“I feel that this documentary is definitive documentary of her life you know, and my book is the definitive deep dive into our relationship, but I also talk about the night she died and the sheriff’s department reopening the case, I get into that in the book as well, and I just think this narrative of fiction that has been peddled, it’s time for that to stop now.”
Those are the determined words of Natasha Gregson Wagner, daughter of the late Natalie Wood, in talking to me recently about her new film for which she is not only a producer but also an on-camera guide and interviewer in exploring the career, life and yes death of her famous mother, who died at age 43 while on a weekend boating excursion to Catalina Island in late November 1981. That mysterious death, in which Wood was found floating in the shallow surf, is still controversial, with an investigation reopened into it as recently as 2014. But six years later, there’s still nothing that moved the case forward in a way tabloids might have liked.
Gregson Wagner, with her documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, understandably just wants to put it all to rest with this definitive look at all things Natalie Wood. This began with another project honoring her mother, a lavish, photo-filled 2016 coffee table book called “Natalie Wood Reflections on a Legendary Life,” which she wrote with Manoah Bowman who is also a producer of What Remains Behind along with Laurent Bourzereau, who directed it as well; he joined Wagner Gregson on the phone with me.
The docu, which premieres May 5 on HBO after first debuting at January’s Sundance Film Festival, came about because there is so much material — much of it never shared — and so much to say for Gregson Wagner. It is also no-holds-barred, especially in a frank interview with now 90-year-old Robert Wagner, twice Wood’s husband, and who was of course also on that ill-fated excursion on their boat called Splendour, along with actor Christopher Walken, whom the couple invited along since he was in L.A. shooting a new film with Wood called Brainstorm.
That infamous night, which caused endless speculation and rumors about what really happened, has sadly overshadowed Wood’s remarkable life. This docu rectifies that. I found more than anything else this film is a loving and detailed tribute to a star, wife and mother who left behind so much more than tabloids would like to report, and a legacy perhaps unfulfilled but still remarkable in so many ways. It is also finally a way towards closure for a daughter to honor her mother in a way very few people get to do.
In addition to the film, yet another book, a personal memoir from Gregson Wagner titled More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood, will also be released Tuesday. For Wood’s many fans this is just a real bounty of material. Full disclosure: You can count me as one of them. I always thought Wood, the rare actor who made the successful transition from child star in movies like 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street to full-fledged adult stardom and three-time Oscar nominee before the age of 25, to be underrated as an actress even with the accolades she had throughout her career. The documentary points that out, and also that she was ahead of her time as a woman in a male-dominated business who was able to take control — an early feminist before it was in vogue.
Her work in films like 1961’s Splendor in the Grass and West Side Story (in the same year no less); Rebel Without a Cause; opposite Steve McQueen in the wonderful 1963 gem Love With the Proper Stranger (Gregson Wagner’s favorite); Kings Go Forth opposite Sinatra and frequent co-star Tony Curtis; Gypsy; a later big-screen triumph in 1969 with Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice; earlier work with budding star Robert Redford, one of many interviewed in the film, in Inside Daisy Clover and This Property Is Condemned; so funny and smart in The Great Race; and in ventures into TV movies with a great turn in The Cracker Factory — all of it and more is re-examined here, making you want to start downloading the whole filmography immediately.
Sadly, Hollywood, despite offering many nominations, never did actually give Wood the awards she deserved. Ironically, she finally won a competitive Golden Globe for a TV miniseries remake of From Here To Eternity in 1980, a moment that amusingly shows a shocked Wood onstage accepting it, something she didn’t get to do much before at these awards shows.
But the new documentary thankfully isn’t the standard chronological biography, but rather an all-encompassing exploration from many angles into her life and even after it (in stunningly intimate and private, never-before seen — even by Gregson Wagner — footage of the grief, particularly Robert Wagner’s, at her funeral and home during those sad days in late 1981). It contains a lot of home movies, some very famous stars at parties there over the years, and interviews with many in her life including Wagner; his wife now, actress Jill St. John; baby sister Courtney; Redford; and good friend but never co-star Mia Farrow among many others. The list also includes Wood’s best friend and confidante Mart Crowley (who wrote The Boys in the Band) and ex-husband (between the two marriages to Wagner) Richard Gregson, who both died since their participation; he film is dedicated to them. It was an emotional roller coaster making this for all involved.
“You put yourself as a member of the audience really and because I was having such revelations and such emotions, I was crying pretty much during every single interview that we did, and that was really hard because I mean with several of them I literally could not talk any more. It was draining, and in a way that was so powerful that it was hard to do more than one interview a day,” said Bouzereau (the miniseries Five Came Back), who has directed hundreds of behind-the-scenes documentaries including many for Steven Spielberg films. In fact, Spielberg’s Amblin Television is the production company behind this film, an irony I guess since Spielberg himself has directed a new version of West Side Story. just proving Wood connections are everywhere even four decades after her death.
Among those not participating, though asked, was Natalie’s sister Lana Wood, estranged from the family, and Walken. “Obviously we would have liked to interview Christopher Walken, but he declined, so we respect that of course… that would have been the one that got away,” said Gregson Wagner, who was happy that her stepfather Robert Wagner had no problem participating and sitting down with her. He comes off like an open book here, or so it seemed to me when I screened the film.
“I love that you just called him an open book because that’s how I feel he is, too, and you know, this idea that, just like false idea that people have of this, that he’s got all these secrets and he never talks to anybody and do any of this,” she said. “He’s completely not that way, he is an open book, and so I think he felt safe talking to me and with Laurent, and I think he was ready to talk about it in a safe environment on his terms.”
Ultimately this is a movie about a life. And what a life it was, however short. Wood, famously of Russian ancestry, was planning to make her stage debut in Los Angeles in a new production of Anastasia at the Ahmanson Theatre. No doubt it would have been another triumph. I was planning to go when it opened in February 1982, but it wasn’t to be.
“I think the thing that has surprised me the most doing the documentary and writing the book was just how healing it feels to share the story. You know, for a lot of years I’ve been so private about my life with my parents because it’s been so misconstrued in the press and I wasn’t ready to share, and now that I’m doing it I feel so much better. I feel so much bigger and brighter and healthier and happier, you know?,” said Gregson Wagner. “She was an amazing human and so why not celebrate people like that? And I don’t mean celebrate in like a candy-cane-and-roses way, I mean, in a very human way, a true way, the way she was. She spoke so honestly in her own words about her struggle to be a three-dimensional person, to have a great personal life, to get past her demons, to not just be a painted lady, and so I’m proud of her. I’m proud to be her daughter, and now that I have my own daughter you know, I want my daughter, Clover, to be proud of her grandmother. I mean, her grandmother did a lot of things. She was very ahead of her time and she loved us in this very kind of space and buoying you know, it was a buoy, her love, and so that was enough for me to sustain and so that’s important for my daughter to know about that.”
As for the title What Remains Behind, it works on multiple levels, but as Bouzereau points out Wood recites that poem twice in Splendor in the Grass. “And the first time she can barely finish it and there is great sadness to saying that line, ‘What remains behind,’ and of course it goes with the movie, but she’s a completely different person and there’s something extremely victorious and positive about the reading of that line, so hopefully it’s the latter reading that also speaks for this movie,” he says.
Gregson Wagner agrees. “The truth remains behind. That’s really what it is, I mean, the truth of this spirit, this shining star in life and in her work, she remains behind.”