Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind
Credit: HBO

In the nearly 40 years since Natalie Wood drowned off the coast of Catalina Island, the mystery of her death has only grown — and so has the movie-star myth of the fine-boned brunette who found immortality in films including West Side Story and Splendor in the Grass and famously romanced the likes of Warren Beatty, Elvis Presley, and Michael Caine.

Robert Redford was best man at her second wedding; Orson Welles, technically, was her first leading man (the movie was called Tomorrow Is Forever; she was 7). Though it was Robert Wagner, the debonair actor who became both her first husband and her third, who is generally thought of as the love of her life.

Few of those facts are new, though Laurent Bouzereau’s brisk, engaging documentary What Remains Behind: Natalie Wood (premiering May 5 on HBO) has the advantage of extensive home movies and private photographs — thanks largely, no doubt, to the participation of her family, including her daughters Natasha and Courtney, along with Wagner and several stepchildren. (Friends like Redford and Mia Farrow also appear.)

That’s one of the film’s best assets, and also maybe its biggest blind spot; it’s nearly impossible not to be drawn into the classic true Hollywood story of Wood's rise to fame: how the little girl born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko became the beloved child star of Miracle on 34th Street, then the icon of midcentury teen rebellion in movies like Splendor and Rebel Without a Cause, and later a working wife and mother whose pushback against the studio system led to better and more radical roles.

But it’s hard too not to question the film’s heavy tilt toward the narrative her family wishes to portray. Like last year’s Quincy Jones documentary Quincy, which his daughter Rashida helmed, the tradeoff for all that intimacy seems to be a certain version of the truth — a natural instinct that anyone’s closest relatives, particularly those who've endured the unique indignities of un-private lives, would understandably hew to.

That skews the story undeniably, occasionally making it feel less like a documentary than a sort of very deliberate appeal to some invisible, adversarial court of public opinion (tabloids, unsurprisingly, don't come out the heroes here). That doesn’t mean the movie isn’t worth watching on its own merits; it's only better, maybe, to come into it less for some of the more indulgent or subjective recollections of the people who loved Wood than for what it has to give us of the voice that matters most: her own. B

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