The biopic of the self-destructive Hollywood actress is one of the unsung joys of network television. What is the small screen there for, if not the painstaking reconstruction of highly speculative scenes from the lives of the big-screen beautiful and damned? The familiar tropes from a starlet’s life—the overdoses, weight gains, marriages, and remarriages—must be plodded through with stately grace (which would account for these movies’ pack-mule pacing and somber tone). From the quirky but moving Norma Jean and Marilyn (1996), in which Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino faced off as the two sides of Marilyn Monroe, to the extraordinary Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows (2001), in which Judy Davis as Garland burned a hole in the screen, this subgenre offers pleasures all its own; voyeuristic and hagiographic, a mix of schadenfreude and fan-club swoon.
Now there’s The Mystery of Natalie Wood (ABC), a three-hour reconstruction of the glitzy life and sodden death of the child actress (Miracle on 34th Street, Tomorrow Is Forever) who became a teen sensation (The Searchers, Rebel Without a Cause) and later, a mature movie star (Splendor in the Grass, WestSide Story). Of course it doesn’t hurt that she married the same man (Robert Wagner) twice, nor that she was romantically linked to many of the dreamboats of her generation (Warren Beatty, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra). Most important in her qualification for TV-biopic status, Wood died young and tragically; at the age of 43, she drowned during an outing on her and her husband’s boat, the Splendour.
The Mystery of Natalie Wood is directed by Peter Bogdanovich, the once-promising American director (his first three major films were The Last Picture Show; What’s Up, Doc?; and Paper Moon) whose career and life have been irreparably altered by another beautiful dead woman. In 1981, during the filming of his screwball comedy They All Laughed, Bogdanovich had an affair with his leading lady, the Playboy centerfold Dorothy Stratten, who was then brutally murdered by her jealous husband. (These sad events are chronicled in the fine Bob Fosse film Star 80.) In the years since, Bogdanovich has said that Stratten’s death was the turning point of his life, and that his eventual marriage to Dorothy’s half-sister Louise (still a child when Stratten died) was a conscious attempt to replace his lost beloved.
Gossip? Sure. But Bogdanovich’s unfortunate personal history has no doubt affected his choices as a director. After eight years of work in television, his last feature film, The Cat’s Meow (2002), was a nostalgic period mystery loosely based on a real-life murder scandal that occurred during a celebrity yachting weekend hosted in 1924 by William Randolph Hearst. And in The Mystery of Natalie Wood, Bogdanovich brings his considerable film erudition to the artistically dubious task of reconstructing Wood’s miserable, showbiz-bound life. In an attempt to depart from the standard movie-of-the-week mold, Bogdanovich layers in archival material like newspaper headlines and stills of the real Wood, as well as talking-head interviews with her surviving relatives and friends, a choice that brings little to the proceedings, since whatever stories the witnesses tell are subsequently presented in painfully literal tableaux.
The film begins with a proleptic flash-forward: On a Catalina Island beach, partygoers frolic by a bonfire while the drowning Wood calls, unheard, for help. By giving us the end from the outset, Bogdanovich drains the “mystery” of what little momentum it might have had. We all know that Wood died—that’s why we’re watching her story and not her 64-year-old self in a cameo on Friends. The remaining two-and-three-quarter hours of screen time feel like a ghoulish, claustrophobic attempt to “catch up” to this death scene.
Despite its length, The Mystery of Natalie Wood is full of familiar TV shorthand. We know Natalie’s family is Russian (she was born Natasha Gurdin), not because they speak Russian at home, but because they consistently eschew definite and indefinite articles: “She is child! Let her be child!” Characters summarize years of their lives with the kind of exposition-heavy dialogue that makes TV biopics so easy to catch up on when you run out to grab a sandwich. And silver-screen archetypes stroll casually by; when Natalie bumps into Marilyn Monroe at a party and asks, “How are you, Marilyn?” the platinum bombshell conveniently condenses her narrative usefulness into a few stock sentences: “Oh, I don’t know. I’m 36, you know. That’s old in this town. It’s over, baby,” before sauntering off in her iconic white halter dress, only to reappear later in a newspaper headline as a beautiful famous dead woman.
As the adult Natalie, Justine Waddell is competent and appealing; she’s no Judy Davis, but she avoids the biopic trap of overly mannered impersonation. Indistinguishable Ken dolls Michael Weatherly and Matthew Settle offer uncanny vocal impressions of Robert Wagner and Warren Beatty, while Alice Krige (Star Trek’s Borg Queen) is perfect as Maria, Natalie’s monstrous, self-mythologizing Russian mother, who pulls the wings off butterflies to get little Nat to cry on cue. What’s a TV biopic without a heartless stage mother who says things like “God made her. I invented her”?
The film references a legend (confirmed by Gavin Lambert in his new biography, Natalie Wood: A Life) that before Wood’s birth, a gypsy told Maria that her daughter would die in “dark water,” a prophecy that Maria often used to frighten Natalie and that haunted the star for the rest of her life. “I’m gonna drown someday, you know,” Wood announces almost flirtatiously to one early swain, hiding her fear under false bravado in time-honored TV-movie style. As sorry as we may be for the real-life woman, viewers of The Mystery of Natalie Wood can hardly be blamed for gritting their teeth and muttering, “Yeah, I know.”