June 25, 2009

Scrapbook: Farrah Fawcett-Majors

The untimely (62 is too young) death of Farrah Fawcett is sad, but knowing in advance that she was dying was deeply distressing. Well before the airing of Farrah's Story, I was keeping track of her condition, awaiting the inevitable. She eventually chose to tell the full story of her cancer journey, and then we knew exactly what kind of living hell she bravely persevered through.

It made me think of Paul Newman, who surely went through the same kind of cancer hell, but he and his family worked hard to hide this from the public, who only had a few brief heads up that he was dying. Because of this privacy, the news of his death became a celebration of his life and accomplishments rather than a study of his terminal illness.

But Farrah made the decision to let us in on the illness phase, and it created a new level of empathy and connection with a lady who was, technically, a stranger. For anyone who has personally experienced family or friends dying of cancer, you know that their death comes as a relief - they are finally free of the pain. So, rather than sadness, I reacted to Farrah's death with a great sense of relief: relieved that she was released from the prison of her own body, and relieved that I could now give up this unusual form of extended grieving for someone I didn't really know.

Turns out millions of us feel like we did know her, as highlighted by the media comments and remembrances by us common folk. The one commentary that struck me the most came from Greg Archer on The Huffington Post because it so closely mirrors my experiences and reactions to those early days of Farrah Mania, especially the parts about getting a skateboard and the scrapbook. Archer had three of them! I only made one, and since it was never thrown away, I can now share some of the pages with you.

Leafing through this nearly-ancient and rotting 3-ring binder has been a touching way to remember Farrah and my 5th grade self, as well as a fascinating study of sudden stardom, media saturation and how the woman at the center of it spent the majority of her life trying to get out from under it.

Because I was a grade school TV junkie, I'd seen Farrah plenty of times. She was Lady Shick, and the Noxema girl, and the Mercury lady who cavorted with a cougar. Because I was a magazine junkie, I knew her as the gal hawking Wella Balsm, Winchester cigars and jewelry. Then she began showing up in magazines like Rona Barrett's Hollywood and Gossip because she was the wife of Lee Majors, which didn't mean all that much to me because I just wasn't a fan of bionic people.

Then in September of 1976, out of nowhere, came Charlie's Angels and BOOM - it was full-time Farrah. Oh sure, the other two Angels were crucially important (I even named my first cat Sabrina): little girls typically never played cops and robbers until the girl detectives burst into our lives, and there being 3 of them made group re-enactment a democratic form of make-believe. But re-creating Roller Derby Angels couldn't get under way until resolving long, intense debates over who got to be Jill.

Jill Munroe being the favorite angel among little girls was not all that mysterious or complicated. Kelly Garrett was impossibly beautiful and sneaky, procuring secret information and suddenly unleashing mad karate; she was dangerous. Sabrina Duncan was cute and brainy, plotting strategy and putting thugs in their place; she was authoritarian.

But Jill Munroe was physical - skating, skateboarding, diving, dancing, jumping and punching - and fearless and friendly and slightly silly. She also had the coolest car, the coolest clothes and would clearly be the most the most fun Angel to hang out with. Jill was like the ultimate big sister and/or the embodiment of what you hoped being an adult would be like.

But Jill was nothing in comparison to Farrah. Everything about her was fresh, abundant and slightly alien, starting with that very unusual name and ending with that hair.

Previous to Farrah, ladies' hair was either meticulously styled and glued into place or stick straight and parted down the middle. Then suddenly, there was bangs and layers and wings and movement; even when standing still, Farrah's hair seemed lifted in a constant breeze. It was a mesmerizing spectacle, compelling most every female of every age to layer their hair and attack it with curling irons and hot rollers to studiously achieve the care-free look.

Previous to Farrah, female sex symbols were curvy and stacked and presented like dolls in a display window. Then suddenly, an athletic build and a healthy glow was sexy and attainable. Farrah wasn't busty (it was more about nipples than cup size) so was unencumbered by a bra. She wasn't hourglass so wasn't confined by tight clothes exaggerating the obvious. Her physical presence conveyed movement, and freedom and fun. Whereas Raquel Welch's cartoonish sexiness elicited women's jealousy, it was easier to approximate and benefit from Farrah's new kind of sex appeal.

Farrah was not classically beautiful. This became apparent when she stood next to Jaclyn Smith, who had the traditionally exquisite kind of face that maybe only .1% of the female population possesses. Instead, Farrah had an energy and charisma that combined with that hair and that smile to project a a new and revolutionary personality.

I remember a Vogue magazine spread with Farrah, wherein the writer revealed that the photo shoot crew were first shocked and then relieved to see her legs were peppered with scrapes and bruises, the true hallmark of an active person. They realized she wasn't perfect and thus adored her even more. Farrah created a new standard of beauty and desirability, and healthy, casual and robust was something every female could realistically achieve. Previously rigid standards of beauty were finally buried.

Her allure was immediately apparent, but that is a job requirement of most Hollywood folk, and instant hit TV shows happen all the time. So what was the key to rapid fire Farrah Mania?

The Baby Boomers had Beatle Mania, and that flash flood cultural revolution was due, in part, to the deft media manipulation of their manager, Brian Epstein. For the Generation X version of Beatle Mania, Farrah's Epstein was Jay Bernstein. And just as most Beatle fanatics knew who Brian was, same went for Jay. I remember a TV Guide article that reported the floor of the pool at his mansion had a mural of the famous Farrah Fawcett poster. He was an important - and fascianting - character in the story of Farrah.

Bernstein had a rare flower and he deftly threw out the seeds, growing dolls, toys, posters, T-shirts, trading cards, lunch boxes and folders.

Books and special edition magazines sprung up like dandelions on the newsstands, and for a generation of young kids attuned to Tiger Beat and MAD, we plucked them with fervor.

For the older folks, Bernstein made sure Farrah was always on the cover of some magazine that reached precise demographics. And if she wasn't a cover feature, her lingering contract with Wella Balsm made sure she would still be somewhere inside every issue of Redbook and Cosmopolitan. Today, it is deeply touching that People magazine did such a wonderful job of documenting all the milestones of Farrah's life.

A key component of Beatle Mania was the distinct look and personality of each Beatle, which made it easy to emulate them by adopting a few key ingredients, like the mop top. Farrah had That Hair, and magazines endlessly shared diagrams of exactly how to get that look. Even though most of us failed spectacularly at achieving the precise Farrah Flip (they warned us that she had very thick hair), it did insert Feathered Hair into the eternal lexicon of hair styles. Even my thin and fine 5th grade hair received a boost from having layers, which is one of the reasons variations of the Farrah 'do will never completely die off.

Once millions of women had approximations of That Hair, what better way to celebrate this achievement than with Farrah Look Alike Contests! For the thousands of new suburban shopping malls springing up across America, there was no better way to bring in customers than to invite ladies' to competitively duplicate Farrah for cash prizes and shopping sprees, and bring along your family and friends.

In North County St. Louis, we had our Farrah Look Alike Contest at the freshly-opened Jamestown Mall. The mother of one of my school mates entered the competition because she felt that her tan, her frosted blond hair with banana curls and her blue eyes made her a sure bet. But as she paraded around the stage in a navy blue one-piece swimsuit smiling so wide her neck veins bulged, it became embarrassingly clear that she'd made a huge miscalculation. For several days afterward, it was difficult for her children to look her in the eye.

The winner of that contest actually did look awfully similar to Farrah, and this achievement earned her local celebrity status for several years afterward. Even better? I ran across this lady at a Famous-Barr department store in the mid-1990s, and she looked exactly the same! In the best possible Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? way, she had preserved every iota of that 1977 Farrah-ness, and considering that Farrah herself couldn't even do it if she wanted to, I about cried with happiness over this demented bit of physical nostalgia.

In August 1977, the overheated race car that was Farrah Mania hit a huge speed bump with the news that she was leaving Charlie's Angels. The emotional and fiscal impact this had would be equal to the absurd notion of The Beatles breaking up in 1965. I wasn't alone in my instant dislike for the newest Angel, Cheryl Ladd.

While the producers of the television show sued Farrah for breach of a non-existent contract (which ended in Farrah returning to the show for 6 episodes during Seasons 3 and 4), Jay Bernstein continued throwing logs into the fire.

The media was still cranking out Farrah magazines, posters and T-shirts.

And new variations of her hairdo were still worthy of cover story placement. See, Farrah was not going away, she just wouldn't be on TV once a week, so there's no need to panic or get angry.

The Farrah PR juggernaut worked all the angles: she left the show because her husband couldn't take it anymore (the Good Wife angle) and they wanted to start a family (the Good Mother angle), and she wanted a chance to become a real actress (the Movie Star angle). So, the focus shifted from her being a phenomenon to wanting to earn the right to be so damn famous by returning to films. A constant stream of news and photos from the set of her new movie mingled with the introduction of The Fawcett necklace.

Somebody Killed Her Husband opened September 1978, and we went on opening weekend to see it. My mother and I went to the movies constantly, and she had long ago stopped restricting me to kiddie films, so I had seen a large number of the movies for adult audiences, and had developed a good critical radar from constant exposure to and passion for movies.

That back story is required for my 7th grade opinion that Somebody Killed Her Husband was actually really good. Even my mother - who did a good job of pretty much ignoring Farrah - liked it. It had an engrossing murder mystery plot, Jeff Bridges was great as usual, and it was easy to overlook that it was "Farrah" because she did a solid job of being "Jenny." I was relieved that the movie worked, and that Farrah had not made a mistake in leaving Charlie's Angels.

Seems I'm the only one who thought that... or saw it. It eventually made its way to VHS (and I liked it even better many years later), but never to DVD. It's a case where bizarrely overblown stardom coupled with relative shock over her career choice created no chance to meet the unusually high expectations for such a small, unassuming film. Maybe her passing will bring about a reassessment of this time period of her work; there's nothing to be embarrassed about with this picture.

But her first flop was no big concern because Faberge unleashed a line of Farrah Fawcett hair care products!

So all the rabid Farrah fans that didn't see Somebody Killed Her Husband still saw her regularly in magazine ads and television commercials for the products. Here's the first commercial, and this is the second commercial.

I instantly noticed that "Majors" had been dropped from her name, and wondered what that was about. But I let it drop because the stuff was really great. I'm not the only Gen Xer who still vividly remembers the smell of the shampoo and conditioner; it was sweet with vanilla underscored by enticing spices.

Come the release of Farrah's second post-Angels film, Sunburn, in August 1979, Farrah Mania was truly past tense. Even I didn't bother to go see it, and have still yet to see it because it never merited much more than an illegal release on Japanese DVD.

And the same goes for Saturn 3, released February 1980, which for me personally wasn't worth the trip to a movie theater because it was a sci-fi flick (same reason I still haven't seen her 1976 film Logan's Run).

During this one-year time period, she separated from Lee Majors (thus the dropping of "Majors" from her name), took up with Ryan O'Neal, and parted ways with manager Jay Bernstein. In retrospect, these were neon signs of a woman forcefully excising oppressive features of her life (husband, manager and fame) in order to figure out what really mattered for her career and personal satisfaction.

In essence, she purposely walked away from it all at the height of crazy fame, making her trajectory not unlike J.D. Salinger or Greta Garbo, but actually more akin to Leonardo DeCaprio recoiling in fear after Titanic, some 20 years later. Yes, she continued to work, but only under her own terms.

Over the years, Farrah has addressed how insane the heightened fame was, and how it instilled a need in her to control her privacy, which usually turned out to be a futile aim despite her best efforts. Because of the speed and impact of her ascendancy, she was forever an icon and would forever fight to keep it in control and in perspective. Her thoughts on the matter are really no different than what has been expressed by all the former Beatles, with the major difference being she checked out from it far sooner and far more successfully than any of them did.

It wasn't until August 1977 that she determined what kind of acting career she wanted, and it took another 7 years for her to hone that talent and finally receive the respect and validation she needed.

Let's not forget that she was, essentially, a good Catholic Girl ( after one divorce, she never remarried and she surely bore the unorthodoxy of an unwed pregnancy in 1985 even more than the general public did), so it's easy to imagine the guilt she felt over undeserved success and fame. What is most deserving of respect and admiration is how drastically she moved to correct it, and how hard she worked to achieve the right balance of personal and professional that would make her comfortable in her own skin.

Her personal journey is another reason she has remained such an intriguing icon to both Boomer and Gen X women. The first quarter of her life was about following the rules, while the rest of her life was about writing and re-writing her own rules. It wasn't always smooth, it wasn't always pretty, but a life lived honestly never is, and if someone as blessed as Farrah - who had no choice but to live it partially in public - could trip, fall and always get back up again,then maybe we could, too. We couldn't have her hair, but we could use her as a barometer and inspiration.

The Golden Girl who always had it all and continuously threw it all away in her search for something true had come to her final chapter. Because of all the previous chapters of her life, she was fully equipped and fully prepared to face the ultimate meaning of her life, which is why her decision to let us in on the most painful, final chapter of her life has such resonance: she had nothing left to fear because naked honesty is the final reward that all spiritual practices aim for, and she finally attained it.

We have all noted the bravery of her final years, but when looking back on her life, that bravery was always there; we just didn't quite see it because of all the trappings of beauty and crazy fame. But even though we didn't acknowledge it until the end, she lived it every day, and she more than validated the reasons why we have been so captivated by her for so many decades. She has earned the rights of her iconic status, and she has earned the right to rest in peace.