Made for TV movies about true stories have a few strikes against them from the beginning. Often, due to time constraints, real life events are condensed, which diminishes the dramatic impact. The limited production values also make them look cheap and campy, which is fine if you’re telling, say, The Jayne Mansfield Story, but isn’t so great if you’re dramatizing a horrific murder-suicide, as in 1981’s Death of a Centerfold, a movie that tries hard to be high drama, but ends up looking like a reenactment on America’s Most Wanted.
Based on the death of Playmate of the Year Dorothy Stratten, a true story far too gruesome to be watered down and made appropriate for network television (if you’re feeling in too good of a mood, read the Pulitzer Prize winning Village Voice article about it), it stars Jamie Lee Curtis as Dorothy, and Hill Street Blues‘ Bruce Weitz as Paul Snider, her husband and eventual killer. Both are woefully miscast–Curtis looks nothing like Dorothy, and, though she makes a yeoman’s effort, she just isn’t convincing as a wide eyed naif whose blind trust in the men in her life ultimately seals her doom. While Weitz is absolutely convincing as a murderous scumbag, he’s simply too old to play Snider, only in his late twenties when the events of the movie take place, though he does wear a series of impressive gold medallions, including an Italian horn pendant that looks to be nearly two inches long.
“Based on a true story” made for TV movies can often be neatly fit into just two categories: the descent into tragedy (as seen in last week’s The Jayne Mansfield Story), and the triumph over adversity (a third category is, of course, the other two categories combined). Though the former is always more entertaining for sheer camp value, the latter has its own pleasures too, particularly when the adversity triumphed over doesn’t seem all that terrible in the grand scheme of things.
The Loneliest Runner narrowly meets the criteria of “based on a true story.” The names and general circumstances are changed, but the core plot of the movie is inspired by an actual event, that of Michael Landon overcoming chronic bed wetting and growing up to play Pa Ingalls, bearer of the best hair on the prairie. Landon briefly appears as himself, or rather, a fictionalized version of himself, playing runner John Curtis, winner of the 26 mile marathon at the Olympics. While waiting to be interviewed about his victory (in a race in which there don’t appear to be any other competitors), he reflects on what brought him to that momentous occasion.
Thanks to social media, it’s now easier than ever to become “famous,” often for doing as little as Tweeting a joke (or someone else’s joke, if you’re Josh Ostrowsky). Sometimes you don’t even need to try–merely saying something funny in a “man on the street” interview will turn you into someone’s “spirit animal.” Back in Hollywood’s golden age, however, you had to work hard to get publicity, let alone keep it, and no one worked harder than Jayne Mansfield.
Now remembered mostly for being Mariska Hargitay’s mother, and the closest thing Marilyn Monroe had to real competition (but not for being decapitated in a grisly car crash, as urban legend has it), Jayne Mansfield turned publicity stunts into an art form, at a level not seen since P.T. Barnum. While Monroe crafted an image of herself as a fragile little girl in the body of a sex goddess, Mansfield came on like a human Tex Avery cartoon, all big boobs and bigger hair, somehow both cute and a little sleazy at the same time. Though she claimed to be a member of Mensa who could speak five languages, Mansfield’s real genius lay in arranging well timed nip slips and burst dress seams, often upstaging more famous counterparts like Jane Russell and Sophia Loren, to the delight of tabloids.
Much like her modern counterpart Anna Nicole Smith, the press treated Mansfield with both slobbering delight and snide derision, running photos of her semi-nude while also criticizing her “confus[ing] publicity and notoriety with stardom and celebrity” in a way that was “very distasteful to the public.” Also like Smith, Mansfield was either unwilling or unable to move past the image that made her famous, and ended up an unpleasant pop culture joke, dying suddenly before she reached forty. Other than a documentary released last year about her rumored involvement with Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, and an episode of Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This, Mansfield has gradually faded from the collective memory, a relic of Hollywood’s misogynistic past (not that it’s not still misogynistic, of course, just in a less overt, tits in your face sort of way).
I’ve been engaging in this pointless endeavor for more than three years. I’ve rewatched many hours of television from my childhood, with my feelings towards them ranging from warm, soothing nostalgia to abject horror that such a thing ever existed. Often I’m just puzzled. There were a lot of baffling decisions made, particularly with television of the 70s. Though the medium had existed for over two decades by that point, there still seemed to be a lot of confusion as to exactly what could be done with it, and how to do it. Perhaps it really was just radio but with pictures. Or, perhaps it could be a viable alternative to movies. Or, perhaps it could be a new way to showcase beautiful women in tight and/or skimpy clothing. Or it was the most effective advertising platform businesses had ever (or would ever, until the internet) had in their grasp. It was all of these things. It was none of these things. But, try it all anyway, just in case, to see what works best.
This was particularly true of variety shows, that great though now long dead genre that people like Rosie O’Donnell and Martin Short have tried numerous times to revive, with resoundingly unimpressive results. As I’ve written about time and time again, variety shows were a fascinating experiment in the “throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks” method of entertainment, with no clear indication as to who the audience was, and cast with a mix of performers who were known largely for appearing on other variety shows, and those who had no recognizable affinity (let alone talent for) singing, dancing, or doing comedy. Whether there was a palpable desperation to make it work, or an air of utter indifference, they were always entertaining to watch.
This year marks 35 years since the release of E.T., Steven Spielberg’s greatest child friendly movie, if not one of the greatest movies of all time overall. In recent years, film aficionados have tried their darndest to dismiss Spielberg as an overrated hack who works in sloppy sentimentality like Van Gogh worked in oils. E.T. in particular has been retconned as an exercise in fooling audiences into mistaking empty nostalgia for actual human emotion. To this I say cram it, nerds, it’s still a great movie, and Spielberg is still a great director, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull aside.
It also, of course, spawned a number of atrocious rip-offs, including Nukie, and the even more infamous Mac and Me, one of the most cynical children’s movies ever made, where fully half the action takes place inside a McDonald’s restaurant. One could even make the case for surprise TV smash ALF being, at the very least, inspired by E.T. The basic plots are the same: an alien ends up accidentally left on Earth and is taken in by a human family, where he quickly bonds with their young son. The family must go out of their way to hide the alien from shady government agents who mean to do it harm. Where E.T. sends the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride through wonder, terror, grief, and joy, however, ALF was mostly just about what happens when you splice a teddy bear with Borscht Belt comedian Shecky Greene, and give him a long, phallic nose.
As our country continues its train ride into Hell, driven by a conductor who speaks in an inscrutable word salad, much like the Man From Another Place in Twin Peaks, it’s important to keep in mind that the concept of #MAGA, that dream world our President and his most ardent supporters speak about, never really existed. There’s never been a time when everyone had a Cadillac in their driveway, and people (wink) knew their place (nudge). The rich have always dominated the poor, teenagers have always been having sex, women have always been getting abortions, and the gays have always been gay. Other than the fact that you can now send a picture of a dancing hot dog to someone within less than a second, the world hasn’t changed all that much.
Remember last Christmas, when we all looked askance at parents who went to insane lengths to buy Hatchimals, the media hyped “hot toy” of the year? People lined up outside of stores before dawn, got into fistfights with each other over the last one, and paid up to ten times the price to predatory opportunists online. This year? You can get them for $20 at Big Lots. They can’t get rid of these things. But, it’s okay, as long as the rest of us who didn’t participate in such nonsense can smirk in satisfaction and judgment over what parents today will do in order to appease their spoiled brats.
But, here’s the thing (and I know that most people know this, but seem to conveniently forget it in favor of smug superiority): this exact same thing happens every few years, and has for decades. Before that, there was Tickle Me Elmo. Then there were Furbies, then Tamagotchis, and then Tickle Me Elmo again, for the first time. Before any of that, however, there were Cabbage Patch Kids.
NOTE: I’m on a brief break (fear not, returning next week!), so this is a slightly edited post from last year, which seems to fit well with November’s theme.
When you get to a certain age (say, 30), it becomes time to make a difficult decision: you can either continue to embrace the new and trendy in pop culture, or you can firmly dig your feet in and grumpily insist that what “the kids today,” some of whom might be a whole decade or so younger than you, are into isn’t nearly as good as what you enjoyed in your youth.
Once we were rendered a casualty in the war for relevance between the Baby Boomers and Millennials, members of Generation X became especially skilled in kidding ourselves into believing that our pre-smartphones and Wikipedia childhoods were somehow better, more pure than today. This is true. It was an innocent time where kids could ride their bicycles without helmets, and only occasionally die of massive head injuries after an accident (social Darwinism, amirite?), when gay teens would suffer in silence until they got old enough to run away from their shitty small towns, never to be heard from again, and when men could be abusive drunks to their families, and as long as he was supporting them financially it was no one else’s business.
It was also a time when men could extol the romantic and sexual virtues of teenage girls without anyone looking at them askance.
And so, we wrap things up with the most memorable movie in this trilogy of tastelessness, The Amy Fisher Story. Memorable not just because of who was tapped for the leading role, it presents the interesting (and probably mostly true) theory that everyone involved in the “Long Island Lolita” case was a craven opportunist, all but tripping over each other to get a piece of the action. Told from the third party perspective of a newspaper reporter, not one single character comes off well, and even the audience is left feeling a little dirty and ashamed for watching it.
In this version, Amy Fisher is played by Drew Barrymore, in what could reasonably be described as “stunt casting.” Barrymore, younger than Fisher but somehow looking and acting at least a decade older (the distractingly bad wig she wears doesn’t help), was in the middle of her post-rehab “comeback,” still mostly taking roles meant to prove to audiences that she wasn’t cute little Gertie in E.T. anymore. A great example of how Hollywood is a healthy and happy place for young women (or really just women in general) is the fact that The Amy Fisher Story was the second movie in less than a year in which Barrymore, not even eighteen yet, was cast as a murderous teen sexpot who has a steamy affair with a man far too old for her. While comparing The Amy Fisher Story to Poison Ivy is similar to comparing a boil to a sebaceous cyst, The Amy Fisher Story manages to come out slightly ahead.
It’s said that there are three sides to every story–yours, mine, and the truth. Sometimes, as with the three TV movies recounting the Amy Fisher-Joey Buttafuoco scandal, those sides are so far removed from each other that one is unsure if they’re even about the same incident. Particularly in comparing Casualties of Love: the Long Island Lolita Story to last week’s Lethal Lolita, the only things the two have in common are the characters’ names, and the setting. Beyond that, despite both of them professing to be the real true story, they vary so wildly in tone and “facts” that the viewer ends up feeling a little gaslit. Did Joey put Amy up to shooting his wife? Was Amy a prostitute of her own volition? Had Joey committed statutory rape? Is blue red? Is the tortoise a shoe? When’s lunch?
Lethal Lolita may have given Amy Fisher the opportunity to tell her side of the story first, but Joey and Mary Jo Buttafuoco were allowed their rebuttal just a week later. And oh boy, it’s some premium processed cheese food. Though there was never a point in the proceedings when Joey didn’t come off as at least a little shady (and certainly opportunistic), by the time Casualties of Love aired public opinion had turned against him enough that his participation in a movie in which he’s portrayed as a put upon blue collar mook whose only crime was being nice to a crazy, slutty teenager was, if not outright gross, certainly ill-timed and inappropriate.
Only 90s kids will remember when we as a collective society became obsessed with, in equal parts revulsion and titillation, the story of a high school student who, evidently distraught over her affair with a man twice her age, shot and almost killed his wife. The student was Amy Fisher, and her lover was the improbably named Joey Buttafuoco. In probably the best (or worst, depending on how you look at it) example of the pre-internet obsession with taking sad, sordid tales of sex and/or violence and turning them into inescapable news stories, it was a situation that started out as merely unpleasant and eventually became something so irredeemably gross that to read about it left you wishing you could remove your eyes and boil them.
While Buttafuoco at first denied the affair and claimed that he had no idea why Fisher would shoot his wife, eventually he admitted that, whoops, he had been sleeping with her after all, starting when she was sixteen. Spending a few months in jail for statutory rape neither shamed nor humbled him, however, and it became quickly apparent that Buttafuoco kind of liked being a minor celebrity, and was all too happy to capitalize on his wife’s brutal attack to keep that fame train a-rollin’. He did interviews with Howard Stern, and courted near constant media attention, becoming both a punchline on Late Night With David Letterman, and a sort of folk hero for other middle aged schlubs whose fondest fantasy was that an unremarkable looking teenage girl might one day cast an eye in their direction too.