by Kayla McCulloch on May 8, 2020

The death of actress Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko — better known by her stage name of Natalie Wood — is one of the most perplexing (and, depending on whom you ask, most suspicious) cases in Hollywood history. The media storm that rained down on her widower, actor Robert Wagner, and their daughters is the proof. From the paparazzi that invaded her private funeral in 1981 to the continued coverage in checkout-aisle tabloids, the Natalie Wood story is as much a favorite among true-crime obsessives as Marilyn Monroe’s or Elvis Presley’s. While out on their boat for a weekend getaway after an atypical amount of time apart in late November 1981, Wood and Wagner were joined by fellow actor Christopher Walken — who was co-starring in a movie with Wood at the time and is believed by some to have had an affair with her. While the truth of that night will likely never be fully known, the hard evidence is that Wood was found dead the next morning, with the vessel’s dinghy not far off.

Make no mistake, however: Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is not a true-crime documentary. It’s a true romance. Despite a cold open in which Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner describes what she remembers from the night her mom passed, What Remains Behind does not concern itself with that fateful November night until the very end. The bulk of the documentary’s running time focuses on the star’s life, not her death, beginning with her early years as a child actor, tracking her transition from innocent roles to more mature ones, and detailing her adult years as a mother, actor, and icon (in that order). The film’s reticence with respect to Wood’s unfortunate end feels less like coy evasiveness and more like an attempt to humanize a woman who was reduced to nothing more than another Hollywood tragedy. Wood had been on screen from the time she was 4 years old — first appearing in a pair of Irving Pichel films in 1943 — and remained an industry staple beyond her death (her final film, 1983’s Brainstorm, premiered posthumously). What this documentary sets out to prove is that, despite being a massive star who met a terrible fate, Wood was always devoted to her life outside of the industry.

Director Laurent Bouzereau’s touch is nearly absent from the surface of What Remains Behind. Instead, the predominant voices are those of Wood herself — who is heard in archived interviews and home-video clips — and her daughters (primarily Natasha) through present-day interviews. The film also features the family members and friends who knew Wood best, but more interesting than these talking-head segments with actors like Mia Farrow, Robert Redford, and Elliot Gould are the times when Natasha sits one-on-one with father Richard Gregson (nicknamed Daddy Gregson), stepfather Robert Wagner (nicknamed Daddy Wagner), and family friend Mart Crowley (a writer-producer).

Although certainly a worthwhile watch based purely on the high-level access Bouzerau was given to Wood’s nearest and dearest, a quote from documentarian Ken Burns comes to mind: “If you are there influencing the very fact of it getting made, it means that certain aspects that you don’t necessarily want in aren’t going to be in, period.” Burns was referring to ESPN’s 10-part Michael Jordan documentary, The Last Dance (2020), which Jordan himself executive-produced. However, his argument is just as applicable here, owing to Natasha Gregson Wagner’s EP credit. An intimate family portrait like the one presented in the first hour of What Remains Behind requires the direct involvement of all members to obtain the most accurate picture possible. However, to properly investigate an unsolved death — as the documentary’s final half-hour attempts to do — a filmmaker probably shouldn’t be working in such close collaboration with, say, the daughter of a primary person of interest in the case.

For this reason, What Remains Behind is at odds with itself. The majority of the documentary warrants, possibly even requires, the participation of Wood’s and Wagner’s daughters to parse the complicated history of their upbringing, to give access to family photos and home videos, and to provide a unique perspective of what it was like to have a woman as inimitable as Wood for a mother. As in Everything Is Copy, HBO’s documentary about Nora Ephron helmed by her son Jacob Bernstein, Natasha Gregson Wagner’s work is especially important here. She narrates much of the film whenever her mother’s voice is not available and offers exceptional firsthand accounts of her mother’s struggles with fame, mental illness, and aging. However, the latter content is held back from its full potential by the same people who bolster the film’s depth elsewhere. The one-on-ones with Robert Wagner essentially halt any probes into the belief that he was involved in her death, substituting any real journalistic inquiries with Wagner’s account of the evening’s events and a strangely abrasive evisceration of the media and Wood’s sister, Lana.

Although not particularly profound in its analysis of Wood’s career and intentionally slight in its probing of the actress’ death, What Remains Behind has value as a humanizing account of a celebrity who spent her whole life enveloped in a media frenzy. Looking at it from this angle, the turn toward an angier tone in the final segments seems more fitting as an official response from Wagner and Wood’s children than as a serious attempt to separate the facts of her death from the fiction. Natasha Gregson Wagner and her sisters — and even her sister’s half-siblings, Joshua and Peter Donen, who came to know Wood after Wagner remarried their mother during the couple’s decade apart — knew Natalie Wood as a person first and a celebrity second. Ultimately, this is also how What Remains Behind portrays Wood: a confident individual, a loving mother, and a dedicated wife who also happened to be one of the biggest names of her Hollywood era. Whether or not it succeeds at being a comprehensive portrait is another matter. However, given that her private funeral was invaded by the paparazzi decades ago, effectively robbing the family of the chance to appropriately eulogize her, the film has vital function. Its creation was clearly the exact kind of cathartic experience the Gregsons and Wagners and Donens and Zakharenkos needed to finally and properly grieve the Natalie Wood they knew and loved.

Rating: B

Nataile Wood: What Remains Behind is now available to stream from HBO.