'A short but vibrant life': revisiting the life and death of Natalie Wood

Natasha Gregson Wagner was 11 years old when her mother, the actor Natalie Wood, drowned off Catalina Island on Thanksgiving weekend, 1981. Wagner’s recollection of hearing the news of her mother’s death that rainy morning is the first scene of Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, a HBO documentary reflecting on Wood’s storied life and career. Wood’s death at 43 was a public spectacle – a vibrant, famous life cut short, compounded by mysterious circumstances ripe for speculation: a night-time drowning, no witnesses.

Related: Natalie Wood: reinvestigating the mysterious death of a movie star

But the tragedy – and speculation on what, exactly, happened that night off Catalina – has “overshadowed her life’s work and who she was as a person”, says Wagner early in the film. And she did leave much behind: two biological children and extended families of stepchildren; her husband, the actor Robert Wagner, who was with her on their yacht, the Splendour, the night she died; numerous A-lister friends and beloved confidants; and a legacy as a titan of mid-century American film, a rare model of child stardom who muscled through the old studio system into mature success.

The film does address the elephant in the room – Natasha interviews her stepfather about renewed media and law enforcement interest into his role in her mother’s death – but is understandably wary of pulling too hard on that shadow. Instead, it delves deep into the archives, as well as interviews with friends like Robert Redford and Mia Farrow, to present evidence of a strikingly candid, trailblazing woman and mother in Hollywood, the star of such films as West Side Story and Miracle on 34th Street. “My goal was to cast the attention on her life, period,” Natasha told the Guardian. “Not the night she died.”

Wood, born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko to Russian immigrant parents in San Francisco in 1938, began acting at age five, after she stumbled upon a film shoot in Santa Rosa and was chosen for a bit part. Her enterprising, domineering mother, Maria, a classic mom-ager before there was such a term, soon moved the family to Los Angeles to pursue Natalie’s acting career. By her teens, Natalie was a studio child star, a doe-eyed well of emotion on screen and a seasoned professional off it. By 15, she had earned an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress as the repressed, flippant love interest to James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.

In old clips, it’s easy to see why Wood was a star. She wears emotion like a sheath – anxiety, sadness and resilience ripple along her skin and her pooled brown eyes. By 25, she had garnered two more nominations, for Splendor in the Grass and Love With a Proper Stranger. Her marriage to Robert Wagner in 1957, when she was 19 and he was 24, made her a fixture of Hollywood’s gossip press (the two divorced in 1962 and remarried a decade later, after her divorce from Richard Gregson).

Still, for all the glamour – and Wood, photographed often throughout her life, inhabited glamour easily – home videos capture a much looser yet still magnetic persona. “We weren’t raised by someone who seemed like a movie star at all,” Natasha says in the film. “All she just seemed was sort of larger than life, but not because she was famous. More because she was just her.” The film, along with Farrow and Redford, recalls a strong-willed woman behind the scenes who fought for higher pay, better film roles from the studios and provisions for actors to block off time for therapy.

Old photos capture Wood fresh-faced, seated at the head of a table of suited men, holding her own. “I always knew that she was the boss of her world. She was the boss of her movies, in a lot of ways, and the boss of our family,” said Natasha. “She believed in equal pay for men and women, she believed in equal rights for the LGBTQ community.” The film highlights Wood’s loyalty to her friends, such as the playwright Mart Crowley, whose 1968 play The Boys in the Band – a groundbreaking portrayal of gay life that was revived in 2018 – was made possible by Wood’s financial support. (Crowley, interviewed in the film, died in March 2020 at the age of 84). If Wood had lived, Natasha speculated, “she would have been on the forefront of all of those movements … She would have been really excited about the progress that’s been made.”

Natasha Gregson Wagner
Natasha Gregson Wagner. Photograph: REX/Shutterstock

Wood’s death, however, still looms over this glowing retrospective, especially in light of renewed media fascination and accusations of foul play. In 2011, 30 years after her death, the case was reopened by the Los Angeles county sheriff’s department because of “new information”; a year later, the cause on her death certificate was changed from “accidental drowning” to “drowning and other undetermined factors”. Natalie’s sister Lana Wood, estranged from the Wagner family and painted as untrustworthy by the film, has long called Natalie’s death a “murder” and called for Robert to “tell the truth once and for all”. In 2018, the LA sheriff’s office named Robert a “person of interest” after CBS News’s 48 Hours aired a special on the case. (He has always maintained Wood’s death was a tragic accident.)

The point of the film was not to rehash the cloud of accusations and explanations. “We knew we didn’t want to do an investigative type of reportage on the tragedy,” the director, Laurent Bouzereau, told the Guardian. “We’re not operating under the guise of finding out ‘what happened?’, because we know what happened.” Natasha and Robert, now 90, maintain a similar explanation to the one given at the time, in 1981, by the Los Angeles county medical examiner Thomas Noguchi, who described her death as a “tragic accident while slightly intoxicated”.

Asked directly to tell his side of the story by Natasha, Robert recalls a wine-fueled argument with the actor Christopher Walken, Wood’s co-star in the 1983 film Brainstorm. The couple had been struggling at the time with Natalie’s balance of work and motherhood. Robert says the argument with Walken was resolved (he calls Walken “a stand-up guy”) and that when he went to bed, Natalie was missing. Robert and Natasha assume that Natalie went out to tie the yacht’s dinghy – she was sensitive to noise, Natasha notes, and frequently complained about the dinghy bumping into the boat at night – and probably slipped and hit her head.

The interviews functions as a statement on behalf of the Wagners, thus precluding all interview or comment requests, of which there have been many over the years. “We included [the interview] because we knew that it was part of the story,” said Natasha. “But it’s more about the effect the toxic media can have on a family.” In the years since, the film notes, Wood’s descendants have grappled with the shadow of her fame and the sudden loss of a beloved family member, compounded by swarming cameras at her funeral and tabloid covers reigniting attention on Robert, with whom Wood’s daughters, Natasha and Courtney Wagner, remain close.

The documentary thus marks a reclamation of Wood’s narrative from tragic question mark to a tale of vivacity, a chance to show movie audiences that Wood had “incredible joy, that she was a devoted mother and wife, that she was a hugely wonderful friend to her friends, championing them and their careers and their mental health”, said Natasha.

“She had a short life, but she had a vibrant life.”

  • Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind premieres on HBO in the US on 5 May and in the UK at a later date