The Life and Death of Natalie Wood

The career of Natalie Wood (Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, 1938-1981) may be divided into four phases: childhood (1943-1955), which includes such films as The Moon is Down (1943), Tomorrow is Forever (1946), The Ghost and Mrs Muir (1947), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), Scudda Hoo! Scudda Hay! (1948), Never a Dull Moment (1950) and The Star (1952); and two short-lived sitcoms, The Pride of the Family (1953-54) with Paul Hartman and Fay Wray, and Mayor of the Town (1954) with Thomas Mitchell and Kathleen Freeman; adolescence/young adulthood (1955-60) comprising Rebel Without a Cause (1955), The Searchers (1956), A Cry in the Night (1956), Marjorie Morningstar (1958), and All the Fine Young Cannibals (1960); superstardom (1961-66) Splendor in the Grass (1961), West Side Story (1961), Gypsy (1962), Love with the Proper Stranger (1963), Sex and the Single Girl (1964), The Great Race (1965), Inside Daisy Clover (1965), This Property is Condemned (1966) ; and the final years (1969-81), Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice (1969), Meteor (1979), The Last Married Couple in America (1979), Brainstorm (1981) and lots of tv movies. There are many more, but this is the broad arc of it.

From the beginning, Wood was patently a star. Her parents were refugees from the Russian Revolution. Natalie was born in San Francisco and raised about one hour north in Santa Rosa. The lucky child was noticed by members of a film crew shooting in her town one day, prompting her family to move to Los Angeles, where she was immediately cast in films. (Her screen name was borrowed from that of Sam Wood). Her beauty, especially those huge brown eyes, was not just striking but remarkable. She had immense presence. One’s eye invariably goes to her and stays there, and this, much more than acting ability, was what made her a star. An untrained “natural”, she was certainly competent at most of what she was required to do before the camera, but in more heightened emotional moments she palpably reached, strained, forced and faked it (despite claims made by some to the contrary about how “good” and “real” she was in these moments. Those remarks were usually made by professional colleagues who had a vested interest in the success of her projects). And though she was Russian, and spoke Russian, in Meteor she somehow manages to be unconvincing as a Russian. But Ye Gods was she gorgeous. I wouldn’t for a nanosecond imply that I regret her presence in ANY movie. It’s just that she was one of the ones who was much more of a star than an actress,

And Wood continued to be beautiful as she progressed from ingenue to middle age. Indeed I would have loved to have seen her in many more performances. But as you know, she was untimely ripped from our midst at the age of 43 under suspicious circumstances. Hers was one of a series of famous (usually murky) boating deaths, like those of Thomas Ince and Dennis Wilson. Vacationing on a yacht off Catalina Island with her husband the oleaginous Robert Wagner, actor Christopher Walken (with whom she was appearing in Brainstorm), and the boat’s captain Dennis Davern, the three men woke up one morning to discover that she was missing. Her body, and one of the yacht’s dinghys were found washed ashore the next day. From that day to this (40 years come November) tongues have wagged to the effect that she was murdered by Wagner, who’d argued with both her and Walken earlier that evening. The backstory informs it. They might have been on the verge of divorce. He was unfaithful and abusive. He was jealous of her career, had been discouraging her for years, and she was planning big things again as she periodically did. All were heavily in their cups on the night in question. Her body showed bruising consistent with having been manhandled before going into the water. Wagner apparently made no effort to look for her for hours when she turned up missing. And she was supposedly afraid of water.

We recently watched the HBO “documentary” What Remains Behind (2020), which was co-produced by one of Wood’s daughters. While valuable in many respects, including lots of rare home movie footage of the offscreen Wood, candid photos, and reminiscences by people who knew her, the film is marred by a heavy preponderance of scenes featuring Wagner, his daughters, and celebrity friends denying his culpability in her demise. But the fact that Wagner became a person of interest again in 2018, and the 2020 re-release of Suzanne Finstad’s devastating biography with new evidence (see Vanity Fair excerpt here) causes one to smell a rat. Wagner’s inner circle clearly wants to put the rumors to rest. But I think the film inevitably has the opposite of its intended effect. As my wife so wittily put it, “Nothing says ‘guilty’ like making an entire movie nobody asked for about how innocent you are”. You know what innocent people say after a tragedy like this? “It’s all my fault!” It’s psychology 101. Columbo would have had his number from minute one. Thus the movie is propagandistic, not balanced. Missing from the film are all dissenters to their thesis or people who might otherwise clear it up, including Natalie’s sister Lana Wood, boat captain Dennis Davern, and Christopher Walken.

On the other hand, I’m not sure the best antidote is Peter Bogdanovich’s cheesy TV movie The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004). Bogdanovich is clearly intrigued by these Hollywood boat deaths. His earlier The Cat’s Meow (2001) was about the Thomas Ince mystery (I was about to call it murder, but really no one knows). The Bogdanovich film was based on the books Natasha: the Biography of Natalie Wood (2001) by Suzanne Finstad and Natalie & R.J.: The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner (1988) written by Warren G. Harris. I’m not saying I disagree with the murder theory, it’s just not a very distinguished movie! If you decide to investigate for yourself, there’s one more book that’s indispensable, Natalie: A Memoir (1984) by Lana Wood (she also has a new one coming up, to be released November 2021). At any rate, it’s a certainty we haven’t heard the last of Natalie Wood’s suspicious death. If it is a salacious topic, so be it. It’s easily as dramatic as any of her films, and more so than most of them.