April Bonus Review: Fatal Voyage

Dylan Howard's 2018 podcast accuses Robert Wagner of murdering Natalie Wood. I accuse the podcast of assaulting the English language.

The crime
It’s unclear if in fact a crime occurred prior to the discovery of actor Natalie Wood’s drowned body in the early morning of November 29, 1981. In some ways, it’s easier to focus on the idea that Wood’s untimely death at the age of 43 — in the manner she apparently had most dreaded since childhood — involved foul play; that way, the many questions about Wood’s death and its aftermath have real answers, answers witnesses and suspects could provide, that would solve the mystery in a satisfying way.

And that way, professional bottom-feeder Dylan Howard’s podcast, Fatal Voyage: The Mysterious Death Of Natalie Wood, looks visionary and hard-hitting, instead of like crackpot rubbernecking.

The story
Let us leave aside for a moment the problem of Dylan Howard — but only for a moment, because his involvement, which I had forgotten until queueing up the podcast to the first episode, made me seriously consider calling an audible and contemplating whichever property had come in second in the poll instead. Fatal Voyage: Natalie Wood has other problems, and one of them is in its inception. The difficulty in investigating and reporting the story of Wood’s death is three-fold. First off, attempts to provide context for the night in question with a thorough accounting of Wood’s career, and of the braiding in of her complicated personal life with that career, can easily cross the line from careful into laborious, as it does here. Anyone with an interest in the case knows all the players and the roads that led them to that boat, and last year’s Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind went over this material A) with visuals and B) with, thanks to executive producer Natasha Gregson Wagner (Wood’s daughter), far better access than Howard can hope for…with a caveat, which I’ll also get to.

Second, the players who are still living aren’t talking and aren’t going to, at least about this part. What’s compelling about the mystery is the very thing that’s going to guarantee it remains one, barring Christopher Walken stumbling into the business end of a syringe of truth serum; we’re just never going to know what really happened…or, if we do learn and it does end up being a dowdy slip-and-fall, professional crackpots like Dylan Howard won’t accept the information as reliable. And third…this bit is hard to articulate, so bear with me, but trying to tell the story of a life that ended in a high-profile or untimely or violent death (or a combination of those) is always a tricky balancing act for the storyteller. What Remains Behind wasn’t dull, but it wasn’t entirely a success, either, because the project seemed determined to avert its eyes from Wood’s demise — and as a result, that demise loomed even larger in its That Which Shall Not Be Namedness. The balancing act is possible to pull off, but What Remains Behind wanted both to refocus our attention on Wood’s life and to make its only comment on her death an assertion of Robert Wagner’s innocence, one his on-camera discomfort did little to support.

Fatal Voyage isn’t taking that angle — it’s far more interested in alleging at every opportunity that Wagner was a ragey closet case, and giving a platform to kookballoons theories in which Ronald Reagan helped Wagner cover up a murder, so where even a straightforward and un-tabloid-y rendering of the questions surrounding Wood’s death is going to run into problems of sourcing and tone, Fatal Voyage thinks it’s got around those by taking a firm “we know someone killed her and we’re going to find out who/why” stance. Unfortunately, the sources willing to back that play on mic are sources disdained by What Remains Behind — Lana Wood, Wood’s younger sister, was dismissed as a nutter by her niece’s project; the boat’s captain, Dennis Davern, presents credibility problems of his own and wasn’t interviewed — and the sourcing itself is often muddled, or overreaching. Who people are in relation to Wood and Wagner; when audio was recorded, and by whom originally; what “Hollywood insider” means in this context…episode summaries are happy to tout “world exclusive” interviews and “stunning new ear-witness”es, but Howard’s purple voice-over is less interested in transparent dates and degrees of separation.

That’s not the only way the podcast is badly done. Repetitious sequences establishing writer Ken Levine’s bona fides; repeated hammering of the gay-panic button with the implication that the scandalous aspect of Wagner’s cheating on Wood isn’t per se the infidelity but that he did it with a man or men…its attitude towards its topic overall is dated and tiresome, and whoever thought the interviewer asking Lana Wood the method Natalie had used in a suicide attempt should have been left in the episode needs to get on the list for a compassion transplant. The interviewee who manifestly vapor-locks on high-profile celebrity felonies after OJ and Robert Blake by stammering that “I’m sure you could come up with a list”? Bitch, that’s YOUR job — and it’s some other bitch’s job to cut that shit in post, because it makes the podcast look small-time!

But it’s the mangling of the English language that finally made me bail on it, as I did without regrets nine minutes into the eighth episode of 12 (or 13? oh, who cares). I could let the inexactitude of calling Wood “the Jennifer Aniston of her day” go; I could let the use of the word “glitzy” — an adjective literally never spotted outside of tabloids — go; Howard used “begs the question” incorrectly, but it’s almost always used incorrectly, so fine, and then he followed it in the next ep with a “played a factor,” like, this isn’t how these expressions…are?, but okay, let’s just keep plowing ahead so we can be done. And then goddamned Nancy Grace shows up, out of breath from vigorously humping a badge, to slam Thomas Noguchi for “skewering” the autopsy report in Wagner’s favor.

“SKEWERING,” PEOPLE!

Was I looking for any excuse to bail on Fatal Voyage because Howard is a corrupt Vichy creeper who still somehow leveraged this “work” into a book deal with Simon & Schuster, who need to look in the mirror and take Howard off? Maybe! Did Noguchi “skewer up” (…god) Wood’s autopsy? Maybe! Am I going to link to Howard’s book? No! Am I going to go back to Fatal Voyage and listen to defamatory claims that Wagner took a break from frenching Walken to hurl Wood into the drink? No!

Should you listen to Fatal Voyage, in any of its incarnations? NO! — SDB

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