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Natalie Wood was arguably the quintessential American movie star. She started out as a child actor at the age of five, appearing in popular films like Miracle on 34th Street, before coming of age on screen in Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers and Splendor in the Grass, and carving out a place in Hollywood history with her roles in the musicals West Side Story and Gypsy. Sadly, Wood’s body of work and contributions to pop culture are frequently overshadowed by her death: she drowned in 1981 during an excursion on her husband Robert Wagner’s yacht. She was 43.
In a new HBO documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, Wood’s daughter Natasha conducts interviews with Wagner, as well as Wood’s other friends and family members, attempting to paint a fuller portrait of who she was as an actress, a wife, and a mother. The film also addresses the mysterious circumstances surrounding Wood’s passing, which have led to widespread speculation and suspicion that Wagner was somehow involved.
The known sequence of events is as follows. Wood and Wagner went out to Catalina Island on the yacht, the Splendour, on Thanksgiving weekend—something they had done many times before. They invited a number of their friends along, but several declined the invitation, and so the only people on the boat with the couple were actor Christopher Walken, who was working with Wood on the movie Brainstorm, and the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern.
Wood’s body was recovered by coastal authorities on the morning of Sunday November 29. One of the boat’s dinghies was also found nearby. The autopsy found that Wood’s blood alcohol level was 0.14 percent, and that she had also taken a painkiller and a pill for motion sickness, which may have exacerbated the effects of the alcohol. There were also bruises on the body.
The cause of death was ultimately ruled an accidental drowning, with one hypothetical scenario devised by the coroner being that Wood slipped and fell into the water while trying to board the dinghy. In the documentary, Natasha posits that her mother may have been trying to re-moor the dinghy, as she was sensitive to noise and the banging sound of the dinghy being pushed against the boat by the water may have woken her.
Wood’s sister, Lana, has maintained for years that Natalie was terrified of water and would never have gone out on a dinghy by herself. (In the documentary, Wood’s daughter Natasha explains that her grandmother was very superstitious around water, but that her mother had never exhibited such a fear.)
Lana has also repeatedly accused Wagner of being involved in her sister’s death. Wagner, who married Wood in 1957 and then remarried her in 1972 following their divorce, has always denied such claims. However, he has since admitted that he did initially lie and say he and Wood didn’t argue the night before she drowned. In the film, he recalls that he felt jealous of Wood’s working relationship with Walken, although several participants in the documentary refute the rumors that Walken and Wood were having an affair (a popular theory at the time). Wagner now calls Walken a “stand-up guy.”
In 2011, police reopened the investigation into Wood’s death, after the boat captain, Davern, wrote a book in which he claimed that Wood and Wagner did argue, and that he believed the flirtation between Wood and Walken enraged Wagner. In 2012, the official cause of death was changed from accidental drowning to accidental drowning and other undetermined factors. A 2013 coroner’s report detailing the bruising on Wood’s body led officials to state that it is possible she was assaulted before her death.
In 2018, police named Wagner a person of interest in the ongoing case. He maintains his innocence. In Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, his and Wood’s daughters all state their disbelief that he would have ever done anything to hurt their mother. The film offers no resolution to the enduring mystery of Wood’s death, instead focusing on crafting a picture of the life she led, and the impact she had on the world in such a relatively short span of time.