Pictured: Natalie Wood with costar James Dean and director Nicholas Ray on the set of Rebel Without a Cause, for which Wood received her first Oscar nomination; Wood with husband Robert Wagner and daughters Natasha (left) and Courtney.
There’s a lot you probably don’t know about Natalie Wood.
Movie lovers know her as one of the biggest stars of the mid-20th century, a legendary beauty with talent to match, familiar from films ranging from Miracle on 34th Street to Rebel Without a Cause to West Side Story to Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. Many others know her primarily because of her death in 1981 at the tragically young age of 43, under circumstances that are still much discussed.
But as a new documentary premiering Tuesday on HBO makes clear, Wood was not only a gifted actress who was gone too soon; she was a great ally to the LGBTQ community and a strong, assertive woman who fought for the right to control her career and be treated on equal terms with men in the industry.
The documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, tells Wood’s story through the eyes of her oldest daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, who narrates the film and served as a producer on it, and other friends and family members. These include husbands Richard Gregson and Robert Wagner, daughter Courtney Wagner, stepdaughter Katie Wagner, a who’s who of major movie stars such as Robert Redford, Mia Farrow, Dyan Cannon, and Elliott Gould, and the gay man who was one of Wood’s closest friends and a beneficiary of her support, playwright Mart Crowley. It’s directed by Laurent Bouzereau, a veteran documentarian and longtime fan of Wood’s.
Gregson Wagner hopes the film will, for one thing, dispel the image some people have of Wood as a victim. Yes, she was pushed into acting as a child by her mother, Maria Gurdin, who was the embodiment of the term “stage mother,” although Wood ultimately came to love the work. Yes, she sometimes struggled, and she even attempted suicide at one point. And yes, she died far too young, drowning in the Pacific Ocean off California’s Catalina Island on Thanksgiving weekend of 1981. (Gregson Wagner staunchly maintains that Wood’s death was accidental, despite questions others have raised about it.)
But she was also a person who loved life, loved her family and friends, and loved her career. “I think people can take away that she was very brave, very ahead of her time,” Gregson Wagner tells The Advocate. “I think she had a great life, and I think she strived to have a great life. She was stronger than everybody, as my godfather Mart Crowley told me.”
Crowley, who died in March, is best known today for his 1968 play The Boys in the Band, which gave many straight Americans their first glimpse into the lives of gay and bisexual men. Wood encouraged him to write the play and hired him to work as her assistant so he’d have an income while doing so.
Crowley is a major presence in the documentary. He shares many memories, recalling among other things Wood’s determination to prove herself a serious actress in 1961’s Splendor in the Grass, which resulted in her second Oscar nomination; her joy in being a mother; and the trauma of her death.
“I was raised around gay men,” Gregson Wagner says. Crowley and another gay man, producer and choreographer Howard Jeffrey, lived in Wood’s guesthouse for a time (they were close friends but not romantic partners), and Wood had chosen them to be guardians of her children should the necessity arise. Wood had numerous other gay friends, such as actor Roddy McDowall.
As the LGBTQ rights movement grew, Wood definitely would have been involved, Gregson Wagner says: “She would have been in the forefront. She would be waving the rainbow flag with the best of them.”
Bouzereau, who is gay, considers Wood an icon. “You could feel in her films the things she was struggling with,” he says. “They defined her as an icon amongst gay men and the whole community.”
Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner at their first wedding
Those struggles include the effort to find a satisfying relationship after her first marriage to Wagner broke up. They were married from 1957 to 1962, and Wood then had a series of love affairs before she married agent-producer Richard Gregson in 1969. They divorced in 1972, and she remarried Wagner the same year; they stayed together until her death.
She felt very alone and vulnerable during the filming of the 1965 farce The Great Race, worried that she might never have a healthy, lasting romantic relationship. That was when she took a life-threatening overdose of sleeping pills. Gregson Wagner sees this as more a cry for help than a suicide attempt; Crowley was spending the night at Wood’s home, and she immediately banged on his door so he would come to her aid. Wood spent a weekend in the hospital and then, pro that she was, returned to work Monday.
The way women were treated in Hollywood was another strain, but Wood rebelled against this. Playing a feminist character in The Great Race, she fought for her rights in real life as well. When she learned she wasn’t getting the same pay and perks as her costars Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, “she went to all kinds of extremes to make sure that everything was equal down to the length of the phone cord in their rooms,” as Gregson Wagner notes in the documentary. She was one of the few women who had the power and standing to do so at the time.
Sticking up for herself wasn’t new for Wood, though. She had done Rebel Without a Cause over her mother’s objections, and in the late 1950s she went on strike against Warner Bros., which then had her under contract, and won the right to do one film of her choosing each year — the first one she chose was West Side Story, which cemented her icon status.
Had Wood lived longer, she would have kept on fighting for women to have power in the industry, Gregson Wagner says. She also planned to branch out into directing and probably would have written a book.
Natalie Wood and the men who worked for her
While chronicling all Wood’s struggles and accomplishments, the film doesn’t avoid addressing the elephant in the room, the circumstances of her death. Gregson Wagner discusses it openly with Robert Wagner, and she objects strenuously to accusations made by Wood’s sister Lana and others that Wagner was responsible in any way.
Richard Gregson was Gregson Wagner’s biological father, but she considers Wagner her father as well — she refers to them as Daddy Gregson and Daddy Wagner. She calls suggestions that foul play was involved in her mother’s death “irresponsible and reckless.” She has never doubted that Wood’s death was an accident, but she felt she had to address the matter in the film.
The film also documents many happy occasions — Wood hosting parties attended by the Hollywood elite or enjoying private times with her children, being not a movie star but just a mom. And while she reputedly feared dark water, she clearly wasn’t bothered by sunlit swimming pools, as she’s shown in home movies frolicking there with her daughters.
Gregson Wagner discovered the home movies in a storage unit while helping film historian Manoah Bowman research his coffee-table book Natalie Wood: Reflections on a Legendary Life, which came out in 2016. Gregson Wagner realized there was far more material than his book could accommodate, so she decided to make the film (she has also written a book of her own). Bowman linked her up with Bouzereau. “We felt an instant connection,” she says of her relationship with the director, whose other credits include the documentary Five Came Back, about the Hollywood directors who chronicled World War II. “He’s a very sensitive person, and we almost felt like he was channeling my mom.”
Natasha Gregson Wagner and Laurent Bouzereau
“I discovered the story of a family,” Bouzereau says. “It was a journey because we talked about the happy times, but I knew there was also going to be a discussion about the loss.” The French-born director says he had long been a fan of Wood’s: “I don’t think it’s possible to be a lover of movies and Hollywood without loving Natalie Wood.”
He and Gregson Wagner hope the film drives home that Wood was much loved and much loving, and that she loved her life. As Gregson Wagner says, “She loved being a wife, loved being a mother, loved being an actress.”
Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind premieres on HBO Tuesday at 9 p.m. Eastern/Pacific. Scribner will publish Natasha Gregson Wagner’s memoir More Than Love: An Intimate Portrait of My Mother, Natalie Wood, the same day.