Monday, May 11, 2020

The HBO Natalie Wood Documentary -- My take

Lots of people have asked if I saw the Natalie Wood documentary on HBO. Of course I did. Saw it the first night. Figured I’d wait a few days to comment so more people will have seen it.

A writer friend of mine described it best – an infomercial. It felt like the family’s attempt to close the matter once and for all. Besides that, it was slow, offered nothing remotely new about Natalie Wood or her life, and I didn’t believe their spin for a second.  Apparently, I'm not alone.  I just read a New Yorker Magazine review that called it a "P.R. job." 

I refuse to believe there wasn’t some cover-up. No, I don’t think Robert Wagner pushed her into the water. But I do believe the many accounts of other boats farther away claiming they heard cries for help. RJ didn’t hear them? Let’s just say he made no immediate attempt to rescue her.

Some reports claim other boats heard a fight between Natalie and RJ and guest, Christopher Walken. It was acknowledged even in the documentary that she had a real temper and could go batshit. Did they try to calm her down? Did she slip and fall into the drink? The point is it’s unlikely she was off the boat for any length of time before RJ realized she was missing. And his calls to the shore patrol and coast guard were way too little too late.

When the LAPD announced they are re-opening the case based on new evidence, that would suggest to me there’s way more to the tale than teary-eyed Robert Wagner shared on this informercial. In the documentary they mention that, but discredit it quickly. They discredit Lana Wood quickly. They point out all the sleaze tabloids exploiting the story in such a light as to make them seem ridiculous and salacious (although some clearly were – I’m surprised one didn’t accuse space aliens of killing her).

Did Natalie learn something RJ was afraid she was going to tell the world? Was he concerned that she could be a loose cannon when she felt horribly wronged? In his drunken/high state, could he not have been thinking clearly? Could he have heard her cries for help and thought, “All these problems could just go away if I just turned a deaf ear?”

Natalie’s daughters seem to believe him. I’m sure that’s preferable to thinking their father (or step father) is a monster. I guarantee you, therapy has been administered.

And maybe they’re absolutely right. Maybe Robert Wagner did have nothing to do with it. But his testimony and this three-hour sell job didn’t convince me.

The title should have been: NATALIE WOOD – LEAVE US ALONE ALREADY


Pidge said...

She was lovely and talented. She always turned in a professional performance. My favourite, as an impressionable romantic teen, was, of course, “Splendor in the Grass”. I still love watching her in “Miracle on 34th Street” every Christmas. In spite of their efforts, this doc shows that her life was not as terrible as some of the child actors in Hollywood. She had the typical Hollywood romance and marriage ups and downs. Nothing earth-shaking or dramatic. Her unfortunate end was the only really fascinating thing about her life and that is given, as you say, short shrift. So why bother?

Troy McClure said...

The thing that stood out the most for me was Christopher Walken's absence. Everyone from Mia Farrow and Robert Redford to Wood's personal assistant are interviewed, but not Walken. This just fuels my theory that he and Wagner made a pact of silence on what really happened but that Walken would rather not lie on camera.

We'll probably never know the truth.

Matt said...

Why do you call Robert Wagner RJ?

Troy McClure said...

One other troubling detail in the film. The coroner in her death was Thomas Noguchi. The same coroner who declared there was nothing suspicious about Marilyn Monroe's death.

Ed said...

No mention about the accusation against Kirk Douglas?

VincentS said...

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, Ken, and I have to admit I thought you were going off the deep end with your take on Natalie Wood's death. Then I came across this quote on Robert Wagner's IMDB page regarding when Natalie started dating Warren Beatty after they first broke up:

"I wanted to kill that son of a bitch... I was hanging around
outside his house with a gun, hoping he would walk out. I not
only wanted to kill him, I was prepared to kill him."

Wow! If nothing else, this shows that "RJ" isn't always the suave, easy-going guy he appears to be.

Dixon Steele said...

People who have yachts at Catalina do one thing all night long: Drink.
There really is nothing else to do. And that could lead to trouble, as it did that night.

But the HBO thing is really coming from her daughter Natasha. This is her POV and I think she's right.

Andrew said...

@Troy McClure,
Maybe Natalie started going on about Sicilians and their origins,

Jana said...

Friday Question: Did you ever see the 2004 TV miniseries "The Mystery of Natalie Wood"? If so, what was your opinion?

Troy McClure said...

Matt, in the film, Natasha Gregson Wagner mentions that he's always been referred to as RJ.

Gregg B said...

Hope you do a write-up on Jerry Stiller. I know you and David Isaacs worked on Joe and Sons. I thought Stiller as Gus Duzik was hilarious in that show. Loved Stiller and Meara.

Janet said...

I don't necessarily think that Robert Wagner was directly responsible either (although your scenario makes a lot of sense, Ken).

I am surprised that Wagner's continued to work in Hollywood (he's had a recurring gig for years on NCIS) and that this controversy or uncertainty of the case hasn't made him something of a pariah.

Fed by the muse said...

Friday Question for you, Ken (posted before but name was deleted when attempting to post): If you and David had started your writing careers ten years earlier (ca. 1966 or 1967) what shows would you guys have tried to write for (knowing that the "Dick Van Dyke Show" wasn't an option as it had just concluded its five-year run)? I'm guessing something like "Good Morning World" (because of your interest/experience in radio).

MikeKPa. said...

Couple thoughts on the documentary:

1. Why did they insist on going to Catalina, leaving their children with others on a holiday weekend, when the weather was so crappy?
2. If either of her friends (Mart Crowley) had gone with her, there's a good chance she would have just bunked down with them and complained all night.
3. I don't understand Redford, for whom Natalie gave his big break, not casting her in "Ordinary People" as payback, whether he thought she was right for the role or not (and I understand it was his directing debut). It would have been a boost to her career after movies like "Meteor" and instead of "Last Married Couple in America," released the same year as Ordinary People.
4. Also feel cheated not to see if Natalie would have been able to overcome her fear of live performing when she would have debuted on Broadway the following February in "Anastasia."

scottmc said...

I recall that you shared the story of meeting Al Hirschfeld during a trip to New York. I thought that you might be interested in the exhibit that the Al Hirschfeld Foundation just put up on their web site. it can be found at

Ted said...

I think when they were casting Ordinary People, Natalie had been dead for a few years.

Jeff Maxwell said...

I had the pleasure of working with Mr. Wagner for a year on a movie project of mine. It never materialized, but he couldn’t have been more supportive. A family member was diagnosed with a serious health issue; again, he reached out to offer help. He was down to earth, calm, and very friendly. Granted, there are some very dangerous and charming psychopaths who can do nice things, but I grew to like him very much.

The police announcements of reopening the case seem very self serving. All it takes to make a name for yourself is to call a press conference and say "Natalie Wood."

The boat captain wrote a book supposedly telling all. All what? Nothing he said allowed any further evidence to emerge. But he certainly made a few bucks off the back of a dead movie star.

I’ve seen Lana Wood discussing the issue and really going after RJ. I truly feel for her. She lost her sister to an awful moment. How could this be? It’s impossible to believe this brilliant woman could be gone in an instant. I’d be angry and frustrated and want to lash out at someone, too.

To me, the documentary was the daughters way of saying enough! We’re sick of the conjecture. What happened was a sick tragedy. We don’t believe our father had any hand in the death of our mother and we’d like people to hear that.

There were three, very drunk, high-octane people on a boat bobbing around in pitch black water. What could go wrong?

Personally, based on my experience with him, I believe RJ was guilty of nothing other than perhaps being a drunk jerk. Or he's a dangerous psychopath. What do I know?

I think I’ll watch the documentary again. Maybe I’ll find a clue.

Kevin FitzMaurice said...

A review of "Ordinary People" by Vincent Canby of The New York Times is dated Sept. 19, 1980.

Ms. Wood drowned on Nov. 29, 1981.

Wet Side Story said...

I'm 99% sure I can see Robert Wagner lurking behind her bathtub in "Splendor in the Grass."

James Van Hise said...

I believe the only people Christopher Walken ever talked about this to were the police. He remains haunted by this incident and has stated he has never seen the film Brainstorm in which they worked together because it would be too painful to watch. He is not obligated to talk to a celebrity hungry press about a 40 year old tragedy.

Sports Memories said...

I think two things make this troublesome to me and I'm really torn between wanting to believe Robert Wagner and maybe he's not telling the truth:

1. Story--The explanation by Robert Wagner seems too "pat". It just doesn't feel right somehow. Although he genuinely appears heart-broken all these years later, you're left with the feeling something is missing or being hidden. It reminds me of Chappaquiddick where you find the official explanation unbelievable.

He doesn't mention that the boat captain is the one who took Natalie Wood to the island on Friday night and stayed with her at the hotel during his explanation of why she left the boat. That supports her sister saying she would never get in the dinghy by herself because she was afraid. It also leaves out the intensity of the argument as the stepson mentioned Natalie was so upset she called him and left a voicemail about whether RJ had called him. Bizarre.

He then drifts when describing the argument with Walken on the boat and pauses before saying, "Anyway...I cooled down." It feels like he's having trouble telling the truth there. Then he goes out of his way and says Christopher Walken is a "stand up guy" and "true gentleman". Comment seemed from out of nowhere and odd. As if he was sending out a signal or something to Walken.

2. Timeline--Just seems odd. Autopsy report lists Wagner called the shore patrol at 11:45 pm but shore patrol man monitoring radio says he didn't get call until 1:30 am. That's a 1-hour and 45 minute difference. A witness in a nearby boat, Mrs. Wayne, told investigators she and her son and husband heard a woman's cry for help. Her husband tried to call the shore patrol but didn't get a respnse. They timed the cries on her son's new watch between 11 pm and 11:30 pm. Seems like someone could've heard these cries too and done more than time them.

Coast Guard said they weren't notified until 5am. Just seems like Robert Wagner was very non-chalant about finding her and didn't turn on boat spotlight or make an effort to wake up everyone on nearby boats to assist.

Three people in the documentary mention the tension and arguing Thanksgiving night at the house between Wagner and Walken. Stepson said he stayed up all night talking to Natalie about Walken and Wagner and she felt "compromised" by her choices. Big fight when they arrive at Avalon and she leaves boat with captain and stays on island.

Just makes enough questions combined with amended coroner's report about the bruising on her body to reclassify death all these years later very disturbing.

ChrisR said...

People who drown are drowning because they cannot get enough air. You actually cannot scream or shout for help without being able to breath. There are lots of cases of children who drowned in shallow lakes, surrounded by a hundred people and nobody realized the kid was in trouble. Lifeguards know that a victim will not be able to call for help and look for specific behaviour when identifying people in danger of drowning.
There are videos on youtube about it. This for example: Wavepool Lifeguard Rescue - Spot the drowning! (not the perfect example).
From that, I would absolutely believe that Wagner couldn't hear Wood after she fell in the water. She was probably drunk/high, got a large swoop of water in her lungs and then that's it really quickly.
On the other hand, I wouldn't easily believe people could hear Wagner, Wood and Walken fight. The reason being that the ocean, wind and boats are really loud. It's often hard to understand the person next to you, but that also depends a lot on the situation, so who knows.

No said...

I don't even like taking a shower when I've been drinking, let alone get anywhere near seawater.

It's impossible for me to think of this as anything but the outcome of an altercation where everyone involved was intoxicated and had piss-poor judgment. We will never know exactly what happened, because the surviving people probably don't even really remember.

If I had to adjudicate, I would say that if Ms. Wood's family wants to leave it now, the state should just leave it too.

Mike Doran said...

Negative Wishful Thinking.
The source of all conspiracy theories.
The lifeblood of the celebrity gossip industry.
The feral plasma behind every troll on the 'Net.

Basically, it's the ferocious desire that ill fortune ought to befall anyone who achieves success in public life.
All of us - and honesty demands that I include myself here - all of us are subject to these feelings, at least some of the time.

Closing in on my seventieth birthday, I'd like to think that I've managed to keep these feelings in check for the most part.
… and then That Man In The White House opens his yap …
… and if it isn't him, it's his propaganda minister, Mr. Hannity …
… but then, you see, I have to remind myself that Negative Wishful Thinking is how That Man got his present position in the first place …
… and now he's ramping it up again in order to keep that position (Deep State, anyone?) …

Apologies for bringing politics into it all.
This staying at home all the time is really getting to me.

On a personal note, I do hope that Lori Loughlin gets completely cleared, and the book gets thrown at the USC brass who obviously solicited the $500K …
… but that's another story …

Mike H. said...

If you think this was an informercial, check out the 10 hour commercial for Michael Jordan/Nike/ESPN called "The Last Dance."

MikeN said...

Did they mention Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in the documentary.
It shocks me to see so many people not make that connection.

Was her death not that big a story, and quickly forgotten?

Admittedly, I would not have known about it if I hadn't read it here, but I didn't know the Mansons would be in the movie either, or exactly what they did.

mike schlesinger said...

Just now watched it, and generally agree with everyone, though I'm inclined to believe that it was a genuine accident. Rain + heavy drinking + boat is a recipe for disaster. On a side note, I was surprised at the rather cavalier way her career was handled, often jumping ahead as much as six years (1955 to 1961) and showing clips of long-forgotten and crummy films while there's nary a mention of "The Searchers," one of the three most important pictures of her career along with "West Side Story" and "Rebel Without a Cause."

thomas tucker said...

I was struck by RJ's body language when it came to talk about the death. All of a sudden, he is sitting there with his arms crossed across his chest- the exact opposite of opening up. It made me think that he's definitely hiding something.

Scottmc said...

This July 20th would have been Natalie Wood’s 82nd birthday. During the morning and afternoon of the 20th Turner Classic Movies will be showing six of her movies. Among the movies being shown are Rebel, Gypsy and Inside Daisy Glover.