There’s always an air of suspicion when the family of a subject decides to create a documentary on their behalf. Will it be honest and forthright or will it be an attempt course correct? There will, no doubt, be audiences who watch Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind and see it as an attempt to get an official story out there, particularly from actor Robert Wagner, and that’s a stigma that hangs over the entire documentary from its opening frames.
But if you can divorce Wagner himself from what Natasha Gregson-Wagner and director Laurent Bouzereau set out to do then What Remains behind ends up being a bittersweet attempt to tell Wood’s story free of the Hollywood complications we’ve read about and reveal the woman yearning to burst forth within.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is a straightforward documentary. In essence, what remains is her children, her husband (and ex-husband), and the career of movies that have delighted and influenced so many people. Narrated by daughter Natasha Gregson-Wagner, who also does double duty conducting interviews with her family, director Bouzereau gives us a solid rundown of Wood’s life filled with utterly remarkable footage. Talking heads like Robert Redford pop in to give their own memories.
The highlights of the documentary, outside of watching Wood’s dazzling face on-screen, are the poignant moments between Gregson-Wagner and her family. There’s a candidness to everyone that is refreshing. Courtney Wagner, who was just seven when Wood died, tells a heart-wrenching story about how she still grapples with believing Wood was her mom. Because she died during Courtney’s childhood, there’s a remove, a cognitive dissonance that has left the woman grappling with a blur between memory and reality. Later, she would struggle with drug and substance abuse issues.
Gregson-Wagner also does an in-depth interview with her father, Richard Gregson, his last before he would pass away. Gregson tends to be forgotten in stories of Wood’s life and it’s amazing to hear him — despite his struggles at the time with Parkinson’s disease — to recount meeting Wood for the first time. He’s also incredibly forthright into why they broke up and how he contributed to their divorce.
But what separates this from just a TCM Remembers or something similar is Gregson-Wagner and the openness of her family. As she says, having a child allowed her the ability to look back at her mother’s choices, the way she sheltered her children and struggled to assert herself as a serious actress when she time as a starlet ended. What Gregson-Wagner gets at is how Wood truly grew up before audiences’ eyes and how does that affect someone when you’re perceived as “too old?” It’s a tenuous thesis that isn’t necessarily sustained throughout the narrative, but it’s there.
It is, however, hard to maintain that question when things feel so sanitized. Because the family is in control there are a few moments of darkness hinted at but they’re told through the eyes of a child or spouse. So when Wood’s suicide attempt late in her life is mentioned, Gregson-Wagner maintains that she doesn’t believe it was Wood’s attempt to kill herself. Wood’s relationship with director Nicholas Ray — whom she dated when she was just 16 — is also discussed, but chalked up to “different times” instead of being discussed with any type of depth or questioning.
This all comes to head when Wood’s demise is detailed. Robert Wagner goes in-depth, describing what happened on the Splendour, and both he and Gregson-Wagner give their thoughts on the media blitz that tends to pop up every few years about Wood’s death. For those who already believe certain things about Wagner this section will do little more than look like his attempt to get a public record out there, but I applaud them for discussing it as opposed to pretending their isn’t speculation about him. What’s a bit harder to swallow is Jill St. John’s comments about Wood being lumped in with Elvis and Marilyn Monroe, thus why people are so fascinated with her being murdered. It’s a straw man argument in a lot of ways and doesn’t do a lot of help their case.
That being said, Natalie Wood: What Remains is a bittersweet created by a daughter who truly loved her mother. For classic film fans, Gregson-Wagner gets at the heart of why she loved Natalie Wood and, by extension, how Wood gave us something we all love to this day.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind airs on HBO May 8th.
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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.