When a 16-year-old Natalie Wood was hoping to be cast in 1955’s Rebel Without a Cause, then-44-year-old director Nicholas Ray—who referred to her as both a “kid” and a “girl” in a casting memo—had sex with her. Years later, when a grown-up Wood was asked in a televised 1970s interview if she’d ever been abused by Hollywood men, she said no.
The juxtaposition of these facts is a highlight of the new HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind. Still many critics have been nearly unanimous in their criticism of the documentary, which Entertainment Weekly calls “intriguing but incomplete” and which the New Yorker says, “Doesn’t have the answers.”
They, you, and everybody who still cares wants a definitive solution to the mystery of what happened on that 1981 night when the gifted actress drowned off Catalina after a boozy night on a sailboat with her husband, actor Robert Wagner, and the couple’s friend Christopher Walken, with whom Wood had been working on the film Brainstorm.
Sure, we all really really wish this film, co-produced by Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner (she also appears in it) and directed by documentary pro Laurent Bouzereau, delivered the goods once and for all. But critics must have known it wouldn’t. If Wood didn’t just fall off the boat, the most likely suspect in her murder is Robert Wagner, Gregson Wagner’s stepfather, from whom she is most definitely not estranged. In fact they are so close, Robert, 90, who friends and family called RJ, agreed to appear on screen to show how distraught he still is over the incident and to tell his version of events.
Was Natasha going to deliver a film naming her beloved stepfather a murderer? J’accuse! Non!
We discussed the film’s treatment of Wood’s death during an in-person interview with Gregson Wagner and Bouzereau after it screened at Sundance in late January; I recently followed up by email to ask about critics’ gripes.
The documentary is timed to the May release of a memoir by Gregson Wagner, More than Love, about her relationship with her mother, who died when Gregson Wagner was 11.
One choice I thought was interesting was the amount of Natasha on screen. Was that thought through or was that just the project from the start?
Laurent Bouzereau: This gentleman Manoah Boman, who had written a book on Natalie with Natasha [Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life] came to me to see if I was interested in doing a documentary. I knew I didn’t want to do something that was a celebration movie clip package kind of thing that you see at the Oscars. Natasha pulled me in emotionally when I met her, and that’s what I want the viewers to feel like immediately, like they’re being pulled in by someone. And to come from possibly the highest, most horrible emotion a human being can feel, which is a loss, and the loss of someone who created you, your mom or your father.
When you did the book with Manoah, did you have a documentary in mind immediately?
Natasha Gregson Wagner: No. I had my daughter a couple of years before, so I wasn’t in the headspace of work. My family has a storage unit with tons of stuff, and I needed an objective person to come in there with me, so Manoah was that person. As we were working on the book we said, “We should make a documentary about her life because it’s so rich.” The book came out. A couple years went by. And then Manoah said, “I think I might have the person to make the documentary.”
Why wasn’t Chris Walken in the film?
Gregson Wagner: We reached out to his agent, Tony Howard. At first she thought that maybe he would want to participate, but ultimately he felt that he would be too much of an elephant in the room, and he didn’t want to do it.
I’m working on a project that intersects with yours, a documentary about entertainment journalist Rona Barrett. Why I’m interested in her is demonstrated in your film. Because all the other vintage interviews of Natalie you use, you have fawning male TV personalities basically asking, “What’s it like to be so pretty?” And Rona’s like, “Were you sexually harassed?”
That is such a key moment in the film.
Bouzereau: I know.
Gregson Wagner: Yeah, it is.
When she lies, right?
Gregson Wagner: Yeah.
Bouzereau: And we stay on it. I really extended that as much as I could. My first cut was three-and-a-half hours. I refused to do a chronological thing: and then she did Splendor in the Grass and stories about that. And then she did West Side Story and stories about that. So, it was really trying to find the themes and how those movies would speak to who she was.
But there was a chronology also, because you have to get to the boat, get to the death.
Bouzereau: Absolutely, but doing documentary filmmaking is harder than doing narrative films because you know your story, you go in with a vision, but that vision gets influenced by who you talk to. And so you have to be able to switch.
Everyone asks about the death. From what I gather from the movie, the theory you’re presenting is, number one, RJ [Robert Wagner] didn’t do it. And then your best theory is she was annoyed by the dinghy being lashed to the boat too loosely and banging, keeping her awake. She’d had too much to drink, got up herself to tighten it, and there was some kind of mishap. And your dad, your stepdad, was inebriated and having another drink with Chris, and she was off doing this on her own and fell in the water because she couldn’t find anybody else to help tie it down. Is that about right?
Gregson Wagner: Yeah.
But some will say this doc was made because the police reopened the investigation about what happened on the boat and that RJ remains a “person of interest.” Is the motivation for this film now to do a public relations campaign to build support for RJ?
Gregson Wagner: The motivation of the film is to tell the story of my mom’s life.
Bouzereau: We started off doing a story of an actress and Hollywood, and we discovered the story of a family. And that’s really the most amazing gift that a filmmaker can receive. If you’re doing the story of Rona Barrett and you think you’re doing this story of this great interviewer, somebody who asks the right questions, maybe in the process of that you’re going to discover she did that because she never wanted to be asked any questions about herself. And now it’s no longer about who she interviewed, but what is it like for her to talk for the first time. And it becomes another story. So, that was my journey and Natasha’s journey.
Gregson Wagner: That wasn’t a discovery for me, though. But that was a discovery for you.
Natasha, what did you learn in the process of the documentary?
Gregson Wagner: How dedicated of an actress she was. Because, when I was growing up, I would visit her on sets, but she didn’t work much at that time. She didn’t talk to me about her process. So that was illuminating for me. Mostly it was just a corroboration of everything I already knew, a cementing of all that has sustained me all these years to be able to survive her death. The essence of her that I carry within me, to be able to see it in home movies, to hear people talk about her that way. That is the person I remember. And so it was important to me to make this film because sometimes people talk about her like someone I have no idea who they’re talking about. She wasn’t tragic. She wasn’t sad. My parents had this amazing relationship that I witnessed that has been a model for me in my own relationships.
Wagner: Well, to pick someone that you like, who makes you laugh. I think my parents were great friends. I mean, they really admired and respected each other. They wanted a similar life. They wanted it to be centered around their family. And they wanted to have a good time, and they extended their love to their friends. As someone in my 20s, I certainly was looking for that kind of a relationship. And then, luckily, it took me a while, but I found it.
Bouzereau: Natalie never solved that dilemma of family versus career and how do you marry both. But she was moving on. I don’t know if viewers will catch it, but there is the poster of [a planned Los Angeles production of the play] Anastasia, which says “Premiers February 1982,” which was after she passed away.
Gregson Wagner: She was going to go into rehearsals for that right when Brainstorm ended.
Bouzereau: And she had optioned properties to produce, to direct.
What do you think about the new West Side Story? Are you worried?
Gregson Wagner: No, I’m excited. I mean, who better to direct one of her films than Mr. Steven Spielberg. I can’t wait to see it. A few years ago I saw a production on Broadway. Anything to just keep her moving forward. I support that.
It was moving how moved you were after the screening last night.
Bouzereau: I was scared because it was the first public screening. At the end, I just felt so emotional and just so genuinely moved by people staying, like yourself, and asking questions, genuinely interested. During the film, there was really interesting laughter.
Gregson Wagner: I know. Those were funny.
Gregson Wagner: Well, people were laughing at my dad in that interview when he was like, “I was just a happy Jack Squirrel kid with nothing much on my mind but my hair.” I mean, he’s a hilarious person who’s constantly making me laugh.
Bouzereau: And Elliott Gould got some laughter.
I was curious about that. Almost as soon as he appeared people laughed.
Gregson Wagner: I noticed that, too. I didn’t know if they were surprised to see that he had aged.
That’s what I thought maybe. That struggle your mother was having about life balance, personal creative expression versus family. This was the argument Chris Walken was having with RJ on the boat.
Gregson Wagner: Her struggles were human. And we can all relate to them.
Bouzereau: I think all artists, and I’m sure your mom, everybody feels, “What’s my next thing?” You know, the system can’t wait to build you up, they can’t wait to tear you down. That’s the pattern of all the greats.
Well the tearing down of Natalie Wood is all about the last day of her life. That’s how you accomplish it, if that’s what you’re trying to do. They were drunk. They were fighting. There are secrets there. It wasn’t all that it looked like. Related to now, I was thinking about #MeToo and that thing with Nick Ray, the director of Rebel. That definitely happened?
Gregson Wagner: I don’t know if it definitely happened because she never told me. I have no… I can’t …
You think it did.
Bouzereau: Oh, absolutely.
Gregson Wagner: My mom died when I was eleven. So I didn’t talk to her about these things. And I don’t want to comment on things that I don’t know because it’s just hearsay. And it’s so not what I want to talk about related to the documentary and her.
Right. But that moment where she is lying in the interview to Rona Barrett. Why do you think she did that?
Gregson Wagner: Because she was a child of the studio system. Because she wasn’t somebody who spread her dirty laundry out. That’s how I was raised, too. And she wasn’t that kind of a person. She had an elegance to her.
Bouzereau: Having documented old Hollywood, I knew Joan Fontaine. I knew Janet Leigh. I remember going to a hotel to meet Joan Fontaine, bringing her a single rose. I’m going to get emotional just talking about this because those were people that I discovered as a kid in the French cinematheque. It was very hard for those people to suddenly shed what they had been taught by the studio system. When I talked to Jack Larson, who is now passed away, I said, “Well, you were clearly in a relationship with a man and you were Monty Clift’s best friend.” They still could not go there. In the movie I hope it comes through. There is a certain amount of restraint and training.
She’d be 82 today, probably still alive. Hopefully. What would she do now with #MeToo? Would she tell those stories or would she just…
Gregson Wagner: I don’t know. It’s a good question. I mean, she was a pretty honest woman, so maybe she would have told those stories. I think if she believed in the movement, which I’m sure she would have, she probably would have. Or maybe she would have shown her support in other ways.
Gregson Wagner: Supporting the people that were talking about it. Getting involved but maybe not necessarily telling her story. She was of the studio system. She wasn’t somebody who wanted to take people down. She wasn’t a gossip. So, I think if she had done it, she would have done it her way, which would have been not a nasty way.
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