‘AKA Jane Roe’ Review: Documentary Fails to Let Its Subject Find Her Voice

In 1973 Texas cleaning woman Norma McCorvey became the most famous woman in America when her attempt to obtain an abortion became the impetus for the court case known as Roe v. Wade. The case is one that everyone has an opinion on and it is near impossible to divorce personal feelings from a given work, whether that be a book or documentary on the subject. So director Nick Sweeney’s attempt at neutrality with his documentary “AKA Jane Roe” is admirable, but at times impossibly baffling.

“AKA Jane Roe” sells itself as an attempt for Jane Roe herself, McCorvey, to set the record straight about her life. McCorvey was a poor woman who’d already had a child, had a second on the way (through rape, she claimed), and became the face of the biggest court case to affect women since the 19th Amendment. After that, she became a born again Christian, working with the controversial pro-life group Operation Rescue, and proclaimed abortion a sin. Sweeney’s lens appears to be: Where does the truth lie? Who is Norma McCorvey and what are her true feelings about abortion?

I say abortion because there’s hardly any insight into McCorvey’s life. The doc, clocking in at a little over an hour, gives a cursory glimpse into her background. She ran away from home at the age of 10 with a girlfriend, only for the two to be discovered and McCorvey sent to a girl’s reformatory for being a lesbian. McCorvey is brash and unrepentant, giggling and laughing to herself about the amount of boobs in the reformatory, an ironic bit of humor that this presumed punishment did nothing to change her sexual preferences.

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And Sweeney’s camera is always focused on showing us who Norma is versus how she is perceived by others. It’s hard to fathom an old woman who spends her days coloring — her walls caked in colored pictures of gardens and birds — to be the face and voice of a movement that inspires such anger and hostility. And yet, Sweeney and crew never actively push McCorvey to answer anything tough. For a documentary touting itself as having McCorvey’s last interview — she died in 2017 — there’s no active instigation from the interviewer, although we hear him push other interview subjects.

Case in point, the revelation that McCorvey lied about being raped back in the early 1970s. Considering the rampant rape culture that still tells women not to come forward with allegations, it’s frustrating (and nearly irresponsible) for no to ask McCorvey why she did that and how she feels that rape culture today continues to not believe women who are attacked because of false claims like hers.

Maybe Sweeney’s intention is to perpetuate McCorvey as a liar and charlatan, and she certainly is that. Members of the pro-choice movement discuss her being a manipulator, one who would easily act to get her own way — but there isn’t much pressure from anyone to discuss that. One former collaborator says McCorvey’s confession that the rape wasn’t true caused her to be pushed aside by the movement, but the film’s final moments seem to imply none of that mattered to McCorvey. Who’s story is this? The woman who played the world like a violin or the “friends” who were taken by her story?

And, make no mistake, “AKA Jane Roe” is a documentary where everyone is out for their own ends. If this isn’t McCorvey’s story, it’s at least the tale of how numerous people on both sides of the aisle profited off of McCorvey, her story, and the abortion movement. It is jarring to transition from McCorvey’s poignant tale of growing up poor and abused to Flip Benham, a brash pro-life activist, talking about traveling to an “abortion mill.”

Norma McCorvey

The documentary attempts to give a “both sides” look, showing the pro-life contingent, many of whom would be accused or cited for bombing abortion clinics throughout the 1980s with McCorvey, and the pro-choice advocates, who spoke in Washington D.C. If you know the history (or lived through it) there’s little new to see, at least until the final 20 minutes of the documentary when McCorvey outs herself as a huckster and another prominent pro-life reverend agrees that they exploited her. The saddest element to “AKA Jane Roe” is that McCorvey was little more than a pawn, regardless of how much agency she claimed to have had, and it’s even worse when she isn’t given her own chance to talk.

The final half of the documentary is probably where McCorvey herself speaks the most, but even then there isn’t much discussion short of her own participation in the dueling movements. There’s never discussion about her relationship with her daughter, Melissa, who was taken by McCorvey’s mother because of McCorvey’s lesbianism. Maybe Melissa didn’t want to participate but that’s never mentioned, so she becomes a shadowy figure in her mother’s life.

There’s also never any discussion about McCorvey’s decision to give up her children for adoption. People might be surprised to realize that McCorvey, despite wanting an abortion that kicked off Roe v. Wade, ended up bearing another child. Those deep discussions into her life choices and her personality lay on the cutting room floor, if they were ever asked at all.

“AKA Jane Roe” starts with a fascinating story but fails to go deep into the mind of a woman who was constantly changing. One of the most significant figures in the 20th Century is divisive, but it would have been great to narrow the focus to her feelings about that divisiveness and not the people who profited.

Grade: C-

“AKA Jane Roe” airs on FX May 22.

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The Death of Natalie Wood in 1981 Is Still Being Investigated

Natalie Wood was arguably the quintessential American movie star. She started out as a child actor at the age of five, appearing in popular films like Miracle on 34th Street, before coming of age on screen in Rebel Without a Cause, The Searchers and Splendor in the Grass, and carving out a place in Hollywood history with her roles in the musicals West Side Story and Gypsy. Sadly, Wood’s body of work and contributions to pop culture are frequently overshadowed by her death: she drowned in 1981 during an excursion on her husband Robert Wagner’s yacht. She was 43.

In a new HBO documentary, Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, Wood’s daughter Natasha conducts interviews with Wagner, as well as Wood’s other friends and family members, attempting to paint a fuller portrait of who she was as an actress, a wife, and a mother. The film also addresses the mysterious circumstances surrounding Wood’s passing, which have led to widespread speculation and suspicion that Wagner was somehow involved.

The known sequence of events is as follows. Wood and Wagner went out to Catalina Island on the yacht, the Splendour, on Thanksgiving weekend—something they had done many times before. They invited a number of their friends along, but several declined the invitation, and so the only people on the boat with the couple were actor Christopher Walken, who was working with Wood on the movie Brainstorm, and the yacht’s captain, Dennis Davern.

Wood’s body was recovered by coastal authorities on the morning of Sunday November 29. One of the boat’s dinghies was also found nearby. The autopsy found that Wood’s blood alcohol level was 0.14 percent, and that she had also taken a painkiller and a pill for motion sickness, which may have exacerbated the effects of the alcohol. There were also bruises on the body.

Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood in 1977.
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The cause of death was ultimately ruled an accidental drowning, with one hypothetical scenario devised by the coroner being that Wood slipped and fell into the water while trying to board the dinghy. In the documentary, Natasha posits that her mother may have been trying to re-moor the dinghy, as she was sensitive to noise and the banging sound of the dinghy being pushed against the boat by the water may have woken her.

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Wood’s sister, Lana, has maintained for years that Natalie was terrified of water and would never have gone out on a dinghy by herself. (In the documentary, Wood’s daughter Natasha explains that her grandmother was very superstitious around water, but that her mother had never exhibited such a fear.)

Lana has also repeatedly accused Wagner of being involved in her sister’s death. Wagner, who married Wood in 1957 and then remarried her in 1972 following their divorce, has always denied such claims. However, he has since admitted that he did initially lie and say he and Wood didn’t argue the night before she drowned. In the film, he recalls that he felt jealous of Wood’s working relationship with Walken, although several participants in the documentary refute the rumors that Walken and Wood were having an affair (a popular theory at the time). Wagner now calls Walken a “stand-up guy.”

In 2011, police reopened the investigation into Wood’s death, after the boat captain, Davern, wrote a book in which he claimed that Wood and Wagner did argue, and that he believed the flirtation between Wood and Walken enraged Wagner. In 2012, the official cause of death was changed from accidental drowning to accidental drowning and other undetermined factors. A 2013 coroner’s report detailing the bruising on Wood’s body led officials to state that it is possible she was assaulted before her death.

In 2018, police named Wagner a person of interest in the ongoing case. He maintains his innocence. In Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind, his and Wood’s daughters all state their disbelief that he would have ever done anything to hurt their mother. The film offers no resolution to the enduring mystery of Wood’s death, instead focusing on crafting a picture of the life she led, and the impact she had on the world in such a relatively short span of time.

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