Film star Natalie Wood has been dead nearly 40 years, but her ghost still casts a long shadow — and it’s going to walk the earth again as her eldest daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, simultaneously releases a new memoir and a new documentary.
The documentary, “Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind,” debuts May 5 on HBO and creates an affectionate portrait of Wood’s at-home life with actor Robert Wagner, whom she married twice, and her two children in their Beverly Hills, Calif., home. Natasha was 11 years old and summoned from a sleepover at a friend’s house when her 43-year-old mother’s lifeless body was found in the water off Catalina Island after Thanksgiving in 1981. Her youngest sister Courtney, Wood’s daughter by Robert, was only 7 years old.
“The day my mom died, my entire world was shattered,” Natasha says in the HBO documentary, which also features interviews with Gwyneth Paltrow, Robert Redford, Mia Farrow and more. “Since then, there’s been so much focus on how she died that has overshadowed who she was as a person.” She does, however, ask Robert point-blank in the film, “What do we think about reopening this case?”
The drowning was ruled an accident, but rumors have surfaced for years, blaming Robert, now 90, for her death. The couple was on board their yacht, the Splendour, on a stormy weekend with Christopher Walken, Natalie’s co-star in the sci-fi movie “Brainstorm,” which was in production at the time. In the documentary, Robert tells Natasha how he and the “Deer Hunter” star had been arguing over his wife’s purpose in life after having consumed quite a bit of wine. Walken was in favor of Wood pursuing her career.
As Robert tells it, the argument between the two men escalated and Wood retreated to their bedroom below deck. When he went to find her, she was gone. After alerting onshore personnel and the Coast Guard that she was missing, her lifeless body was discovered.
In Natasha’s new book, “More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood,” she asserts that Robert Wagner would not have hurt her mother.
“My father would never have harmed my mother or failed to save her if he knew she was in danger,” she writes, according to excerpts in the Daily Mail.
The investigation into Wood’s death was reopened in 2011, the 30th anniversary of the tragedy. A new coroner’s report released in 2013 raised concerns about the time of origin for bruises on Wood’s body.
“The location of the bruises, the multiplicity of the bruises, lack of head trauma, or facial bruising support bruising having occurred prior to entry in the water,” the report said. “Since there are unanswered questions and limited additional evidence available for evaluation, it is opined by this Medical Examiner that the manner of death should be left as undetermined.”
The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department added that Wagner was not considered a suspect in the open investigation. However, in early 2018, the department said Wagner was still a “person of interest” in the case.
And yacht captain Dennis Davern — allegedly the only other person on board at the time — has suggested that Wagner could have been directly involved in her death, perhaps even pushing her into the water himself.
Those and other allegations, which have simmered for years, do not sit well with Natasha.
“My mother no longer has a voice of her own but I do and this is what I know — RJ loved Natalie ‘more than love,’” she writes in her new book. “No one in my world questioned my dad’s love for my mom or his utter despair at her loss.”
And while she says she “can never know with complete certainty” what transpired on the boat and what led to Wood’s death, she knows how her mother would rather be recalled, despite her still-mysterious demise.
“My mother was not a tragic, doomed person. Her life was devoted to her art, her children, her husband and her heart,” Natasha writes. “This is how she would have wanted to be remembered, not as someone defined by her death, but by her life.”