It's been thirty years since Natalie Wood's death at age 43. In those three decades, the exact circumstances of her death still evoke controversy. Was it just a terrible accident that has been built up to be something darker, more sinister? Was it murder, and if so by whom? Ever since she was found, floating on Catalina Bay, the details as to what led to her death have fueled speculation.
What makes Wood's death more tragic was that she had an intense fear of water, particularly drowning. Her fear was so great that she was terrified of a scene in Splendor in the Grass which required her to put her head underwater in a bathtub. Mind you, it was in a bathtub, where she would have easily and quickly pulled herself out from beneath the waters, was on land, and had a whole crew around her should her panic overwhelm her and freeze her under the water. The fact that she did indeed die by drowning appears to make it the final, demented coda to her aquaphobia.
Now, the investigation into her death has been reopened. My own view is that in the end, the findings will remain the same: an accidental death, nothing more, nothing less. However, I believe that in the ensuing brouhaha over Natalie Wood's final moments, we are running a risk of forgetting something more important.
Natalie Wood was a star as well as a talented actress. Her legacy in films as varied as Miracle on 34th Street (which will always hold her as a child), Rebel Without A Cause (again, the epitome of the troubled teen) and Splendor in the Grass (who hasn't been overwhelmed by their first passionate romance) will attest to her abilities on screen. However, she was also a wife and devoted mother, and that's what I hope people will remember whenever the investigation is brought up.
It wasn't just the death of a star, a Hollywood legend, that is being investigated. It's the death of a woman who loved her children, and who loved her husband Robert Wagner, a couple so intertwined that they married each other twice. I figure her daughters and Wagner, and Christopher Walken, the unwitting player in this tragedy, have endured enough in these three decades: the rumors, the speculation, the suspicions.
Nothing has ever shown that Wagner was involved in Wood's death directly or indirectly. By all accounts, he seems to be a good man, though he admits there was a lot of drinking in the past. Be that as it may, there's something unseemly about the whispers of foul play against a man in his eighties when there hasn't been any solid proof against him.
The real tragedy of Natalie Wood isn't just about what she could have done in film and television (or the stage, having been cast in a theatrical production of Anastasia, which would have been perfect for our Russian beauty). The real tragedy is for her family, who lost a wife and mother. This is true of all people who die under mysterious circumstances, and to focus more on the sordid "perhaps" or even the "what-ifs" diminishes the deaths.
Whether they find anything new only time will tell (my view is that they won't). It will always remain one of the great mysteries of Hollywood, but from my vantage point, it is not a sordid tale of murder, but a sad tale of a woman brought up to be a star, who grew into a strong actress, but who because of a series of tragic turns ended her last hours overwhelmed by the fear that had pervaded her entire life.
We have the films, small comfort but comfort nonetheless. For myself, I hope that Natasha has found peace, and that we allow her to rest in peace.