In HBO’s documentary film “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” actor Robert Wagner is asked multiple questions about that terrible night in 1981 when Wood, his actress wife, drowned off California’s Catalina Island after an evening of drinking on their yacht with actor Christopher Walken.
Wagner, now 90, wearily goes through the details of a tragedy that’s defined his public image for nearly 40 years. Though Wood’s death was originally ruled an accident, conjecture about it has consistently sold tabloids, books and true crime productions. “What Remains Behind,” which premieres Tuesday, is not part of that machine.
Co-produced by Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, it tenderly chronicles the effect her death had on her family and on the public by emphasizing how much she meant to all of them in life. Far from a true crime Hollywood whodunit, the big bombshells in this film are emotional.
After Robert Wagner recounts that terrible night, he’s asked if he’s ever gone back to Catalina, which is also where the couple spent their honeymoon.
“No, I never have gone back to the island,” he says, tears in his eyes, voice cracking. “I see it once in a while. You know how sometimes it’s so clear you can see it? Or when I’m taking off from LAX and they turn to the south, and you fly by the island. I look down at the Isthmus and think all of the great times we had there. It’s just so ironic (it ended the way it did).”
It’s also heartbreaking.
Gregson Wagner, who was just 11 when her mom died, introduces the film as her personal journey to redefine Wood’s legacy outside her sensationalized death and to confront the suspicion surrounding her stepfather. The documentary, which she co-produced with Manoah Bowman and the film’s director, Laurent Bouzereau, is scattered but compelling, a fresh narrative about Wood’s legacy. (Gregson Wagner and Bowman co-wrote the 2016 book “Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life”; Gregson Wagner also has a new memoir out, “More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood.”)
Gregson Wagner shows her mother as a devoted parent, a loving wife to Wagner, a midcentury woman who learned that having it all meant compromising everything when she was torn between family and career. Never-before-shared home and professional footage, Wood’s own letters and a who’s who of bygone Hollywood, interviewed by Gregson Wagner, make the case. Among those who participated: Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Elliott Gould, Jill St. John and Wood’s former husband, director Richard Gregson, who died in August 2019.
Is it the definitive documentary on the actress? No. A comprehensive look at Wood’s life is tricky business given how many aspects there are to explore.
She was a child actor in such films as “Miracle on 34th Street” and a teen love interest in 1955’s “Rebel Without a Cause”; she dominated the 1961 box office with “Splendor in the Grass” and “West Side Story.” She played opposite Steve McQueen (“Love With the Proper Stranger”); Frank Sinatra (“Kings Go Forth”) and Redford (“Inside Daisy Clover,” “This Property Is Condemned”). She dated Sinatra, Michael Caine and David Niven Jr. She was married to Wagner — twice. The second time stuck, and the members of the blended family they formed appear in “What Remains Behind.”
Together, they paint a picture of strong kinship, despite the pressures of fame, speak of Wagner with compassion and trust, and recount the difficulties of growing up under the tabloid spotlight. Photographers were hanging in a tree at Wood’s funeral, hiding in the bushes at gatherings to mourn her memory.
Clearly, the goal of this documentary isn’t to solve the mystery of her death or to ascertain whether there was foul play. It’s still unclear how Wood ended up in the water and why her body was found floating in the shallows. Walken, one of the last men she played opposite on-screen (“Brainstorm”), was one of four people on the boat the night Wood died.
Gregson Wagner asks her stepdad about that night. He says they’d all been drinking on shore at dinner, then drank more on their boat. Wagner argued with Walken. When he finally went to bed, Wood wasn’t there; she and the dingy were gone. “That night’s gone through my mind so many times,” he says, crying. “You can imagine. And I ... Chris was there. He, by the way, is a very stand-up guy. A true gentleman.”
Wagner says he doesn’t know exactly what happened, which of course will never be enough to satisfy the appetite for salacious celebrity crime or quash the idea that he had a hand in Wood’s undoing. Casting doubt on him has been a lucrative business.
The film does, however, offer another way to look at the great Natalie Wood. She was a larger-than-life success story, a commanding actress, a part of Hollywood when it was glamorous. She was also a mother who was torn from her children too soon. This film is a love letter from one of those children.