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).