The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004) starring Justine Waddell, Michael Weatherly, Matthew Settle, Alice Krige, Nathalie Roy, Colin Friels directed by Peter Bogdanovich Movie Review

The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004)   4/54/54/54/54/5

Justine Waddell, Nick Carpenter and Paul Pantano in The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004)

The Life of Natalie Wood

"The Mystery of Natalie Wood" is technically a biopic of the famous actress but it is more than just a movie that dramatizes her life, there are clips of the real Natalie Wood from various movies, photos of her with her famous co-stars and there are also interviews with those who knew her both professionally and as a friend. It makes it this entertaining mix of biopic and documentary which takes us from her early childhood where her mother pushed her to become a child star right through to the Thanksgiving Weekend in 1981 when she died in mysterious circumstances. Now before I go on I am going to say that the "Mystery" in the title is not the mystery of what happened that night, we do get a dramatization of what might have happened and one which might disappoint some people, but the mystery is of Natalie herself, the person in front of the camera as well as behind it.

When I sat down to watch "The Mystery of Natalie Wood" I did so expecting to be hit emotionally when the movie focussed on the events of that Thanksgiving weekend in 1981, I wasn't expecting to be as emotionally affected by the rest of the movie. But trust me the minute we meet a young Natalie and her pushy, controlling and viciously manipulative mother Maria you feel sick. I don't know how accurate Alice Krige's performance as Maria is but she delivers such a powerful, evil creation that immediately it makes you sit up and pay attention. And that flows through out as we constantly see her not only controlling who Natalie would see and what movies to make but getting into Natalie's head in such away that Natalie ended up with a whole series of complexes from a fear of water to a fear of having a child.

Michael Weatherly and Justine Waddell in The Mystery of Natalie Wood (2004)

Anyway what we basically get in "The Mystery of Natalie Wood" is roughly 150 minutes which takes us through Natalie's life and career followed by about 30 minutes which focuses upon the Thanksgiving Weekend in 1981. Now any movie which deals with someone famous always has a big problem because of trying to find someone who looks and sounds like the star, thankfully Justine Waddell is good as Natalie, not always believable but has moments when the resemblance is unsettling. It is the same with the other important roles most notably Michael Weatherly as Robert Wagner and Matthew Settle as Warren Beatty, there are times when it doesn't look right but then others it looks eerily right. Of course there are a lot more famous characters other than this trio and some are just not right for me such as when we meet James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. But for the most the casting is good and you end up ignoring the less authentic moments.

Another issue that any movie based on a famous person has is of bias and this is where "The Mystery of Natalie Wood" gets interesting. You could say that it is quite a biased movie as it often portrays Natalie as the victim through out her career of directors who used her and a mum who controlled her but never saying she was a diva. Yet I actually think this is where director Peter Bogdanovich has been clever because we do see moments of diva behaviour, a scene where she doesn't want to remove a bracelet because of her disfigured wrist could be seen as being diva but we know that disfigured wrist came from an accident on a film set and her mother refusing to get it treated immediately. You could also say that the portrayal of Robert Wagner is very one sided not getting across his charm and humour and only his jealousy but then in a way that is right because his reported jealousy is an element in the mystery of her death and their relationship. Yes some of it does feel a bit too one sided but not enough to spoil this movie.

But what for me makes "The Mystery of Natalie Wood" that little bit special is that with the wonderful mix of drama, archive footage as well as interviews it does feel like an examination of Wood's life. The interviews from friends and family work nicely to introduce a series of scenes establishing things such as when Robert Hyatt tells us that he remembers Natalie's mum not allowing her to associate with the other child actors on the set of "Miracle on 34th Street" and we then get the dramatization of this leading on to the next chapter. And the use of archive footage, montages of films not only works to allow the story to skip over a few years but remind us of what a great actress Natalie Wood was. And that is something which is important because not only do we have a movie which some may say paints Wood as a victim it also paints her as a talented actress who worked hard in front of the camera and behind dealing with a series of complexes which made life hard.

The one thing which lets "The Mystery of Natalie Wood" down is that it is a TV movie and elements of finesse, those little details sometimes let it down. Yet you know what I don't think they would make a big screen biopic like this one which mixes documentary with drama and the smaller medium of being a TV movie allows it do things differently.

What this all boils down to is that "The Mystery of Natalie Wood" is a fascinating movie which for me does a brilliant job of taking us through Natalie Wood's life and career from child star to that Thanksgiving Weekend in 1981. The mix of styles between dramatization and interview works brilliantly and so do the main actors who do a difficult job of playing some well known actors. It does lack some finesse and for some the way Natalie's death is covered may be a disappointment but for me it did it right with just a nice touch of ambiguity.