Primetimer editor-at-large Sarah D. Bunting knows a thing or two about true crime. She founded the true crime site The Blotter, and is the host of its weekly podcast, The Blotter Presents. Her weekly column here on Primetimer is dedicated to all things true crime on TV.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is resolute in not focusing on its subject's death. The film, executive-produced by Wood's daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner and directed by veteran Laurent Bouzereau (Five Came Back), tries to focus on Natalie Wood's life and career via lots of exclusive photos and home-movie footage, and interviews with Hollywood titans like Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, and Elliott Gould. Gregson Wagner conducts many of the interviews herself — and the subjects include both her biological father, the late producer Richard Gregson; and her stepfather Robert Wagner, who was on the boat the night Natalie Wood drowned in November of 1981 and who recently became a "person of interest" in her death once again. That Wood's surviving family would prefer the public focus on Wood's achievements — on her, as she lived, not on the way she died — is a perfectly understandable point of view. Unfortunately, What Remains Behind is SO determined not to investigate Wood's untimely demise that the documentary feels oddly unbalanced.
It's not a dull 100 minutes; Wood's decades of red-carpet fashion alone — and the backstory on how she always wore a bracelet to disguise an oddly healed broken wrist — make it worth a look. The filmmakers certainly get top-notch subjects for talking-head interviews. In addition to Redford and Farrow, What Remains Behind talks to George Hamilton, playwright Mort Crowley, author Julie Salamon (The Devil's Candy), and most of Gregson Wagner's siblings and stepsiblings. Wood's charisma remains undeniable, and the documentary does provide interesting insight into Wood's relationship with and motivation by her narcissistic stage mother Maria, as well as her battles with the old-line studios for more creative freedom. A doc that focused more narrowly on one of these aspects of Wood's Hollywood journey might have felt more satisfying — and would have been justified in avoiding Wood's death completely. As it is, What Remains Behind feels like it's rushing past these topics, and most others... only to reach the edge of the blast radius created by the dreaded topic of Wood's drowning, then tiptoe around it instead of diving in.
That blast radius is very real. A violent and/or mysterious death scorches the figurative earth for miles around the person who's died, and in recent years it's become a central topic of true-crime coverage — how well a property is able to center victims and survivors, versus focusing exclusively (or exploitatively) on the crime or criminals in question. What Remains Behind had an opportunity to jump into that conversation and add to it, but instead the film often feels defensive, afraid to incorporate Wood's death into the story of her life in case the ending completely overshadows the beginning. And because the film can't let that subject in, that's exactly what happens. Christopher Walken, also present aboard Woods' yacht on the night she died, declined to participate in the film. Wood's sister Lana, who has insisted strenuously that Robert Wagner was involved, is dismissed as an attention whore and not interviewed. The boat's captain, Dennis Davern, is not interviewed either. If the filmmakers don't want to re-litigate that fateful night, well, okay, but again, it's not about whose "side" anyone is on; it's about the viewer feeling the absence of key figures in Wood's story's conclusion, and thinking about THAT, instead of receiving the narrative as it IS constructed. And this is leaving aside the portion of Wagner's interview with his stepdaughter that covers the night Wood died, in which Wagner becomes visibly uncomfortable. The coughing and fidgeting is conspicuous, but nobody comments on it, and decisions were made — or not — around leaving it in and not recommending another interview session. What Remains Behind wants to present Wood's work and Wood's family life and not get into whether she was murdered, but it ALSO wants to reiterate its belief in Wagner's innocence. It can't have it both ways.
It's one of the many hard things about grieving an early and high-profile death: it's really NOT possible to separate it from the life it put a period on. It IS possible, in documentary work, to accept the huge role the death played in the public's mind, and then to move on to bringing forward the life and loves and silly in-jokes that the glare of the end might have made invisible. OJ: Made In America is the only property of the legions devoted to the murders of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman that gives you any sense of Nicole Brown as a three-dimensional person, but that series also understands what most people tuned in "for," and doesn't fight it. In Kim Goldman's podcast, Confronting: OJ Simpson, Goldman let her grief be what it was, and that let her brother be who HE was in his own story. Rory Kennedy's HBO doc about her mother, the titular Ethel, can't pretend her father Robert wasn't murdered and that it's not still a national preoccupation, so it doesn't. Cobain: Montage Of Heck relies heavily on Kurt Cobain's artwork and collages, and uses them to illustrate that its subject was a complicated and variable person, like we all are — not defined by his suicide, but not apart from it either. Montage Of Heck was an HBO documentary too, so it seems like that much more regrettable that What Remains Behind couldn't see its way clear to celebrate the fullness of Natalie Wood. The continued tabloid attention paid to Wood's death doesn't lessen HER. But the film's flinching away from that part of her story lessens IT.
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind premieres on HBO tonight at 9:00 PM ET.
Sarah D. Bunting co-founded Television Without Pity, and her work has appeared in Glamour and New York, and on MSNBC, NPR's Monkey See blog, MLB.com, and Yahoo!. Find her at her true-crime newsletter, Best Evidence, and on TV podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This.