Film Reviews

Natalie Wood: Or, Mommy Dead and Dearest

‘What Remains Behind’ frustratingly fixates on Wood’s death, rather than what she achieved in life


Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind
(USA, 100 min.)
Dir. Laurent Bouzereau

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind might be the documentary its creators hope to make. It’s an affectionate and loving portrait of late actress Natalie Wood told by her family members and closest friends. However, cinephiles who love Wood in films like West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, and Rebel without a Cause might find it lacking.

One’s disappointment with this film should not reflect on Wood’s legacy as an actress, nor does it belittle her tragic death at the age of 41 on November 29, 1981 when she drowned under mysterious circumstances near the family yacht during a trip to Santa Catalina Island near California. Both Wood’s career and her death could fuel documentaries of their own. Director Laurent Bouzereau and star/producer Natasha Gregson Wagner wrestle with both without satisfyingly tackling either one.

What Remains Behind excels as a feat of public relations, but as a documentary, it leaves much to be desired. The difference between PR and documentary is one of objectivity. PR invites a filmmaker to ask questions that a subject doesn’t mind answering; documentary sometimes involves asking questions a subject might rather avoid. This distinction doesn’t mean every film needs to develop an antagonistic approach with its subjects. But a good documentary should at least ensure a measure of remove between the person asking the question and the person supplying the answers.

Natasha Gregson Wagner plays both inquisitor and respondent in this film. She’s the daughter of Natalie Wood and Richard Gregson but was also raised by Wood’s first husband Robert Wagner, whom she remarried after Natasha was born. One can’t deny Gregson Wagner’s right to participate. Not only is she family, she’s the author of a book about the actress, More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood, the publication of which coincides with the release of the film. However, Gregson Wagner is overly present in the film, which proves problematic on two levels.

Firstly, she offers personal recollections in direct address interviews to the camera, but she also doubles as the narrator by reading some of Wood’s diaries in voiceover. What Remains Behind devotes its first act to Wood’s family life before noting her tragic death, then it circles back through her career before culminating with her final film (Brainstorm) and the fateful night in Santa Catalina. Amid the film’s scattershot structural problems, it’s often difficult to decipher when Gregson Wagner speaks for herself and when she speaks as her mother, alternating roles of host, surrogate, and interviewer.

Secondly, Gregson Wagner leads many of the film’s key conversations with friends and family. She has a great rapport with the participants, including both her biological father and the man who raised her. (“Daddy Gregson” and “Daddy Wagner,” respectively, as she calls them in the film.) They speak lovingly of Wood and provide a warm portrait of family that faced an awful tragedy. But Gregson Wagner is far too close to her subjects and controlling of the discussions, a point underscored by her references to “mommy” throughout the conversations rife. One can’t really call them “interviews,” given how soft and non-confrontational they are. Gregson Wagner admittedly elicits a decent account from Robert Wagner about the night that Wood drowned. But without even the most obvious follow-up questions to elucidate the truth of this murky episode, the conversation is wildly problematic given that she’s discussing her mother’s death with a person of interest in the case.

All it really adds is the Wagner family story in a crisp, almost canned, account of death. What Remains Behind inadvertently plays like a press release stating the family’s position on the re-opening of the case. The voices who might challenge the story, such as Wood’s sister Lana (who outright accused Wagner of killing Natalie) and actor Christopher Walken, who was on the boat with Wagner and Wood the night Natalie died, are not present in the film. Quick snippets of archival material acknowledge their presence, but in Lana Wood’s case, she appears only to be debunked quickly by Gregson Wagner and Daddy Wagner. This account is very much the official story the Wood-Wagner family wants to further.

Wood’s family has a right to present its side of the story. In doing that, however, What Remains Behind ultimately struggles to provide a worthy account of Wood’s legacy. Gregson Wagner’s introductory comments to the film state that the sensationalism of her mother’s death overshadowed a great career. But so much of the film focuses on the drowning that it merely perpetuates the enigma of Wood’s death as the defining event of her existence. The difference is merely one of tone, favouring a People Magazine type profile in lieu of National Enquirer style sensationalism. The bulk of the material on Wood’s life focuses on her relationship and family—which is fair, but one can only look at other people’s baby pictures for so long.

What Remains Behind generally breezes through Wood’s career. It features the necessary signposts and iconic performances (West Side Story, Splendor in the Grass, Miracle on 34th Street, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, etc.), as well as the career highs and lows. Gregson Wagner and Bouzereau acknowledge a worthwhile angle to Wood’s career, but do so only slightly. Namely, that Wood grew up in the spotlight with virtually all stages of her life captured on film.

Some of the famous interviewees, like Mia Farrow and Jill St. John, somewhat further the conversation while celebrating Wood’s career. Farrow notes how Wood’s death cut short a career that was entering a new stage as the actress hit her forties—a taboo milestone in Hollywood, but one worth considering since Wood was one of few actresses to have major hits as a star, teenager, young adult, and woman approaching middle age. The timing of Wood’s death admittedly makes discussions of celebrity and aging difficult, but amidst the family portrait, one sees evidence of a life and career that deserves greater consideration than merely contextualising her death. Perhaps some self-directed binge-watching does Wood’s legacy better service.

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind airs May 5 on HBO and Crave at 9:00 pm.

Read Jason Gorber’s report on Sundance documentaries for a second take on the film.