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Film Review: “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind” Offers Solid Portrait of Its Subject

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | May 4th, 2020

Film poster: “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind”

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind (Laurent Bouzereau, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Born in 1938, as Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, the actress who would become Natalie Wood made her first credited film appearance (after two earlier, uncredited bit parts) in the 1946 Tomorrow Is Forever, opposite Orson Welles. Her last role would come in the 1983 Brainstorm, opposite Christopher Walken, released almost two years after her untimely drowning off the coast of California’s Catalina Island. In between those two bookends stands a career filled with such touchstones as Miracle on 34th Street, Rebel Without a Cause, Splendor in the Grass and Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, among other movies, not to mention West Side Story, problematic though it may be by today’s standards, with the very white Wood cast as a Puerto Rican. She was, from the tenderest of ages, a star, and remained so until the end of her tragically short life.

Despite these achievements, as well as her pioneering push to receive a salary equal to that of her male stars on the 1965 The Great Race (a gem of a comedic action-adventure film), Wood is as much remembered for the mysterious circumstances surrounding her death as for the more joyful facts of her life. Here, now, is director Laurent Bouzereau (Netflix’s limited series Five Came Back), along with Wood’s eldest daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, to make sure we recall, first and foremost, the dynamic force that was the great Natalie Wood. Premiering May 5 on HBO, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind plunges the viewer deep into the details of Wood’s personal and professional trajectory, from earliest days to very last moments, examining how she overcame obstacles both internal and external to forge a path that we can all still admire today.

Natalie Wood (center) in a business meeting in NATALIE WOOD: WHAT REMAINS BEHIND Photo Credit: Bill Ray / Courtesy of HBO

Featuring many terrific movie clips plus copious interviews with family, friends and colleagues, the documentary offers an almost exclusively favorable profile, if not quite a hagiography. Beyond Gregson Wagner, who is also a producer on the project, there is husband #1 and #3, actor Robert Wagner (Gregson Wagner’s step-father), who married her early and then, after a period of divorce and remarriage (for both of them), married her again when they were both older and wiser; husband #2, film producer Richard Gregson (Gregson Wagner’s biological father); youngest daughter Courtney Wagner; actors Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and Richard Benjamin; playwright and Wood confidante Mart Crowley; and many more. They are all engaging, though the movie does, after a while, take on the aspect of a corporate tribute film, albeit a good one, rather than an example of intriguing film journalism.

This is true even when Bouzereau and Wagner approach the matter of their subject’s watery demise. There are no new facts brought to life, nor even any hard questions asked of Wagner or Walken (who is not in the film) – both on board the boat from which Wood possibly slipped and fell – though the former is allowed to tell his version of what transpired. It’s not that we need any great revelation – what evidence exists points to an unhappy accident, plain and simple – but rather a sense of investigative objectivity. It’s natural to wonder what the documentary would have been like without Wood’s daughter pulling strings behind the scene. Still, what remains behind in Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is a resonant portrait of a woman who more than left her mark over her almost 40 years in Hollywood. It may fall short of what it could have been, but is still a worthy tribute.

(from left) Natalie Wood, James Dean, and director Nicholas Ray behind the scenes of “Rebel Without A Cause” (1955) in NATALIE WOOD: WHAT REMAINS BEHIND Photo Credit: Courtesy of MPTV/HBO
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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