A novel technique props up at least half this Natalie Wood biopic; by having associates and friends offer testimonials to her state of mind and alternately closeted and carefree ways — and with actual news footage added — director Peter Bogdanovich has found a way to develop a level of realism not usually found in “based on a life” telepics. Free of humor or ambiguity, “The Mystery of Natalie Wood” is more a story about a woman’s search for love rather than about fame and its trappings.
Best moments are all early on, as Wood (Elizabeth Rice and Justine Waddell) sorts out her place in Hollywood, school and family, leaving the adult years to flash by riddled with cliches.
There’s actually little mystery in Elizabeth Egloff’s script for “The Mystery of Natalie Wood.” Wood is the product of a myopic stage mother who ultimately causes mental and physical pain while forcing Natalie (born Natasha Zakharenko) to grow up in front of the cameras from age 5 on.
Mom, Maria Gurdin (Alice Krige), is psychotically overbearing and demanding — she shuts out other family members in the name of getting Natalie’s star to rise. “God made her,” she tells a reporter in a rare moment she isn’t lording over Natalie. “I invented her.”
“Mystery” focuses, almost excessively, on Gurdin’s warnings to her daughter — she’ll either die during childbirth or drown. She feels her control is limited; to get a stronghold, she isolates Natalie from the world around her.
Lacking parental love as she gains success within the studio system, Wood sets out to romantically link with men and boys with whom her parents would disapprove.
As a 14-year-old, Wood wants out of Hollywood; a year later, she’s committed to acting, and demanding that mom accept a “no butting in” policy. She essentially races into adulthood, dating men in their late 20s when she’s barely driving age. Directors come on to her, an actor rapes her — and still her mother persists in attempting to get her to go to places such as Frank Sinatra’s house rather than hang out with her peers, whether they be actors or high school students.
At 19, she marries 27-year-old Robert Wagner (Michael Weatherly) and the fairytale quickly comes to an end. “Mystery” focuses on the drinking, pill popping and unhappiness — a life detailed in maudlin dialogue — as Oscar noms and artistic achievement in films such as “Splendor in the Grass” are little more than a background scrim. Once they divorce, Wood ricochets from one relationship to another — some casual, some committed — with the likes of Warren Beatty (Matthew Settle) and Henry Jaglom (Rupert Reid).
Another marriage and divorce leaves her with children, her mother still in tow. Wagner re-enters her life, and a wealth of acting possibilities start appearing. Pic should have a happy ending, but Wagner’s jealousy does him in as much as the drinking.
Waddell graces her depiction of Wood with an enticing sexiness and a shaded vulnerability, two qualities Wood exuded in films such as “Rebel Without a Cause” and “West Side Story.” Filmmakers err, however, in not aging Waddell; real-life stills and footage of the mid- to late-’70s are quite the contrast to Waddell, who still appears to be a 24-year-old starlet.
Weatherly isn’t asked to do much more than stare into his drink and battle with Wood; a scene on the side of the road when he regrets ever leaving her is ridiculously over the top. Krige, as the mother, is stuck on a single note for three hours.
But Bogdanovich’s direction ultimately saves “Mystery.” The flow of the story and framing of scenes are consistently enticing no matter how syrupy the dialogue becomes.