Tuesday, March 26, 2013

How Farrah Fawcett Revived Her Career with "Murder in Texas"

Farrah Fawcett's pristine public image as America's Golden Girl of the 1970s has been slightly tarnished in the last few years due to her erratic public behavior in the 1990s, tabloid stories of her troubled family life with her son and her long-time lover Ryan O'Neal, and regressive appearances in Playboy magazine that have helped to undermine the successful strides she made in the 1980s and early 1990s to prove her worth as an actress.  When she passed away from cancer in 2009, obituaries touted her as a pin-up celebrity famous for her legendary bathing suit poster than for her numerous accomplishments as an actress.  This is a shame because, even before she redefined her acting reputation in the 1980s, Farrah Fawcett was always a competent, professional actress on-screen from the moment she started her career as a Screen Gems television contract player in the early 1970s, continuing during her one-season tenure on "Charlie's Angels," and on through to her work in flop feature films such as "Somebody Killed Her Husband" (1978), "Sunburn" (1979), and "Saturn 3" (1980).  She was not a celebrity famous just for being famous.  It was with her remarkably nuanced performance in the TV movie "The Burning Bed" (1984) that Farrah Fawcett appeared to have silenced her naysayers and demonstrated what she was truly capable of as an actress.

However, Fawcett began making strides to improve her public image even before "The Burning Bed."  Fawcett's first challenging dramatic role, and one that helped pave the way for her to be cast in "The Burning Bed," was as the real-life Houston socialite and accomplished equestrian horsewoman Joan Robinson Hill in the two-part NBC TV movie "Murder in Texas" (1981).  A dramatization of the events surrounding the untimely death of Mrs. Hill in 1969, which some have suspected was caused by her plastic surgeon husband Dr. John Hill, "Murder in Texas" was a surprising change-of-pace for Fawcett.  I recall the advertisements in print and on television for this TV movie touted it by saying "See Farrah Fawcett as you've never seen her before!"  Usually, such slogans reflect dramatic hyperbole, but it was earned in Fawcett's case.  People have disputed the factual inaccuracies of the narrative in the movie, which is understandable for any movie that purports to tell the story of real-life people.  As such, any analysis of the characters and storylines in "Murder in Texas" herein pertain only to the movie and not to the facts and circumstances surrounding the case.

Joan Robinson Hill (Fawcett) and her handsome plastic surgeon husband Dr. John Hill (Sam Elliott) are a glamorous, enviable couple from Houston's prestigous River Oaks community.  Joan is an acclaimed horsewoman and the daughter of larger-than-life oilman Ash Robinson (Andy Griffith) who loves his only child deeply while, at the same time, exerts a domineering influence over their marriage and upon his son-in-law.  John and Joan are already deeply unhappy when he embarks on a torrid affair with attractive divorcee Ann Kurth (Katharine Ross).  Ash, furious at John's attempts to dissolve his marriage with his daughter so that he can be with Ann, promises to destroy the comfort and wealth his son-in-law has become accustomed to, and threatens to drag Ann publicly through the mud, if John ever leaves his daughter.  John appears to be making efforts to reconcile with his wife when Joan suddenly becomes violently ill, with John blithely indifferent to her suffering.  When he finally takes her to the hospital, he takes her to a small medical facility, passing several larger ones along the way.  She dies not long after being admitted.  In the aftermath of her passing, a grieving Ash presses for a criminal investigation into his daughter's death.  John marries Ann, who soon learns he has a dark side to his personality she had not previously suspected.  John confesses to Ann that he poisoned Joan and tries to kill her.  Ann separates from John and testifies against him when he finally goes to trial.  However, when she testifies on the stand that he tried to murder her, a mistrial is declared.  Ann and John divorce and he soon remarries again.  When he returns from his honeymoon, John is attacked by a masked gunman in his house and killed.  Ash is accused of arranging the hit against John, but charges are never brought against him.  Years later, Ann is at home and receives an anonymous call from someone playing classic music over the phone, just like John used to...

As I said before, this synopsis for "Murder in Texas" pertains to the movie and should not be considered a summary of the actual facts surrounding this case.  John Hill was never convicted for his wife's death, and his son has maintained through the years that he never believed his father murdered his mother.  As such, the movie should be conservatively viewed as an entertaining piece of fiction and not a documentary.  Nevertheless, "Murder in Texas" remains a well-acted, well-made TV movie with vibrant, interesting characters and situations throughout.  The movie makes 1960s Houston look like a fascinating, lively culture and community, and the production design has an understated elegance that captures the period milieu in a believable manner.  It's not surprising that the creator of "Dallas" has admitted that he was inspired to create that series after reading one of the books written about this case.  Sam Elliott is charmingly handsome and chilling as John, Andy Griffith is both imposing and touching as the tyrannical yet loving Ash, and Katharine Ross is likeable and sympathetic as Ann.  However, it's Farrah Fawcett who dominates this film with her warm and vulnerable presence.  In the second-half of the film, after the character of Joan has died, you still think of Fawcett throughout and her absence in the latter portions casts a dark shadow over the storyline.  Coming after "Charlie's Angels" and the various feature films she made in the late 1970s, Joan is a very different character for Fawcett.  Up to that time, she usually played sunny, confident, and happy characters, as exemplified by her iconic performance as private detective Jill Munroe on "Charlie's Angels."  Prior to "Murder in Texas," Fawcett had a "can-do" quality as an actress that reflected her larger-than-life image in the 1970s.

In "Murder in Texas," Fawcett has a more understated, subdued glamor and quality that was a revelation to viewers and critics and made her appear much more human and down-to-earth than ever before.  She lowered the pitch of her speaking voice, which used to make her sound breathy and light-weight, and brought maturity, gravitas and intelligence to her performance.  Fawcett's Joan is a good, kind person who has spent her entire life defined as either Ash's daughter, or John's wife, despite her equestrian accomplishments, and lacks self-confidence and a healthy sense of self-worth because she's in love with a man who doesn't love her back.  Her persistent chain-smoking throughout the movie reflects her nervous anxiety about her marriage.  This was shocking to see in a movie back in 1981, as Fawcett was still considered one of the most beloved and desired women in the world.  To see her in a movie where she is neglected and despised by her husband was simply unthinkable at the time.  And, yet, Fawcett projects vibrancy and charisma as Joan so that the character never comes across as a self-pitying wet-blanket.  Fawcett's Joan has a feisty temperament and refreshing flashes of anger when she's finally fed up with John's indifference and infidelity that make it clear to the viewer that she can be a formidable, impressive force to be reckoned with.  In one scene, when John and Joan are hosting friends and, for once, Joan is enjoying herself, she becomes irritated when his beeper goes off, which usually allows him to leave her for hours at a time.  Fawcett's exasperated Joan snaps, "I knew it!...I hear that damn thing in my sleep!  Come on!  Whenever I'm happy, close to having a good time, I hear 'Beep! Beep! Beep!' I can't stand it!"  Sam Elliot's John may resent Joan and take her for granted, but the viewer never does.  We see all the qualities in her that Elliot's John does not and that makes her ultimate death all the more tragic.

Throughout "Murder in Texas," there are very touching moments that show Joan's humanity and vulnerability and her hopes that her marriage will work out.  Despite her equestrian accomplishments she admits to Ash, "What the Hell am I doing?!  Why am I going off to a horse show when things are the way they are with John and me?!...You know, I'm not happy anymore unless I'm in a ring on a good horse...When I'm not in the ring, when I'm not riding...I get so lonely....Pa, am I ever, ever gonna grow up?"  Fawcett and Griffith are very endearing together and have an easy, natural chemistry as father and daughter in this scene that makes it a pleasure to watch.  In one of Fawcett's best moments in the film, Joan is playing cards with her girlfriends in John's lavish music room while her husband is listening to classical music in the background.  To the discomfort of her friends, she openly complains about the problems in their marriage, as she deals the cards, and says aloud "I'm tired of always, always being the dummy."  When John changes the record and asks her to dance, Joan lowers her guard and melts like butter in his arms.  In this romantic moment, Fawcett effectively conveys the extent to which Joan deeply loves her husband.  Later in the film, when Joan starts to become sick, she happily tells a friend about how kind John was to her the night before and how it has raised her hopes that her marriage will work out, "I don't know, it's so strange.  I feel sick, but I feel so much better about things between me and John...Yeah, he was so sweet last night.  I think everything's gonna be all right."  Fawcett delivers the line in a sincere, heartfelt manner that tugs at the viewer because we know that things are ultimately not going to be all right for Joan.

When Joan becomes sick, Fawcett admirably downplays the glamour and allows herself to become as unkempt and disheveled as possible in order to portray the agony and pain Joan experienced as she became ill and passed away.  Fawcett has several good scenes with actress Royce Wallace, who plays Joan's concerned maid Wilma.  When Wilma helps Joan into the bathroom, the wealthy woman confides in her housekeeper, "I don't know what's the matter with me.  I've never been this way before.  Like a baby, so helpless."  Later, when Joan asks Wilma "Am I gonna die?" the feisty and caring maid clutches Joan's hands and the two pray together.  When John finally takes Joan to the hospital, she blows a kiss out the back window of the car to Wilma, in gratitude for her caring and concern during Joan's time of need.  Fawcett conveys Joan's inherent decency and appreciation for Wilma's presence in her life, which helps to underscore how Joan, despite her wealth and privilege, has no sense of entitlement and has a sincere appreciation for all the people in her life.  When I watch the scenes of a violently ill Fawcett in "Murder in Texas," I flashback to Fawcett's horrifying 2009 documentary on NBC depicting her real-life battle with cancer.  These scenes appear to foreshadow Fawcett's real-life suffering almost three decades later and underscore the extent to which she was committed to portraying Joan Robinson Hill as seriously and sympathetically as possible.

What I recall the most from my first viewing of "Murder in Texas" in 1981 was the fact that Fawcett pulled her famous mane of blonde hair back into a pony tail, as the real-life Joan Robinson Hill was known for wearing her hair in that simple style.  Because Fawcett's feathered hairstyle from the 1970s was such an iconic part of her screen image, it was simply startling to see her in a role where her hair was not as prominent an accoutrement to her appearance.  At the time, it took me a long time to get used to watching her in the movie looking so differently but, in 2013, her ponytail has aged quite elegantly and allows one to appreciate Fawcett's striking features, particularly her prominent nose and high forehead.  We realize the extent to which her hair distracted one from fully appreciating Fawcett's Southern earthiness, and I believe Fawcett was never lovelier on-screen than with this atypical hairstyle.  Even though it is not as well-remembered as "The Burning Bed," one cannot underestimate the importance of "Murder in Texas" on Farrah Fawcett's career.  It helped to demonstrate to critics, audiences, and Hollywood that Fawcett was no flash-in-the-pan, but a talented and under-utilized actress who was looking for the right roles that would accentuate her strengths in projecting earthy intelligence, as well as disarming warmth and humanity.  While I can't say for certain that Fawcett accurately portrayed what Joan Robinson Hill was like in real life, I would make the case that she certainly gives one a positive impression of what Mrs. Hill might have been like with her sincere and sympathetic performance. 

1 comment:

  1. Very nice review of a heart-wrenching movie, well done


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