Not unlike actresses Marilyn Monroe and Sharon Tate, the career of Natalie Wood is too often reduced to the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death at the age of 43. But perhaps more than most other actresses of her generation (or prior), Wood’s standing in Hollywood—as both a performer and power broker for women’s equality in the film industry (she demanded and got equal pay and treatment on set)—is often forgotten because of both her great beauty and the tragedy of her death after nearly a lifetime of working in front of the camera.
With Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, director Laurent Bouzereau (who has helmed countless home video “Making Of” documentary extras for films by directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Alfred Hitchcock, Brian DePalma, and Sidney Lumet, among others) and one of Wood’s three daughters—the actress Natasha Gregson Wagner—explore the life and career of this talented and influential performer. The film includes film clips, archival interviews with Wood, and recent interviews with countless family members and close friends. The film details both her largely successful acting career as well as her personal triumphs and tragedies through the use of previously unseen home movies, photos, and excerpts from her diaries and letters.
Whether she wanted to or not, Wood grew up in the public eye, so even as a more privately inclined adult, she never refused to answer questions about everything from her struggles at Warner Bros., the studio where she was under contract, or her many marriages and love affairs. She married actor Robert Wagner twice, and Natasha (his step-daughter, although he essentially raised her with Wood) gets him to talk about many aspects of their relationship and why their marriage worked so much better the second time around. Wagner even gives great detail about the night Wood died after falling out of their boat and drowning. Among those who offer additional insight into Wood as a person and an acting force are friends Mia Farrow, George Hamilton, Robert Redford (whom Wood discovered on stage in New York), George Segal, Elliott Gould, Dyan Cannon, Richard Benjamin, and David Niven Jr.
Wood was one of many actors who had to overcome personal misfortune, emotional difficulties, and even her own beauty to achieve respect in her chosen industry. But with early adult works like Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass, and Love with the Proper Stranger (all three of which earned her an Oscar nomination), as well as the musicals West Side Story and Gypsy, Wood was an established Hollywood superstar before the age of 25. She continued with memorable performances in such works as Sex and the Single Girl, The Great Race, This Property Is Condemned, and the groundbreaking comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. She was one of the first film actors to have success on television (she won a Golden Globe for the TV remake of From Here To Eternity), and her final film, Brainstorm (directed by the great special effects master Douglas Trumbull, also interviewed here), was poised to have been the beginning of a comeback after a bit of a break to be with her family.
The movie doesn’t shy away from the ludicrous conspiracy theories about her death on a boat that contained only Wagner and her Brainstorm co-star Christopher Walken, but by the time we get to that part of Wood’s story, we’re not interested in them or patient with anyone trying to make a buck off of the circumstances of her death.
Director Bouzereau’s specialty has always been to capture the behind-the-scenes vibe of whatever film he was either documenting or researching, but he does an impressive job here capturing the essence of a human being behind the image. And as much as we may be compelled to spot the flaws in Wood as a person, by the end of What Remains Behind (a perfect title considering the film looks at her legacy as both an actor and a mother), it becomes clear that she was a genuinely kind and generous person, almost to the detriment of her own well being. This is a loving but honest tribute to a talented actor and lovely human being.
The film debuts on HBO tonight and will be available to stream on HBO Go.
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