NEW YORK — Movie stars can gain eternal life from the films they leave behind.
But Natalie Wood, a child actress who became a dazzling star, is remembered today less for her performances in such films as “Rebel Without a Cause,” “Splendor in the Grass” and “West Side Story” than for her strange, untimely death: She fell off her yacht under murky circumstances and drowned at 43.
A new TV biopic, “The Mystery of Natalie Wood,” proposes how it happened nearly a quarter-century ago. And raises another issue: the widespread disregard for Wood’s acting skills, both during her lifetime and since.
The film, airing on ABC at 8 p.m. ET Monday, casts newcomer Justine Waddell as Wood, the dark-eyed beauty who appeared in more than 50 movies, from “Miracle on 34th Street” and “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” in childhood through her posthumous sci-fi thriller “Brainstorm.”
And it is directed by Peter Bogdanovich, a Wood contemporary (now 64, he was born the year after her) and a veteran filmmaker whose credits include “Paper Moon” and “The Last Picture Show.”
He’s also a show-biz insider who, in 1980, was drawn into a Hollywood tragedy that inspired two movies of its own. Both a TV film and Bob Fosse’s “Star 80” portrayed the murder of centerfold-turned-actress Dorothy Stratten — Bogdanovich’s girlfriend.
Offered “The Mystery of Natalie Wood,” Bogdanovich was “intrigued,” he says during a recent conversation at his Manhattan apartment.
“But I didn’t know if I wanted to do it, because I knew the people a little bit. I’d met Natalie a few times, nodded at her at parties, and same thing with Robert Wagner,” Wood’s husband.
“I also knew I didn’t like being portrayed in the films about Dorothy Stratten. But then I decided: Somebody’s gonna do this, and I thought I’d be more sensitive because of my experiences.
“Besides,” he adds, “by then I had fallen in love with Natalie and her work. In ‘Love With the Proper Stranger,’ ’Inside Daisy Clover,’ ’This Property Is Condemned,’ her performances are brilliant, really brilliant. I realized she was really underrated as an actress — and that, up until then, I had been one of the people who underrated her.”
Focus on Wood
Bogdanovich’s film, shot a year ago, happens to premiere at the same time a new biography — “Natalie Wood: A Life” (unconnected to the film) — arrives in bookstores.
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Why the sudden renewed attention?
Reduced to its basics, Wood’s life followed a familiar show-biz arc: Obscurity is swept aside by fame and fortune. That turns up the heat on personal demons. Then a hopeful new beginning is cut short by cruel fate.
There is troubled love (besides her flings with Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper and Steve McQueen, she would marry Wagner not once, but twice).
And there is her manipulative mother, a Russian immigrant pushing Natalie toward the American dream — stardom — while shackling her with lifelong phobias. (Among these, Wood says in the film, were her dread of darkness, sleeping, not sleeping, being alone and water, thanks to her mother’s “prophecy” that she would die by drowning.)
Born Natalia Zakharenko — her parents changed their name to Gurdin upon becoming U.S. citizens — the little girl would shed that identity when the studio christened her Natalie Wood. But even in adulthood, she could never shed the harsh stage mother or the fears she’d been instilled with.
As drama, Wood’s life might seem to be lifted from all too many show business biopics. Nonetheless, this film works hard showcasing what made Natalie special.
Exhaustively Bogdanovich chronicles her life and career, embroidering the action with photos and footage of the real-life Natalie. He even enlists friends and acquaintances from her past for on-camera interviews that help keep the story moving briskly along.
Then comes the fateful weekend when Wood, her husband and her co-star Christopher Walken (with whom she was shooting “Brainstorm,” and, at least in Wagner’s mind, having an affair), set sail for Catalina Island off the California coast. The events of Nov. 27 stretching into the dark morning of Nov. 29, 1981, occupy a hefty 20 minutes of the film — including the dreadful scene when Wood, her nightmare realized, plunges into the cold current, then slowly succumbs to hypothermia.
Exactly how it happened died with Natalie, but the film draws from the official coroner’s report for a depiction that, Bogdanovich says, “was very painful to think about, to write, to shoot.”
This final chapter, he readily admits, is what viewers will be tuning in to see. Still, he hopes his film will stir them to take greater notice of the life that went before.
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