Thursday, June 25, 2009
Farewell, Farrah. Do Blondes Really Have More Fun?
By Elise Nakhnikian
I'm not usually moved by by celebrity deaths, but the news of Farrah Fawcett's passing stabbed me with a shard of that sorrow and pity you feel when someone dies before they had a chance to fulfill their potential.
Strange way to think about someone who got so much more than her share of fame and attention, I know: That poster of her with the corkscrew curls and piano-key grin apparently sold several hundred thousand copies a month at the peak of her popularity. But I think the attention she got for her looks was like the poison in Sleeping Beauty's apple, freezing her in time and keeping her from developing her potential as an artist.
I say "artist" because I think that's how Farrah saw herself, at least when she was young. She studied art at UT in Austin before getting snatched up by the clanking maw of the entertainment machine, which promptly spat her out as the international symbol for California Girl and the original blonde on Charlie's Angels.
Amazingly, she was only on that show for one season, but she was identified with it and with that poster for the rest of her life, assumed to be a not-quite-real, none-too-bright has-been whose only claim to fame were a fortuitous combination of hair, teeth, and bone structure.
I met her in the early '80s. It must have been six or seven years after she'd escaped from the show, but she was still really prickly about it. I was living in her home town of Corpus Christi at the time, working for Corpus Christi Magazine, which sent me to interview her in New York where she was starring in an off-Broadway version of Extremities, a fairly simplistic but hard-hitting story of a woman who turns the tables on a rapist. Fawcett was really good in the part, much to everyone's surprise -- not that that helped her get many good parts afterward.
That wasn't the only thing about her that suprised me. She was smaller than I'd expected, as stars usually are, but she was also much stronger. Muscular and wiry, with ropy veins in her arms, she came off as an athlete, not a beauty queen.
She was clearly smart and funny, though she and I didn't laugh much. She was too busy countering the stereotypes everyone held about her. The article I wrote is in some box deep in my storage space and doesn't seem worth digging out at the moment, but I remember that one of the first things she said to me, maybe the first, was the phrase: "In my defense..." That was before I'd said a word, but I didn't need to: she knew what I was thinking.
People who knew I was going to interview her loved to show me how clever they were by asking things like "Find out who her dentist is." When I got back home and wrote an article that talked about how good she was in the play, another editor at the magazine added a snarky lead about how "Of course she'll never win a Tony." I fought to get that out of there, but they wouldn't let me eliminate that snide tone altogether. I won a journalism award for that piece, but I always felt like it was tainted by that faint undertone.
But hey, sneering at Farrah was just one of those things the smart set did back then: It proved you were in the know.
Lord knows I did it myself, when I was an alienated young hippie type and you couldn't escape that poster of hers. Aaron Spelling's now-ubiquitious brand of plasticine cheesecake was new then, so Charlie's Angels made a handy target for my friends and me, when we were bemoaning the death of the handmade and the heartfelt and all that other, less manufactured stuff we were so pleased with ourselves for appreciating.
I didn't learn much about Farrah when we met -- she'd had years by then to fill in the chinks in her armor -- but she gave me a lot to chew on afterward. You don't get looks like that without working at it, so some part of her must have enjoyed the attention her beauty earned her. But how frustrating it must have been to have dealt with all those stereotypes and sneers over the years. And what a shame that hardly anyone in the industry ever seemed to see what she was capable of as an actress.
Good on Robert Duvall for giving her that juicy part in the Apostle. She played the hell out of it, too.