“Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” which debuted Tuesday night, doesn’t have those answers — nor does it try to offer any (though multiple people interviewed are adamant that there was no foul play and slammed speculation that Wagner was involved). The 100-minute film features interviews from Wood’s family, as well as friends such as Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. It is mainly a portrait of Wood by her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner, who said the intense focus on Wood’s death often overshadows her life’s work and who she was as a person, particularly as a mother.
“We weren’t raised by someone who seemed like a movie star at all,” said Gregson Wagner, who also released a memoir this week. “All she just seemed was sort of larger than life, but not because she was famous — more because she was just her.”
Here are five takeaways from the documentary:
Wood felt immense pressure as an actress
Wood started acting at 5 years old when a producer cast her in his movie “Happy Land” (1943) as a little girl who dropped her ice cream cone. Afterward, the producer stayed in touch with her family, and they moved to Los Angeles so she could audition for more acting roles. Her career skyrocketed, and she felt pressure — particularly from her mother — to be the breadwinner of the family, especially after her father became sick and couldn’t work.
Wood’s success only continued to grow. She earned three Oscar nominations by age 25 for “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “Love With a Proper Stranger.” But when she filmed “The Great Race” in 1965, she was feeling overwhelmed, like she was “owned” by the studio, and became very unhappy in the aftermath of her divorce from Robert Wagner. One weekend, she overdosed on sleeping pills but quickly sought medical assistance. After getting her stomach pumped at the hospital, she was back on set that Monday. It wasn’t a suicide attempt, daughter Gregson Wagner said, but rather “a cry for help,” which she then received.
Wood didn’t mind talking about her multiple marriages to Wagner
At one point, the film shows an archived interview clip in which a journalist asked Wood about marrying, divorcing, and then remarrying Robert Wagner — but quickly followed up that she didn’t have to answer if she was uncomfortable. But Wood was completely fine with it. She and Wagner married in 1957 but divorced five years later when her career pressures consumed her. Wagner, interviewed at length in the documentary, admitted he was also angry at the time about rumors that she had an affair with Warren Beatty, even though they were untrue.
In 1969, she married producer Richard Gregson, and Natasha was born the following year. Three years after that, they split when Gregson had an affair. (Gregson, also interviewed, said Wood kicked him out and had police patrol her home for a week to make sure he wouldn’t come back.) Wood and Wagner reconnected at a party in 1972 and were married once again. Her youngest daughter, Courtney, was born shortly after.
Wood felt conflicted about working once she had children
The documentary also focuses on how much Wood loved being a mother. The film said this contributed to the dissolution of her marriage to Gregson, as he felt she focused all her attention on the baby. She also struggled with balancing work and being a mother. Wood’s friend, playwright Mart Crowley, recalled one time when Wood was cuddling her daughter and looked up and said, “Who needs show business when one has this?”
Some people feel guilty that they let Wood go on the Catalina trip
Josh Donen, Wagner’s stepson from his second marriage, was also close with Wood. Right before Wood, Wagner and Walken took off to Catalina Island after Thanksgiving in 1981, Wood was anxious about the trip; she was having intense internal debates about the balance between her work and her family life. Donen urged her to go to Catalina and take time off for some introspective thinking. He said he still can’t believe he advised her to go on the boat. “Silly me,” he says in the film, clearly devastated.
Wood’s friend, Delphine Mann, recalled that Wood asked her to accompany them on the trip because Wagner and Walken, her co-star in her new movie “Brainstorm,” had a tense relationship. But Mann’s son’s birthday was that weekend, so she declined the invitation. “I’ve never forgiven myself for not going,” Mann said. “Because I’m sure there would have been a different dynamic somewhere.”
Wagner was ‘shattered’ after Wood’s death and won’t even dignify rumors that he was involved
Toward the end of the documentary, Wagner goes into detail about his recollections of the night of Wood’s death: He, Walken and Wood had dinner on the shore and then went back to the boat. They opened a few bottles of wine, and he and Walken started arguing about Wood’s future in acting. At some point, Wood went downstairs to the stateroom to get ready for bed and Wagner and Walken kept up the heated conversation.
Eventually, Wagner said, they calmed down. When he went to look for Wood, she was gone and the dinghy was missing. When they couldn’t find her or the dinghy on the shore, they called for help. Hours later, the Coast Guard found her body in the water.
Both Robert Wagner and Natasha Gregson Wagner broke down in tears as they recalled the devastation and said the media storm afterward was unbearable. The autopsy report showed that Wood had alcohol and a sleeping pill in her system, so they think she probably went to check on the dinghy — the sound of it banging against the boat always drove her crazy, Gregson Wagner said — and slipped and fell into the water.
However, there has been plenty of speculation otherwise. In 2011, their boat deckhand, Dennis Davern, wrote a book that accused Wagner of foul play. The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department reopened the case and confirmed in 2018 that Wagner was a “person of interest.” Wood’s sister, Lana, has also said she thinks the investigation was originally “mishandled” and alluded to a conspiracy. (Wagner’s publicist told news outlets that Davern and Lana Wood should be “ashamed of themselves” and added, “They are despicable human beings, capitalizing on the accidental death of a beloved member of the Wagner family.”)
In the documentary, Gregson Wagner asks her stepfather how he feels about being a person of interest: “I don’t pay very much attention to it, Natasha,” Wagner says. “Because they’re not going to redefine me. I know who I am.”
“It’s important to me, Daddy, that people think of you the way I know that you are,” she says. “And it bothers me that anyone would ever think that you would be involved in what happened to her.”