- LOC The tragic unsolved death 40 years later of West Side Story protagonist Natalie Wood
She had one of the most expressive looks in the history of cinema and reflected like no one else the evolution of the woman of her time. It was Natalie Wood, the actress who today, July 20, would have turned 85. However, the story of Natalie Wood was marked forever by her mysterious death, which today, almost 40 years later, continues to arouse doubts and intrigues with which her daughter wanted to end in the documentary that tonight (22.00 hours) premieres exclusively the TCM channel, Natalie Wood: Behind the scenes.
This fiction, in which interpreters such as Mia Farrow or Robert Redford also intervene, in addition to trying to clear all doubts about her death, recalls the two times she married Robert Wagner, her courtship with Warren Beatty, and her marriage to producer and screenwriter Richard Gregson.
He also speaks openly of his emotional instability, his suicide attempt after filming The Race of the Century and the psychoanalytic therapies he underwent throughout his life. And she is also shown as an actress who wanted to take the reins of her career. However, the mystery of his death is the common thread of a documentary with testimonies and images unpublished until now.
"I remember it was Sunday morning, after Thanksgiving. I was 11 years old and had spent the night at my best friend, Tracy's. The clock radio rang. I woke up and heard a preview of the news saying that my mother's body had been found off the coast of Catalina Island." That's how Natasha Gregson Wagner, creator of the documentary, learned that her mother had drowned. It happened on November 29, 1981 when he was aboard his yacht, the Splendor, named in memory of one of his greatest film successes, Splendor in the Grass, a film he had shot in 1961 with Warren Beatty.
He was 43 years old and at that time he was already one of the most beautiful faces of classic Hollywood. Protagonist of mythical films such as Rebel Without a Cause (1955), Centaurs of the Desert (1956) or West Side Story (1961) his death impacted the entire society of that time.
Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood.TCM
The death of Natalie Wood immediately unleashed all kinds of rumors and theories, not only the weeks after her death but many years later when the investigation was reopened. The HBO Max documentary supports the official version of the case. Natalie Wood, her husband Robert Wagner and fellow actor Christopher Walken, who was filming with the actress the movie Project Brainstorm, were having dinner that night on Santa Catalina Island, off the coast of California, where they had arrived on the couple's yacht.
Back on the yacht, the actress retired to sleep. Wagner and Walken, however, as the documentary reveals, engaged in a strong argument about the professional future of the actress. Robert Wagner acknowledges in the documentary that he broke a bottle of wine and threatened Christopher Walken, although, he explains, he later calmed down and the two withdrew. According to Wagner in the documentary, Walken told him how important it was for Natalie to work, something that sat very badly with Wagner, who told him not to get involved in his life.
"All of a sudden she was saying what your mother should do and how she should behave and that made me very angry," Wagner explains to Natasha Gregson Wagner. "Your mother went downstairs to get ready for bed and I stayed with Chris telling him not to get into her life. And I took the bottle and stamped it against the table. I was very angry with him. When I look back I think there was no justification. He got up and left. And he keeps telling her not to intrude. I was a little drunk, but I calmed down. We went back down and stayed another while chatting," says Wagner.
The actor also remembers that he himself stayed to collect the glass remains of the bottle with the captain of the ship Dennis Davern, who years later would become one of the protagonists of the story. Then, he went down to the cabin and that's when Wagner discovered that his wife was not on board. Nor did he find a small boat moored next to the ship. "If he had started the boat, we would have heard it," says the actor. "God, the eternal hours were made for me!" he says. A few hours later, the coast guard found the boat empty, and Natalie Wood's body was found floating in the sea next to some cliffs. "Everything fell apart," Wagner recalls. "I've remembered that night so many times," he concludes.
The official version was always that Natalie Wood left her cabin at one point in the night and wanted to moor the boat, which was hitting the hull of the yacht. That's when he hit something or got dizzy and fell into the water. His death was, therefore, according to the police, "a painful accident". Two weeks later, authorities certified his death as an accident.
Natasha Gregson Wagner and Robert Wagner, in the documentary. TCM
The reopening of the case
Several decades later, in 2011, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the actress's death, the Los Angeles Police reopened the case. The yacht's skipper, Dennis Daver, and the actress' sister, Lana Wood, said Robert Wagner was involved in the actress' death. In fact, it was the captain's statement that reopened the case by ensuring that he witnessed an argument between Wood and Wagner.
The police then considered Wagner a "person of interest", something like a suspect, but after a few weeks of investigations the file was closed again. Still, a year after the case was reopened,his death certificate was changed to "drowning and undetermined factors" and the record now states that "the circumstances are not clearly established."
In the documentary it is denied, as has been rumored since then, that the discussion between Robert Wagner and Christopher Walken was due to Walken and Natalie Wood having maintained an affair during the filming of Project Brainstorm. "In the film there was a sex scene and I discovered that, between them, there was no chemistry at all. That convinces me that the idea that there could be a love triangle between Natalie, Christopher and Robert is not true. It's impossible," says the director of that film, Douglas Trumbull.
Although the documentary shows the testimonies of the last people who saw Natalie Wood alive, her death continues to arouse an interest that for Wood's daughters is the reason why they still cannot close that tragic episode of their lives. They assure that it is the morbidity of the media that periodically reopens the case and, therefore, the documentary not only tries to clear all the mysteries around the death of the actress but also to show her most intimate and personal side, especially her role as a mother, because the story of Natalie Wood was not only the story of her death.
A life marked by pressure
Wood was born in San Francisco in 1938. She was the daughter of Russian emigrants and her real name was Natalie Zacharenko. Her mother, a dominant woman, pushed her to be a child star with which she knew pressure and anxiety from a very young age. He took Wood as his stage name after director Sam Wood. His first opportunity came from one of the greatest, Orson Welles. "I was her first partner in the cinema and for six or seven takes I was still wrong, but Natalie was not. It was her first film, but she was already a perfect little professional," Welles recalls in the documentary.
She acted as a child in films such as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir and in Of illusion is also lived and as a young girl in Centaurs of the desert. She was nominated for an Oscar three times, the first in 1955 for Rebel Without a Cause, the second in 1961 for Splendor in the Grass and the third in 1964 for Loves with a Stranger, but probably her most remembered role is that of Maria in the musical West Side Story.
First and foremost I am an actress and I believe that the moment you become a star, you think about the work and not the stardom that comes with it. I enjoyed the part in which you act, when the red light comes on and the camera rolls and you can do your job, "explained the actress herself in an unpublished interview that is collected in the documentary.
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