Saturday, April 30, 2022

"Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind" Review and Another Garage Rock Playlist - Hippie Love Turbo Radio Show - Code Word "Sugar-Apple"

On this episode of Hippie Love Turbo, on KUCR 88.3 FM I really didn't speak too much beyond announcing the tracks I played so instead I'd like to focus on this week's movie suggestion. 

Earlier this week I watched the 2020 documentary on the actress Natalie Wood titled What Remains Behind which admirably focuses more on her career and life as a mother rather than her mysterious demise which, unfortunately, has overshadowed her accomplishments as a woman in a male dominated industry. Although the film clearly states that Wood's death is not the film's sole subject, as a viewer you can't help but feel like you are watching a movie in which you already know the ending, and in a sense, you cannot help but watch without a sense of dread or macabre curiosity. 

 

However, Wood's life is such an interesting subject that you soon begin to feel as though the film would have been better suited as a miniseries. You rush through decades of film history with passing glances of Wood's troubled upbringing and all but slight mentions of important moments in the young actress' career such as when she was suspended by Warner Brothers over what they claimed was financial disputes but was later found to be problems surrounding the roles Wood was given and, more importantly, her input over the roles in which she was cast. Of course, Wood's love life and other more salacious tabloid-esque topics are covered in the film as well but, as with most things in the documentary, everything happens so quickly that you don't have a chance to unwrap what's being presented to you. Again, you can write much of that off due to the film's runtime, but one glaring issue with the film is how it seems that the narrative was closely guided, and perhaps completely steered by Wood's family, especially her eldest daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner who serves as the film's host.

Home movie footage of Wood and Wagner
 

Whenever you get glimpses of the more controversial parts of Wood's life the film quickly pivots or minimizes the events as if they felt the need to address the issues without exploring them more in depth. One example that stood out to me most was a suicide attempt by Wood in which she purposefully took a large amount of sleeping pills but in a moment of clarity she sought the help of her friend Mart Crowley, who was able to get Wood the medical assistance which ultimately saved her life. While discussing the event, Gregson Wagner explains how she views the moment as a "cry for help" and how she doesn't view the event as a legitimate suicide attempt because, in Gregson Wagner's words: "After she swallowed the pills, she banged on Mart’s door so obviously, she wanted to live." After that, we are briefly shown how Wood sought out therapy which helped her find mental clarity.

As the film continues there are moments that serve as a sort of love letter from a family still mourning the sudden loss of a mother. After the film's halfway point, we are presented with home recordings and archival footage of Wood with her friends and family boating, talking at social events, and simply enjoying life. You see a young mother that seeks to live a normal, albeit more grandiose life, surrounded by those she cares about most and, if you take the viewpoint of her children, you understand why the film chooses to focus on Wood's motherhood. Although Wood was an extremely famous actress, to her children, she was simply a mother and, much like our own mothers, she should not be defined solely by her occupation. 

Robert Wagner interviewed by his step-daughter Natasha

Unfortunately, the family's influence on the documentary becomes ever apparent once you reach the film's climax. When exploring Wood's death, we are presented with one of the film's lengthier interviews which is between Natasha Gregson Wagner and her step-father Robert Wagner, who Gregson Wagner affectionately calls "Daddy Wagner." The sole purpose of the interview is to establish Wagner's innocence surrounding Wood's mysterious demise and place blame on the media for continued exposure on what Wood's family believes is an open and shut case of an accidental death. During this section of the film, we are presented with the disgusting way in which the media hounded the Wood family and disregarded their privacy by photographing them in vulnerable moments including Wood's burial. Soon, Wood's sister Lana Wood, as well as the captain of Wood's yacht, Dennis Davern, are presented as cash hungry and exploitative due to their continued calls to re-open the investigation into the night of Wood's death. Davern famously wrote his own explanation of Wood's passing and later stated that he was pressured by Robert Wagner to stay silent about what really happened to Wood. To me, the press, as well as, Davern and Lana Wood's portrayals are obviously skewed by the family's emphasis on Robert Wagner's innocence.

Ultimately, we'll most likely never know what happened that night near Santa Catalina Island but the film's tone towards the event doesn't help bring us any closer towards clarity regardless of the family's wishes for the world to move on. Despite all the flaws I listed above, I still think the film is worth checking out for its intimate glimpses into Wood's life and for its ability to humanize a former star whose life was lost just as she was hitting another stride in her career. Although there are hints of an agenda set by Wood's family, it is touching seeing their point of view with regards to how their time was spent with their mother. You get a stronger sense of loss by hearing Wood's family and friends talk about her than you would by reading all the accounts surrounding her death. With the film's short runtime you can't expect to dive too deeply into the totality of Natalie Wood's life but, for what it's worth, this film is one of the most detailed documentaries based on the actress' life beyond the mystery surrounding her death.

And that's it for this week's post! It may have been more of a review than most of the other posts but I appreciate you sticking through to find this week's playlist below. Be sure to listen over the air on KUCR 88.3FM on Sundays at midnight, or on Mondays at 10pm PST. You can also listen through KUCR.org, Radio Garden, or Tune-In.


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