This new documentary about the three-time Oscar Nominated actress Natalie Wood has not only been sanctioned by her family but daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner acts as an adhoc host. Even so it still seems inevitable that any sort of biography of Wood is always dominated by her early tragic death and sadly at the expense of paying due diligence to the actress’s exceptional body of work.
Wood was born to Russian immigrants and as a child star became the family’s breadwinner after her father had a stroke which stopped him working. Watching her scene-stealing performance as the 9 year old girl saving the plight of Santa Claus in The Miracle of 34th Street in 1947 shows Wood as consummate natural actor even at this very early age.
Her domineering mother with her strong Russian accent ensured that Wood was always cast as a wholesome pigtailed girl, but when she came of age , Wood insisted of taking control of her own career and get to play some meatier adult roles. The first of these was in Rebel Without a Cause alongside James Dean. It is hinted here that 19 year old Wood was so desperate for the part that she had a brief fling with the 44 year old director Nicholas Ray who she was also somewhat obsessed with.
One surprising fact to surface about her career was at the height of her fame she refused to accept what she considered were mediocre roles that studio boss Jack Warner was insisting on. So she was suspended for 18 months and eventually won an agreement that under her contract she would be allowed to pick one movie a year. Her first choice was West Side Story which made her an international star in 1961, the irony of which is that in this day and age she would have never been allowed to cast as a Puerto Rican.
Wood married actor Robert Wagner twice. The studio arranged a date with the 26 year old actor on her 18th birthday and they married a year later. However they were seperated just 4 years later and quickly divorced. Then as her career kept rising, Wagner’s came to a halt so he took himself off to live in Europe. They met and re-married 10 years later, but not before Wood had married and divorced Agent Richard Gregson the father of Natasha. In the meanwhile Wagner had married actress Marion Marshall and they had a daughter Kate Wagner.
Family was very important to Wood and when she and Wagner had another daughter Courtney, Wood seized the opportunity to take a hiatus from the movies.
In the 1970’s after the success of the 4 time Oscar nominated Bob, Carol, Ted and Alice, Wood surprised everyone by accepting some TV roles, the first of which was a remake of From Here To Eternity which won her a Golden Globe.
There is a great deal of archival footage of both Wood being a happy homemaker, and also of several talks show appearances she had made throughout her career. They give no hint of any unhappiness at all even though it was known that she had taken an overdose of tablets in 1965 when she was shooting The Great Race.
When it comes to Wood’s tragic drowning at the age of 43, documentary director Laurent Bouzereau allows Natasha to interview her stepfather ‘Daddy Wagner’ about that fateful night. It is a very respectful conversation between father and daughter that dregs over minute details but reveals absolutely nothing new at all. We never learn whether there is any grounds for all the speculation that insists that Wagner was somehow responsible was somehow responsible for his wife’s death, and that simply refuses to go away
It’s left to her friends such as Mia Farrow , Robert Redford (whom Wood had discovered) and Richard Benjamin to bear witness to how this exceptionally talented actress and very loyal friend who would do literally anything to help them and her family.
It was also great to hear from someone else who was in her inner circle for several years : Mart Crowley who wrote The Boys in The Band who mentioned her support for the LGBTQ community who always recognised Wood as the icon she was.
‘Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind’ tells us part of a story of a remarkable actress, we’d love to see the other part that focuses on her work.