through this eventful life one time, up to her shocking death by drowning at age 42, Bouzereau flips the calendar back to the beginning to take a more detailed and probing look at some of the underpinnings of what we’ve just seen and heard.

There’s talk of the pressure young Natalie felt from the earliest age to earn money for her family; the strong suggestion of initiation into sex and drugs provided the 15-year-old by Rebel director Nicholas Ray at the Chateau Marmont; her 18-month suspension from Warner Bros. due to her refusal of certain roles; and her terror of “dark water.” 

Intimations of suicidal moments pop up, although these are hard to square with her devotion to her family. After a five-year layoff from films after Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, she became increasingly visible on television (she won an Emmy for From Here to Eternity) and starred in Anastasia onstage. 

Inevitably, the tragic night in November 1981 off Catalina must finally be confronted in full, or at least as comprehensively as Wagner sees fit to describe it. Patiently and emotionally going over it all again at length with Natasha sitting quietly in their home, Wagner acknowledges the rough seas, the drinking, an argument and his anger, Christopher Walken retiring to another cabin, the presence of the captain, and Natalie finally disappearing over the side in the dark of night. 

Wagner became a “person of interest” in a case that will likely never entirely be put to rest, although the most plausible theory would seem to be that Natalie fell into the water while she was trying to tie up an errant dinghy that was banging against the side of the yacht.

Overall, the film has the feel of a mutual enterprise that the entire family was pleased to bring into being, and Wood herself comes off well as a hard-working and sensible professional who was more dedicated to her family than was the norm in Hollywood circles. Although she should have lived at least twice as long, she packed a tremendous amount into the time she had.

Production companies: HBO Documentaries, Amblin Television
With: Natasha Gregson Wagner, Robert J. Wagner, Courtney Wagner, Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, George Hamilton, Mart Crowley, David Niven Jr., Katie Wagner, Richard Gregson, Sarah Gregson, Delphine Mann Friend, Joshua Donen, Liz Applegate, Peter Hyams, Richard Benjamin, John Irvin, Alice Emmy Price, Michael Childers, Alan Nierob, Dyan Cannon, Elliott Gould, Tonya Crowe, George Segal, Douglas Trumbull, Julia Gregson, Dennis DeVerne, Jill St. John, Julie Salomon
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
Producers: Natasha Gregson Wagner, Manoah Bowman, Laurent Bouzereau
Executive producers: Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey, Nancy Abraham, Lisa Heller
Editor: Jason Summers
Music: Jeremy Turner
Directors of photography: Toby Thiermann, Travers Jacobs, Sean Hill, Steven Wacks
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Documentary Premieres)

 

99 minutes