It seems I’ve unintentionally fallen into getting these out every other week, and I hope that changes soon. Either way, this week’s biopic is one I’ve been excited to review. The Mystery of Natalie Wood is a misnomer because there’s never any mystery to be solved. Is it a mystery about her death (which has been reopened a few times)? Not at all; it’s a straightforward biopic about her life and death;. Considering it was produced by Wood’s sister, Lana, as well as reliant on various books and interviews, it doesn’t reveal anything particularly salacious. What’s intriguing is the level of skill involved in this movie, directed by veteran director Peter Bogdanovich (who we’ll see return to Biopic Theater in the future). The acting and use of interviews differentiates this from other staid biopics. Sure, the movie relies way too much on destiny to tell the story, but the acting and direction gives this the distinction of one of the best made-for-TV biopics I’ve reviewed.
The story of actress Natalie Wood (Justine Waddell) and her rise to fame is filled with heartache and tribulation. Forced into acting by her fame-seeking mother, Maria (Alice Krige), Natalie constantly wonders who she is. As her star ascends she finds herself in a back and forth relationship with actor Robert Wagner (Michael Weatherly).
I’ve seen past biopics on some of my favorite actresses (Marilyn, Jean, etc). I remember when this biopic aired in 2004, and I was beyond excited because I adore Natalie Wood. I recall enjoying this, but then I said the same thing about Me and My Shadows: My Life with Judy Garland. I can say that The Mystery of Natalie Wood holds up today as a mark of what a biopic can achieve with good directing and acting. Peter Bogdanovich has directed superior work, but for a television film, this is A-list (although, again, we’ll see what Bogdanovich can do with bigger names in the future). The movie is a docudrama, employing not just the dramatization of Wood’s life, but also interviews with people who knew her, footage of her in her movies, and photos. It’s always funny to see these biopics recreate movie footage to insert the actors playing the original people; not so here. Bogdanovich wants you to see Wood as an actress and a woman, so it makes sense to show that actress Justine Waddell ISN’T Wood. The footage of Wood is fantastic, much of which I’d never seen it before. And it’s not used briefly, but interspersed throughout the entire three-hour run-time. You see magazine photos, photos of Wood and her daughters, and footage of Wood’s funeral. The interviews, sadly, aren’t utilized enough and they should because discussion with Margaret O’Brien, George Chakaris, Wood’s sister, and Henry Jaglom describe the person Wood was best. They’re tender, sweet, and heartbreaking, and define the character better than Waddell does (no offense). It’s a unique way to present a biopic, but can remind you that a documentary is always better.
The script is based on two books: “Natasha” by Suzanne Finstad, and “Natalie and R.J.” by Warren G. Harris. I read “Natasha” long ago, and recall enjoying it; I haven’t read Harris. Despite that, the movie does open by stating the movie is a dramatization of events and personal interviews, so one must always err on the side of doubt. Said doubt is utilized best when the idea of Natalie leading a doomed life is introduced. Fans of Wood’s know all about the prophecy of Natalie fearing “dark water,” but there’s a few instances where the script throws in kismet purely for the sake of it. The most melodramatic is in Natalie continually running into Marilyn Monroe (Sophie Monk) during times of crisis. I’ve read that Wood knew Monroe casually, but here Monroe is only ever utilized to show Wood’s own fears personified. Monroe shows up when Wood is a little girl to say she (Monroe) fears she’ll never be as great as Wood. It’s played as a wistful moment, the camera lingering on Monroe looking at a little girl who has it all…little does she know what the audience knows. It’s too winking and self-aware. Later on, Wood sees Monroe right before her death and actually takes a heaping helping of sleeping pills right after watching the news. The most egregious is when a young Natasha (Natalie’s daughter) starts crying and begging her mother not to leave on the fateful weekend of Natalie’s death. Natalie chalks it up to believing her daughter is afraid of everything, like she was; little does she know….wink, wink. For all we know, these events could be true, but they’re played up as “What if’s” that don’t feel right in a movie that wants to present Natalie seriously.
The driving force of the movie is in depicting Natalie’s contemptuous relationship with her mother. It wouldn’t be a Hollywood biopic without an overbearing stagemother, and really I think these biopics feel the need to one-up each other on how atrocious they can make the character. It might be a testament to Krige’s acting that you hate her so much, but the character is atrocious (it has been documented though that Wood’s mother was a stage-mother to the nth degree). The interviews reveal Wood suffering from a lonely childhood, forced to give up friends and a life for the sake of acting. The dramatization reinforces this by having Wood continually be punished in order to propel her mother’s dream of becoming a great actress. There’s the lasting story of Wood’s mother ripping a butterfly’s wings off in order to get the little girl to cry for a scene. Later stories feel apocryphal such as Maria plying her daughter with sleeping pills at a young age (way too similar to Judy Garland’s mother doing the same thing in Me and My Shadows), orchestrating Wood’s relationship with Robert Wagner, and screaming “the wrong one died” to Lana Wood upon hearing of Natalie’s death. We get it, she’s a terrible person, but I wouldn’t have been surprised to see the woman rocking a pitchfork and cloven hooves by the end.
The acting is good from the rest of the cast, and not nearly as overwrought. There’s a far better trio of actors that are presented during the Rebel Without a Cause filming than we saw in James Dean: Race With Destiny! The actor playing James Dean is surprisingly good, far better than James Franco! Sophie Monk is a sweet Monroe, and does a lot with a little. Michael Weatherly is solid as Robert Wagner. There’s a fair bit of resemblance between the actors already, but he plays the charmer to success, and does have an emotional payoff at the end. Matthew Settle (yes, of Gossip Girl) has the tough job of playing Warren Beatty….and he nails it. I complained about Gabriel Macht playing Bill Holden in The Audrey Hepburn Story, so I expected Settle to ruin this role. It’s a small role in the film, but not only does Settle look like Beatty (high hair and all), he has the soft-spoken mannerisms Beatty had. Congrats, sir, you pulled it off! All this praise for the side characters, and yet Justine Waddell doesn’t nail the role of Wood. I’m talking overall, although she does have a few minutes where she really does look like Wood, herself. Waddell’s voice is too high, and she fails at having that innocence that Wood had. There’s too much artifice in her performance and it keeps the audience distant. If anything, Waddell resembles Wood’s daughter, Natasha, to a T so she could at least pass for being a child of the famous actress.
In terms of rewatchability, there’s nothing you’ll find particularly shocking if you’ve read any of the biographies on Wood. I mentioned the stories of Natalie’s mother, but the movie also includes Natalie being raped by a famous actor (allegedly Kirk Douglas, although the movie creates an alias), Natalie’s childhood sweetheart shooting himself after being rejected by a teenaged Wood (one of the interview subjects labels it an “incident” that Natalie never spoke of); there’s also the more well-known stories such as Wood dating older men, including Nicholas Ray. The movie seems to completely ignore her marriage to Richard Gregson under the auspices he cheated on her. Gregson only gets one scene, the rest are simply photos of him. Having read Gregson’s memoir, I can’t comment on the authenticity as Gregson never went into depth on his relationship with Wood. Taking into account that Wagner was thought to have cheated, the limited appearance from Gregson seems to be purely for pacing.
Of course, the movie follows the official line in depicting her death; hence, there’s no “mystery” to be uncovered. The opening does utilize subjective camera, to put the audience in Wood’s mind as she’s drowning. The opening is unintentionally hilarious because the actors who hear Wood’s cries act like they’re on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries, complete with the guy saying “Answer, dammit” when calling the Coast Guard. You see Wood attempt to pull up the dinghy that’s been slapping against the side of the boat, and falling into the water. What is questionable is the guy on the other boat telling his wife not to jump into the water because it’s freezing (however, we see steam rising off it) and then going into detail on the effects of hypothermia. (Can I say, they show the man in the other boat that night to be a total dick who refused to let his wife jump into the water for fear their child will be an orphan!) We need this explanation to say that Wood died of hypothermia (allegedly this and drowning). The only blame Wagner gets is for failing to call the Coast Guard because the press might get a hold on it. You can’t be surprised at this party line because the people are still alive, and probably were involved in this production.
Overall, The Mystery of Natalie Wood lacks a discernible mystery, but the acting and direction is the best we’ve seen. The side characters resemble their counterparts, and the blend of documentary with dramatization presents Natalie as a flesh and blood person. If you can find a copy, I recommend watching it.
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.