By Jim Batts
This week HBO takes us on a journey down the star-studded history of Hollywood. No, we’re not talking about the fact and fiction mix of Ryan Murphy’s new streaming miniseries. It’s a look at one particular star, but it’s not a “bio-pic” similar to last year’s big award winners ROCKETMAN and JUDY, though it owes a bit to the latter. No mimics or makeup are involved here since it’s a documentary chocked full of feature film clips, archival interviews and little-seen family home movies and photos.
She began as a child star, but her career blossomed as she matured, so it’s not the old “rags to riches back to rags” melodrama. But her story ends far too early in tragedy. We don’t see her on lots of merchandise, nor any campy imitators even though she starred in several iconic cinema classics. Unfortunately, that sad end that many remember her for. Now her family and friends have crafted a loving reminder of a talented trail-blazing actress and the complex intelligent woman who was NATALIE WOOD: WHAT REMAINS BEHIND.
The film does begin with that fateful finale, then quickly goes back to her troubled family history. The second daughter of transplanted Russian immigrants, Natalia (her birth name) was fascinated by the films she saw with her momma at the Santa Rosa, CA theatres. When mother Maria learned of a film being shot in town, the new “stage mother’ made sure her daughter landed a non-speaking “extra” role. This led to a move to LA along with a name change. Soon seven-year-old Natalie Wood (after director Sam Wood) was sharing scenes with Orson Welles in TOMORROW IS FOREVER. Next year saw her in the holiday classic MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET. Natalie was having a tough time transitioning from child star to teenage roles until she fought to be cast in another iconic film REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, followed by a small but pivotal role in the last minutes of THE SEARCHERS. Soon after Natalie became a favorite of the “fan” magazines and gossip columns when she began dating film heartthrob Robert Wagner. Though her film career exploded with an Oscar-nominated role in SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS, her marriage with Wagner ended soon after another iconic role as Maria in the movie version of WEST SIDE STORY. While working steadily in the 1960’s she met and married British film producer and agent Richard Gregson, and became a mother with daughter Natasha. When she and Gregson split in 1972, Natalie re-connected with then remarried Wagner, adding daughter Courtney to the family. In the 70s he concentrated on TV work while she devoted her time to the kids, until the end of the decade when she began to restart her acting career with some TV movies, a first outing on stage in “Anastasia”, and feature films. It was during the Thanksgiving break on the science fiction film BRAINSTORM when Natalie drowned in the water off Catalina Island in 1981 at age 43.
Director Laurent Bouzereau utilizes his skills as a prolific maker of “behind the scenes” films (usually a “bonus feature” on home video releases). to piece together a brisk, engaging overview of an incredible life and career. He’s chosen a most interesting “map” of a doc, beginning with the “end”, then doing a big circle over to the ‘beginnings” to give an overview of Ms. Wood’s personal life and challenges. This brings the thread back to the opening tragedy, but then goes back, not quite as far as before, to focus in on her artistic and professional achievements before delving even deeper into that rainy night in ’81. With the help of editor Jason Summers the “talking head’ testimonials are “fleshed out” with a good choice of clips from the classic films and footage “on set” and at home. These largely unseen (by the public) home movies and photos were probably procured by one of the film’s producers, Natasha Gregson Wagner, who often serves as the film’s narrator. She’s also her mother’s voice as she reads from an unpublished article that Natalie wrote in the mid-60s for a national magazine.
Speaking of the press, there’s a great selection of cover stories around the golden couple of Wood and Wagner, who may have rivaled the other coupled stars of the “Photoplay’-style mags like Liz and Dick, Eddie and Debbie, and Tony and Janet. Despite the family involvement, several of the more sensational stories are touched on, including an illicit fling with a much-older director, but no stories of dates with Elvis though. Natasha’s also the main interviewer for most of these spectacular testimonials. Robert Redford credits Natalie for his movie stardom. Mia Farrow talks of having a crush on Wagner when he was PRINCE VALIANT. And Natasha gets the last on-camera chat with her father, Natalie’s second husband Richard Gregson, still ashamed of his wandering eye. And Wagner (who’s usually called “R.J.”) spends lots of time with Natasha. He ably defends himself against the tabloids’ accusations of foul play on their boat, the “Splendour”. He seems at peace though his regrets appear to be swirling in his thoughts. Natalie’s sister Lana only appears via her accusing (she is estranged with RJ) TV interviews. Christopher Walken (who was on the boat that night) is represented by a brief 1983 video piece. The haunting score from Jeremy Turner adds to the pathos, but the film doesn’t wallow in those horrific details. Instead we’re left with lots of “what ifs”. In the late 70s, Natalie seemed to be truly spreading her ‘acting wings’ taking on roles of great depth and complexity. In her interviews, there’s a more relaxed ‘vibe” as she seems to be more comfortable in her “own skin”, which only enhanced her dazzling beauty (maturity was not her foe). What kind of artistic triumphs awaited her in the next couple of decades? The film leads us to ponder what “might have been”. NATALIE WOOD: WHAT REMAINS BEHIND reminds us of that loss to the arts and the memories that her friends and family still cherish.
3.5 out of 4
NATALIE WOOD: WHAT REMAINS BEHIND begins airing on the HBO premium channel on May 5 at 9 PM ET. It will then be available on the HBO NOW and HBO GO streaming platforms.