Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind
Updated: 5 days ago
Saturday the 28th November 1981 dawned chilly and overcast. A low, damp fog hung over Catalina Island, 85km off the southern coast of California. Despite the poor weather, the Hollywood actress Natalie Wood had spent Thanksgiving weekend onboard Splendour, her family’s 55ft yacht, with her husband Robert Wagner, and her current co-star Christopher Walken. There had been a lot of drinking, a row erupted and at some point in the evening, someone smashed a wine bottle against a table. In the early hours of Sunday morning, it was noticed that Natalie was missing. At 7.44am, her body was found in the water.
Natalie’s daughter, Natasha Gregson Wagner, was 11-years-old at the time of her mother's death. Over the past four decades, she has lived with this trauma and the relentless tabloid speculation that her stepfather, Robert Wagner, was somehow involved in her mother’s drowning. Now she has made a HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind about the impact of this tragedy.
It is a curious and poignant film. At times it feels like we are observing a therapy session. Gregson Wagner confronts her own grief, and then turns counsellor to listen to friends and family recount how they have lived with the aftermath of the tragedy. Perhaps the most sensational and least satisfactory part is Gregson Wagner's questioning of her stepfather, who remains a 'person of interest', in regard to what happened that fateful night. It is a narrative that has been retold many times, and ultimately nothing new is revealed. However, we are left with the sense that Natalie was much loved, and that her loss is still acutely felt.
Beyond the mystery of her death, what is it about Natalie Wood that continues to fascinate?
What I want to explore here are her archetypal traits. I appreciate that my male gaze may contribute to her objectification, but I hope that this can be balanced out by the humanizing of her story.
Natalie Wood: reflections on a legendary life by Natasha Wagner, Manoah Bowman et al. Turner Classic Movies publishing program
Much has been written about Natalie Wood the actress, with critics suggesting that she represents a portrait of American womanhood in transition. This is an intriguing idea. In talk show clips from the 70s, she comes across unguarded and playful. There is something contemporary about her energy, and you could almost imagine her on the Graham Norton Show today.
I would argue that she embodies the Persephone archetype. A woman with this personality may come across as a naif, initially at least, but through adversity she finds her power. In doing so, she challenges dominant structures and systems. There is always a personal cost, and she may appear to be a pawn of more powerful forces. Her legacy will have a great impact. Other Persephone personalities include Princess Diana and Britney Spears. In fiction, Eliza Doolittle and Clarice Starling.
Whilst watching the documentary, I noticed that Natalie was particularly fond of jewellery with a butterfly design. She often wears an enamel butterfly necklace in interviews, and I wanted to find out more about that.
The butterfly is a symbol for the soul and in Ancient Greek, the word for butterfly is 'psyche'. In mythology, Persephone becomes the queen of the Underworld, after her forceful abduction and rape by Hades. She is associated with butterflies. Fast forward to the 20th Century and the artist Salvador Dali, an admirer of Freud, used butterfly imagery to represent dreams and the unconscious. More recently, Damien Hirst collaborated with the designer Alexander McQueen, to create a print work called, ‘The Rape of Persephone’, which is made up of extinct Prodryas butterflies. In cos-play and manga cartoons, Persephone often transforms into a flight of butterflies.
A butterfly’s wings have a duality which we see throughout nature. The shape could almost be a horizontal cross section of the human brain. And whilst contemporary neuroscientists talk about the integration of left brain and right brain, for many centuries, science was defined by the stark separation of mind and body, favouring objectivity over subjectivity, head over heart, reason over emotion, and of course, the masculine over the feminine. The significance of this was not lost on the feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir who wrote, ‘in masculine hands, logic is often a form of violence.’
From the age of five, Natalie was put to work in an industry which commodifies and objectifies women. Butterflies end up dead, pinned to a board, a prize trophy for men, and it is usually men, to gaze at and admire. We now know that a 16-year-old Natalie was raped by a Hollywood movie star. This happened at the Chateau Marmont Hotel whilst her mother, her chaperone and manager, sat waiting in a car outside. Afterwards, she told a visibly distressed Natalie to 'suck it up'.
Natalie’s mother, a Russian immigrant who had escaped the Soviet regime, lived out her grandiose ambitions and frustrations through her daughter. Natalie would be praised and idolised one moment, run down and pulled apart the next. Keeping mother happy became Natalie's preoccupation because this was a woman whose tantrums and demands would turn into fainting fits if she did not get her own way. Some saw a stereotypical Hollywood stage mother, others described her as ‘a monster'.
One time on set, 8-year-old Natalie was unable to cry on cue, so her mother tore off a butterfly's wings in front of her. Natalie sobbed. The cameraman got his shot. And as an adult, Natalie chose to wear a butterfly necklace. Meanwhile, Natalie's father was an absent alcoholic, who drank himself to death.
Orson Wells said that Natalie had been 'born professional'. No she wasn't, she was responding to trauma, adapting to her environment, hiding her shame and depression behind a defensive facade of charisma and professionalism, which placated her mother's pushiness and disapproval, until the next time at least.
As she grew older, Natalie tried to extricate herself from her mother's influence, to live beyond the projection of perfectionism and disappointment. It was far from straight-forward. To facilitate this, she embarked on psychoanalysis, seven days a week, for more than eight years, even stipulating in her film contracts time out to attend sessions. There was much to explore. And in a subconscious attempt to repair her trauma, she created 'a logical family' of parental figures made up of nannies, PAs and older ex-partners who lived with her, in her Beverly Hills home.
She also explored her experiences of trauma in her film work. In Gypsy, there is a scene towards the end, where her character Louise confronts her domineering, ambitious mother:
‘Well Mama, look at me now. I’m a star! Look! Look how I live. Look at my friends. Look at where I’m going. I’m not staying in burlesque, I am moving, maybe up, maybe down. But wherever it is, I’m enjoying it. I love every second of it! And I’ll be damned if you’re gonna take it away from me!’
Natalie may have been born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko, but the world only wanted to see Natalie Wood. Her marriage to Robert Wagner, with his matinee idol good looks, was promoted as ‘one of the happiest in Hollywood’ but as their daughter Courtney reminds us, ‘how do you separate reality from illusion when you have been trapped in make believe all your life?’
According to Robert Wagner, the row they'd had before Natalie’s death had been about the direction of her career, and the expectations of being a wife, and mother. Let's not forget that a wine bottle was smashed against a table. This is not normal behaviour. In the documentary Wagner shrugs this off, which perhaps tells us a lot about the aggression and violence Natalie encountered in her life. As in the Persephone myth, a man tries to control a woman, and when the woman finally says 'enough!' the cost to herself is fatal.
A butterfly can also symbolise rebirth or reinvention. Who would Natalie have become? Where would all that psychoanalysis have led to? The butterfly is ephemeral, we mourn the loss of what could have been.
There is one final poignant moment, in 1979, the photographer Jack Mitchell, took a series of photographs of Natalie that she hoped would help reinvent her career. Looking at them now, we might describe the look as a precursor to the 1980s ‘Dynasty’ aesthetic with the shoulder pads and big hair and a kimono style coat that is like butterfly wings. She would have made an excellent Alexis Carrington, or a similar such role, the strong, ‘anti-matriarch’, her own mother as inspiration perhaps, but it was never to be.
Copyright Jack Mitchell
‘Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind’: Courtesy HBO. On Sky Documentaries now.
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