Nov. 30, 1981— After a frantic search, the body of actress Natalie Wood was found early in the morning, near Catalina Island off the coast of Southern California, hours after a night of drinking and quarreling with husband Robert Wagner aboard his yacht.
That much is known and admitted, not only by Wagner but by the subject of his quarrel with his wife, Christopher Walken, her co-star in Brainstorm. A subsequent investigation determined that, after the fight, she had attempted to board the boat’s dinghy. What has become a bone of contention in the years since is how and why Wood came to be there when she had a lifelong fear of deep water.
Coroner Thomas Noguchi issued a report labeling Wood’s death an accident, with Wagner not held responsible. Three years ago, however, after recent news reports raised questions about how much the couple had fought and the nature of Wood’s injuries, the cause of death was changed to “drowning and other undetermined factors,” citing bruises that occurred before Wood entered the water.
Why has this tragedy continued to resonate over the years? It’s not just the elements of scandal—the rumored infidelity and murder—that cling to the event. Nor is it because of a promising career gone before it had barely begun, as with James Dean, River Phoenix and Heath Ledger.
I think Wood continues to fascinate people because she represented touchstones for people’s lives. Millions had watched her as a little girl in Miracle on 34th Street. They had seen her as a teen in Rebel Without a Cause and Splendor in the Grass, sharing the struggles of adolescence with the boy she loved. They had witnessed her negotiate the terms of lifelong commitment to another human being in Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. In short, they had watched her grow up, passing through the stages of life as they had done.
What they didn’t realize was that, like many of them, she was passing through another stage of life as well: being regarded as obsolescent—old—by the industry for which she worked. From all appearances, Wood remained as vibrant and glamorous as ever, as attested to by the photo accompanying this post, a still from Brainstorm. But Hollywood, even more back then than now, was cruel to aging actresses.
The last significant role Wood had played—adulterous soldier’s wife Karen Holmes in From Here to Eternity—had been two years before. As Nancy Collins noted in a Newsweek article five years ago, Wood had turned 43 in the same month that she had lost a role she desperately desired: the lead in Sophie’s Choice. It could not have escaped her notice that the actress who won the coveted (and ultimately Oscar-winning) part, Meryl Streep, was a full decade younger.
Wood, then, was at her most vulnerable when she began to act with Walken, caught up in the excitement of interacting with a Method-trained actor. Wagner admitted in his memoir Pieces of My Heart to suspicions that his wife might be carrying on “an emotional affair.” He was hardly delighted, then, when Wood invited the younger Walken aboard their boat. While Walken prudently walked away to avoid becoming caught up in the couple's fight, Wood and Wagner continued to argue until just before midnight, when she was reported to have gone up to the captain's cabin to sleep. Wagner reported her missing about an hour and a half later.
Last weekend, I saw Wagner appear on TCM with stepdaughter Natasha in a daylong tribute to Wood. He talked easily and happily about his wife's pride in making Inside Daisy Clover and Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice. Then he mentioned the film that would conclude the tribute: Brainstorm.
With Brainstorm on well after midnight, I wasn’t able to see how Wagner dealt with this awkward topic. Beyond mentioning that it was her last film, how could he have freely discussed why she had died during filming? How could he say that her death caused such a mess, involving the studio and the insurance company, that it would be two years before it was released? How could he tell viewers that the fight that occurred during filming had left young Natasha without her mother?
The name of the couple's luxury yacht, Splendour, referred, of course, to one of Wood's signature roles. But given the circumstances surrounding her death and how much it has haunted those who knew her, it might more aptly have been called the Misery.