What’s meant to be an unprecedented look into the life, career and mysterious death of the inimitable Natalie Wood quickly becomes a one-sided and starry eyed retrospective in the new documentary from HBO, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind.
Wood’s daughter Natasha Gregson-Wagner produced the film and appears in it a great deal, directing questions toward her mother’s friends and family—also her friends and family—and smiling knowingly as she professes how she maintains a complicated relationship with her mom to this day. Rather than dig into what that actually means, Gregson-Wagner’s feelings are quickly brushed aside, making the rest of the film feel like a celebration rather than an examination. There’s no fault to be found in people who loved their friend, their wife, their mother, it just doesn’t make for very interesting filmmaking.
Instead, the film parades a bunch of people like Robert Redford and Mia Farrow and Robert Wagner out to fawn over Wood. This is interspersed with archival footage, home movies, film scenes and the like, but when brief moments of potential conflict arise (could Wood play a Puerto Rican woman today like she did in West Side Story a million years ago? Of course not—and rightly so!), they’re quickly dismissed before it’s back to people reminding us how talented Wood was and how Splendour in the Grass was, like, so daring. Again, that’s fair—and true—but Wood being good on film tells us nothing we didn’t already know.
When What Remains Behind delves into Wood’s status as a powerful businesswoman in the man’s-world-bullshit of Hollywood circa 1940 through
19-fucking-always, things start humming (1965’s The Great Race was reportedly put on hold until Wood was satisfied with her working conditions and pay, which is pretty badass), but it’s yet another quick pitstop on the “Mom sure was talented, right Daddy Wagner?” tour.
By the time we finally do get into the details surrounding her death, it’s more like an upsetting recounting for Wagner (who probably did this out of kindness for his step daughter) than anything. The film even chastises tabloids for trotting out stories about her death year after year, seemingly unaware it’s now in that same camp. That’s not in defense of tabloids whatsoever, it’s to point out the doc’s lack of self-awareness.
More notably, Christopher Walken (who was on Wood and Wagner’s boat the night she drowned in 1981) is conspicuously absent from the interviews. This isn’t to say foul deeds were afoot that fateful night, rather that it wouldn’t be surprising to learn he was approached and politely declined to participate in the film because what’s left to be said?
No one is glad for Wood’s death, and there’s no doubt she could have continued doing amazing things in her career. But it’s probably time to let it go and appreciate what she did for the industry, for women, for arts fans. What Remains Behind lacks objectivity, even as it reminds us what an uncommon talent Wood was and how tragic an affect her passing had on the world. From what we’ve learned in the film, Wood herself would probably find that weird.

+Great old footage; snippets of interesting info

-No objectivity; overly fawning

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind
Directed by Laurent Bouzereau
HBO, NR, 102 min.