• Richard Hughes

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind

Updated: Oct 19

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 that, the Hollywood actress Natalie Wood had spent Thanksgiving weekend onboard the family’s 55ft yacht Splendour 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, a wine bottle was smashed 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 when her mother drowned. For 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 death.

Now she has made a HBO documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind about the impact of her Natalie's death on her family, their friends and Hollywood.

It is a curious and poignant film. At times, it feels like the viewer is observing a therapy session; Gregson Wagner confronts her own grief and then turns therapist to listen to friends and family recount how they have lived with the aftermath of the tragedy. Perhaps the least satisfactory part of the film 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.

Whilst wanting to write about Natalie Wood, I am aware that she may not mean much to film fans under the age of 40. And yet, her story continues to fascinate, enough for an HBO documentary at least, and I believe this is not just because of the mystery surrounding her death. In talk show clips from the 70s, she seems unguarded and playful, her humour contemporary, you could almost imagine her on the Graham Norton Show today.

Natalie Wood: reflections on a legendary life by Natasha Wagner, Manoah Bowman et al. Turner Classic Movies publishing program

On the big screen, you cannot help but get caught up in her performance. Critics have suggested that Natalie represents a portrait of American womanhood in transition. This is an intriguing idea; she was of course the product of the studio system, but she was never a ‘starlet’ or a ‘goddess of the silver screen’; rather, as a child actor who made the cross over to adult roles in films such as Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story and Bob and Sue and Ted and Alice she anticipates and reflects American womanhood the 50s, 60s and 70s.

There is something of the Persephone archetype about Natalie Wood. Persephone is a young woman, who finds her power through adversity and in doing so challenges structures and systems. There is often a cost to herself, and she may appear to be a pawn of more powerful forces - and by that I mean men - but her legacy resonates.

Whilst watching the documentary, I noticed that Natalie was particularly found of butterfly design jewellery, she is often wearing a butterfly necklace in interviews and I was curious about that.


The butterfly is a symbol for the soul; in ancient Greek, the word for butterfly is psyche. In Greek mythology, Persephone was the queen of the underworld and she has come to be associated with butterflies. A popular theme with artists, Salvador Dali returned frequently to butterfly imagery in his work as he explored dreams, the soul, mysticism and the unconscious. Damien Hirst collaborated with the designer Alexander McQueen to create a print work called ‘The Rape of Persephone’ which was 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 wrote, ‘in masculine hands, logic is often a form of violence.’

From the age of five, Natalie began to work in an industry dominated by men that objectifies and uses women and continues to do so. The butterfly ends up pinned to a board - dead - a prize trophy for men (and it is usually men) to gaze at and admire. We now know that Natalie was raped as a teenager by a high profile Hollywood director; she got the role. This was the cost of being ‘born professional’ as Orson Wells described her.

And who was looking out for her all this time? On set her mother was always behind her, pushing her forward, idealizing her one minute, denigrating her the next. This was a woman who lived out her own ambitions through her daughter; the stereotypical narcissistic stage mother, who has been described as a monster by people who knew her. Where was she when Natalie was being raped and abused?

Natalie was the dutiful child, sensitive to her mother's tantrums which would turn into fainting fits if she did not get her own way. Once, when Natalie was unable to cry on cue, her mother tore the wings off a butterfly in front of her. A coincidence that Natalie chose to wear a butterfly necklace?

Natalie's father meanwhile, was an alcoholic who drank himself to death.

As she grew older, Natalie tried to extricate herself from her mother’s overbearing and highly critical influence; it was far from straight-forward. Narcissistically wounded people, raised on conditional love and in need of more than just emotional 'crumbs', grow up 'split', which means they conceal those parts of themself they believe are 'unacceptable' or 'unloveable'; they bury their true self-expression rather than risk their needs being 'too much'. Often, they find it safer to present a charming and charismatic 'veneer' which generally gets them the approval and validation they seek. It is a poor substitute for relational depth. Whilst drawn to other emotionally wounded people, they can be judgemental and defensive. They need to be in control, which makes up for the lack of ontological security. They may not trust their own feelings, or even feel their feelings. They may sense there is another way of being beyond what they have constructed but how to become that person and what would be the cost?

Hollywood itself is 'split'. It is therefore no surprise that ‘split’ people end up gravitating to this world, just like moths to a flame. The cost to relationships is high and so the trauma continues.

Later in life, Natalie did psychoanalysis, 7 days a week for 8 years and would book out time in her filming schedule to attend sessions. And in an attempt to repair the deficits of her own childhood, she created an extended family of nannies and PAs (mother figures) and ex husbands, (father figures), at her home in Beverly Hills.

She also explored the complex feelings she felt about her mother in her films. 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 according to their daughter Courtney, ‘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 had had before Natalie’s death had been about the direction her career was taking and the expectations of being a wife and mother. As in the Persephone myth, there is a sense of men making demands and when finally she says 'enough!' the cost to herself is high.

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 shoulder pads and big hair; a kimono style coat that is almost 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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