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It's been 39 years since Natalie Wood 'drowned'. Her death is still shrouded in mystery.

Natalie Wood had three Oscar nominations by the time she was 25.

A household name in the 1950s and 60s, the Russian-American actress was a child star, co-starring in Miracle on 34th Street when she was eight-years-old.

She appeared in everything from West Side Story and Splendour in the Grass, to Rebel Without A Cause and Sex and the Single Girl, before her death at the age of just 43.

Police listed her cause of death as “drowning and other undetermined factors” but her death has been shrouded in suspicion ever since, with her eldest daughter this week releasing a new documentary on her mother’s life in an effort to reclaim her legacy.

WATCH: The trailer for ‘Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind’. Post continues after video.

Video by HBO

Director Sydney Pollack was once quoted as saying about Natalie: “When she was right for the part, there was no one better. She was a damn good actress”.

“She was larger than life, not because she was an actress – that was just her,” her daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner explains in the new HBO documentary.

The talented actor was spotted on the streets of her Northern California hometown and plucked from obscurity for an ice cream commercial when she was just four.

The child of Russian immigrants, Natalie was born ‘Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko’ but had her name changed by studio executives. Her dad was a laborer, who, according to a biography by Suzanne Finstad, had violent alcoholic rages. Her mother, the book continues, was a “fantasist and abusive taskmaster who drove her daughter to become the family breadwinner”.

Natalie Wood child
Natalie Wood was a successful child star turned adult actor. Image: HBO.

She grew up in front of the camera and millions of adoring fans, and was hailed alongside Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor as one of the top three female movie stars in history. But it wasn't just her talent that drew attention, so too did her personal life.

She had a number of high profile flings, including a brief relationship with Elvis Presley in 1956. She married fellow actor Robert Wagner when she was 19, admitting to the press that she'd had a crush on the 27-year-old since she was a child.

Her mother didn't support their 1957 nuptials, and they split up after four years of marriage, before eventually re-marrying each other again in 1972.

Wood And Wagner
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood in 1970. Image: Silver Screen Collection/Getty.

In between, Natalie married British producer Richard Gregson and they had a daughter together, who they named Natasha. Robert also remarried and had a daughter named Kate.

But while Natasha was still a newborn, Natalie heard Richard having an inappropriate conversation over the phone with his secretary. They soon after divorced.

Once back with Robert, a decade after their first divorce, they had another daughter together, who they named Courtney Brooke Wagner, in 1974.

"Her marriage was considered to be one of the best in Hollywood, and there is no question that she was a devoted, loving—even adoring—mother and stepmother. She and R.J (Robert) had begun with love and built from there. They had overcome each other's problems and had reached an accommodation with time and the changes time brings. As with anybody else who has settled into making a long marriage work, they were far more determined than most people to make it work," Natalie's sister Lana wrote in a memoir about her.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood
Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood in 1981. Image: Bret Lundberg/IMAGES/Getty.

Of their marriage the second time around, Natalie is quoted as saying in The Star-Crossed Love Affair of Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner: "When R.J. and I were married [the first time] we were like two children acting out a studio script. We deliberately hid our weaknesses from each other. Now we found that we could really talk to each other. We were not afraid to be ourselves. But we realised that we needed those years apart to reach that understanding."

Natalie's death.

On weekends, Robert and Natalie spent their days off Santa Catalina Island in California on their boat.

It was a Saturday night on November 28, 1981, when Natalie, Robert and their friends enjoyed a boozy dinner at an upscale restaurant, before returning to the boat where they continued to drink heavily.

At around midnight, Natalie was discovered missing from the boat. The following morning, the 43-year-old, who was said to have a lifelong fear of open water and drowning, was discovered floating around a mile away. She was dressed in a flannel nightgown, knee-high socks and a red down jacket, and was covered in bruises.

Splendour boat
Natalie and Robert spent weekends on their boat. Image: HBO.

The initial investigation concluded that Natalie had slipped and fallen in the water, and died of hypothermia.

But the couple's up and down relationship led people to draw other conclusions.


The investigation was reopened in 2011, after the boat's skipper said he'd lied about that night and claimed the couple got into an explosive argument. When asked at the time by NBC News if he thought Robert was responsible for Natalie's death, he replied: "Yes, I would say so. Yes."

Natalie Wood daughters
Natalie Wood's daughters have stood by Robert, after her death. Image: HBO.

The following year, the Los Angeles Coroner’s Office changed the cause of death on Natalie's death certificate from accidental drowning to “drowning and other undetermined factors".

In February 2018, Robert was named as a person of interest in the ongoing investigation into Natalie's death. This was based off a Los Angeles County coroner report, contrary to the original autopsy, which stated some of the bruising on her body could have occurred before the drowning.

In the new HBO documentary released on May 5, 2020, Natalie's daughter Natasha sat down with her now 90-year-old stepfather.

He tells her that after coming back to the boat after a meal, he got into an argument with actor Christopher Walken, who was with them, over how much Natalie should work. She apparently went below deck to go to bed while they carried on. When he eventually went to join her, both she and the yacht's dingy were gone.

Natasha and Robert
Natasha and her step-dad. Image: HBO.

During the interview, Natasha makes it clear that she is on Robert's side, stating: "For so many years, we were advised to ignore or not talk about it. But enough is enough. I know that if my mom had been in any kind of distress, he [Robert] would have given his life for her."

She was only 11 when her mother drowned.

"I don't think there is a day that ever goes by that I haven't thought about Natalie," he tells her.

In his 2008 memoir, Piece Of My Heart, he writes: "There are only two possibilities: either she was trying to get away from the argument, or she was trying to tie the dinghy. But the bottom line is that nobody knows exactly what happened."

But while Natalie's daughters support Robert, her sister Lana Wood blames him.

"Something bad happened and something wrong happened and I want him to own up to that," she told Inside Edition in 2018.

In the documentary, Natasha asks her stepfather how he feels about being a person of interest.

“I don’t pay very much attention to it, Natasha,” he said. “Because they’re not going to redefine me. I know who I am.”

Feature image: HBO.

The new documentary Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind is available to stream on Foxtel.

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