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Natalie Wood's daughter tells her life story on HBO

Jeff Simon

Natalie Wood was tiny. Almost unimaginably so.

We saw her, in life, in August of 1957 when they came to film some scenes of "Marjorie Morningstar" at the Adirondack summer camp I went to, Camp Cayuga on Schroon Lake.

The Adirondacks were filling in for the Catskills in the movie. And the co-ed Camp Cayuga – which had a boys campus and a girls campus – was supposed to be girl's Camp Tamarack from Herman Wouk's original novel.

Here is Janet Oseroff, an old friend of mine from that Cayuga summer, writing about observing Natalie Wood in life from up close.

"We were awestruck" on the girl's campus, writes the producer and longtime pop music insider in New York (with Eartha Kitt, the Rolling Stones, Crosby, Still Nash and Young and Aretha Franklin, among others). "We were looking at a movie star. From that moment on, she was OUR movie star. There she was right there in the middle of the summer looking like the ultimate movie star we knew she was – wearing a long, off-white mink coat. Of coarse, a true movie star wears fur, we collectively thought. We couldn't believe it – she was looking and dressed exactly like the glamorous movie star we imagined.

"And then something incredible happened. Right before our eyes, she took off her long mink coat" (in August!) " and to our total amazement, she had on a pair of really short shorts and a tee-shirt that said Camp Tamarack across her chest. She was dressed just like us. We could not believe it. It was dazzling. There was a lot of squealing from all of us."

Nor was that all that would blow the minds of Camp Cayuga's 12-year-old girls in 1957.

A dozen Cayuga pre-teen girls were chosen to be in a scene where Natalie Wood and co-star Carolyn Jones stood at the end of a long Ping Pong table covered with costumes. Oseroff's friend and fellow camper Marilyn Katzman was "supposed to try on a costume's bunny ears on camera."

Wood, remembers Oseroff, was "very kind" but "did not really talk to us. We didn't get the feeling that she was snobby, just that she was into what she was doing." Carolyn Jones "did speak to Marilyn when we were at the costume table because the director (Irving Rapper) ... made Marilyn try on the bunny ears so many times to get it right that she started to cry and Carolyn said something like 'he makes me do that too.'"

Wood, in Oseroff's memory, wasn't just "tiny and gorgeous," she had "a genuinely sweet demeanor."

That is the commonplace perception of Wood in her prime out in the world – especially among 1950s fans.

Since her death in 1981 at the age of 43 in eternally mysterious, controversial and dubious circumstances, Wood has undergone an image change in Hollywood history that is more radical than any I know.

Read Hollywood histories now and you read about an actress every bit as sweet and vulnerable but also far more robustly involved in her own stardom. Talk to Robert Redford and he is always in a hurry to remind journalists that he owed his first movie roles to his old schoolmate at Hollywood High School, Wood. One of his best – and least Redfordian – early roles is in Wood's much-underrated "Inside Daisy Clover."

Read the commonplace tales of Wood's romantic life in Hollywood and it seems as crowded with "names" as Marilyn Monroe's, including at the age of 16, a romantic relationship with Nicholas Ray, her director in the misunderstood teen classic "Rebel Without a Cause." From that same period, there is also a commonplace horror story in Wood biographies about a teenage Wood being raped by a major Hollywood star.

He has been frequently named since and has died after a long celebrated life. No one could possibly confirm his identity with any authority now, not even Wood's sister Lana.

But even that is far from the defining scandalous matter in Wood's life. It is her death that will never be solved to public satisfaction, until one of those who was present that night on Wood's yacht with husband Robert Wagner decides to talk. We're not talking about Wagner and Wood's hired captain Dennis Davern, but rather their dinner and overnight guest, Christopher Walken, Wood's co-star in her final film "Brainstorm."

Wood drowned that night off the coast of Catalina Island. The events preceding it have never been more than sketchy. Davern has publicly stated he thinks Wagner pushed her into the water.

It is Walken's detailed account of all the emotional whys and wherefores of that night that would give the world some lifeline toward understanding the death of a figure whose reputation has continually risen since her death. But he has consistently said that he has publicly said all he's ever going to on the subject.

So we're left with sister Lana's belief in something untoward and Davern's as well. We're left with the District Attorney finally announcing after decades that Wagner is considered by authorities a "person of interest" in Wood's death. Wagner is now 90 years old.

And that is one of the things that occasioned the Tuesday premiere of the HBO "documentary" "Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind."

It comes from loving daughter Natasha Gregson Wagner's view of a remarkable mother. It is credible but only if thought of in that way, even though, before it's over, Wagner explains on camera how, on that all-important night, a bottle was broken in anger.

This is a family affair, not a documentary.

I must confess to being a bit slow on the uptake with Wood. As much as I always liked "Rebel Without a Cause," I didn't take Wood with true seriousness until seeing Elia Kazan's "Splendor in the Grass," in which she co-starred with Warren Beatty. It was only then that I understood how powerful an actress she could be.

It is, for some of us, staggering to think of a figure once observed to be the soul of sweet vulnerability now known as the victim in a life story suspected of far too much victimhood.

Her daughter's love letter to her mother can't help us understand what we'd all like to understand, but it's a family tribute hard not to sympathize with.

Not so easy to sympathize with, though, is a far bigger television production branded a "documentary," ESPN's 10-part miniseries about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, "The Last Dance." This is hugely entertaining hagiography about Jordan's astonishing basketball career, now in its upcoming seventh and eighth installments next Sunday.

It is full of wild, hitherto unseen and candid sequences of basketball players caught in the act of trash-talking and harboring real recriminations on and off the court.

So much of the footage comes from Jordan. So what we're seeing – and enjoying the heck out of – on Sunday nights is the TV equivalent of Jordan's written memoir.

Ken Burns, for one, isn't happy about anyone fooling themselves that it's a "documentary." To Variety correspondent Jordan Moreau, he said the show is "not the way you do good journalism."

Jordan's production company Jump 23 is a partner in the series.

"If you are there and influencing the fact of getting it made, it means that certain aspects that you don't want in aren't doing to be in. Period," Burns says. "And that's not the way you do good journalism ... and that's not the way you do good history, my business."

Nor, then, can it describe the upcoming portrait of former first lady Michelle Obama from the Obama production company.

What is it, then?

Same thing as Natalie Wood's family's love letter to Natalie.

Not good journalism and not good history, for sure.

Just good television.

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