“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.
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.
You can’t keep a good bloodsucker down. Vampires may not be “in” right now, but they’ll surely rise again, because we love stories about tragic, misunderstood monsters, especially when you add in some sex and violence. There’s at least a small part of all of us who wouldn’t mind the idea of eternal life as a supernatural being who can command absolute control over anyone we want. Or at least, be able to pull off wearing a cape.
1979 was a banner year for vampires. Frank Langella redefined the lead role of Dracula. Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot was adapted into a two part miniseries. Klaus Kinski was an all too convincing Nosferatu. There was the inevitable comedy, with Love at First Bite. And, of course, there was a TV series–or at least, an attempt at a TV series, with a feature length pilot simply called Vampire.
Being raised by parents who cared little about what I did as long as I came home each night with all my limbs intact, I read pretty much whatever I wanted as a child. I read The Shining at age nine, even though I really didn’t understand it much. Not long after that I read a book called The Piercing, about a girl who suffers from stigmata after the Devil sodomizes her. Let me be clear, I had no idea what sodomy was (and stigmata even less so), I just knew that it was bad.
One book I always avoided, though, because it just seemed too frighteningly plausible, was Go Ask Alice. Purportedly the real diary of a teenage girl whose very first time experimenting with drugs sends her spiraling into an abyss of addiction, promiscuity, crime, and violence, it was banned in most schools and libraries, even as most recently as 2007. Even after it was revealed sometime in the 80s to be fiction, Alice remains one of the most challenged books of all time, and you’d be amazed to realize just how many gullible souls not only still think it’s real, but believe that it somehow inspired Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” released four years earlier.
You know you had a mediocre public school education when the “health teacher” did double duty teaching another class. In my school, it was usually either a gym teacher or a football coach, and all you had to do to pass was show up. Despite the rise of HIV and ever increasing teenage pregnancy rates, virtually all of what we learned in health class was related to the dangers of alcohol and drug use, and most of that we learned by watching made for TV movies, while the teacher sat with his feet up on the desk reading about how the Eagles were doing that week.
A popular one with my health teacher was 1985’s Not My Kid. We watched it in seventh grade. We watched it in eighth grade. By ninth grade, we could all but quote along from it, like The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I’m not sure why my teacher liked it so much, when there existed far more grisly cautionary tales such as Stoned, in which a pot addled Scott Baio nearly kills his brother with a rowboat paddle, and Desperate Lives, in which an angel dusted Helen Hunt throws herself out a window. I can only assume that as an aged, bitter teacher, he enjoyed its frequent scenes of high school students reduced to blithering, tearful wrecks by adults who know better.
Nobody was put through more shit in the 70s than Linda Blair. While other young actresses got to do movies about the joys and pains of first love, or pursuing their dreams of stardom, the cherubic Blair, in a four year stretch of unrelenting misery, played an abused runawaywrongfully sent to reform school and sexually assaulted (Born Innocent), a gravely ill teenager trapped on a plane in danger of crashing (Airport 1975), a semi-illiterate farm girl kidnapped by a mentally ill man (Sweet Hostage, and if you think TV movies of today are too tawdry, it was marketed as a romantic drama), a hijacking victim (Victory at Entebbe), and a young woman tormented by her evil cousin (Summer of Fear). All that, plus starring in Exorcist II: the Heretic, which is enough suffering to endure for an entire decade on its own.
Thanks to 1975’s Sarah T.–Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic, Blair became the poster child for troubled teen made for TV movies. Though not the pioneer in the genre (that would be 1973’s Go Ask Alice), it was among the first to take both neglectful parents and irresponsible advertising to task for the growing problem of teen substance abuse. The movie opens with a spot-on parody of a beer commercial, where attractive young people joyously toss brewskis around like frisbees, intercut with a somber voiceover rattling off statistics about alcoholism and high school students.
I had mentioned in a review a few months back that I miss the days of melodramatic made for TV movies. Lifetime picked up what network television left behind, but there’s a distinct sense of self-awareness to their movies, not quite parody, yet still with a clear message: “We know this is corny, you know this is corny, let’s just accept that and have a good time.” And yet, the seriousness was what made those old movies so much fun! A movie like The Babysitter wouldn’t have been nearly as enjoyable if it came off like it was poking fun at the slasher genre. Cloris Leachman was 100% sincere when she performed the theme song for Someone I Touched, which makes it far more of a good time than stuff with titles like From Straight A’s to XXX or Stalked By My Doctor (let alone its sequel, Stalked By My Doctor: the Return).
Never again will we see anything as earnestly hokey as 1976’s The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. Starring John Travolta in one of his first major dramatic roles, it was loosely based on the true stories of David Vetter and Ted DeVita, both of whom suffered from illnesses that so severely compromised their immune systems that they had to permanently live inside sterile isolation tents. Though Vetter was barely five and DeVita an adolescent when the film was made, Travolta’s character, Tod Lubitch, is seventeen, presumably so much of the plot could focus on an interminable love story.
One my least favorite well worn movie and TV tropes is the love triangle. You want to lose my interest almost immediately? Have a couple of characters pretzeling themselves into all sorts of humiliating poses for the love of a third person, who rarely seems worth the effort. It’s the lazy writer’s tactic for injecting some extra drama into his or her script, despite it being a situation in which very few people in real life will find themselves. At least when a movie is entirely about a love triangle, as is 1983’s Baby Sister, you can revel in the inevitable melodrama and delicious cheese.
Some fine aged Gouda is served up right at the beginning, with the fantastic Laura Branigan-esque theme song, which goes “When the pressure is rising/and the heat comes down/it gets too sticky/to stick arooooooound/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/when it gets too hot/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool down/I gotta cool dowwwwwwwn/when it gets too hot.”
If you’ve been following my writing here long enough, then you’ll know that I often enjoy mocking people my age who wax poetic, to an absurd degree, about their childhoods, insisting that they were far better than the selfie and participation trophy laden childhoods of the present. Why, we drank filthy creek water and bought cigarettes for our parents, and it was great! Who needed the internet when you had a stack of ten year-old National Geographics in the back of the library?
It’s a little hard to maintain the illusion of goodness and purity of Gen X childhoods when you consider teensploitation. Teensploitation is exactly what it sounds like, a thankfully brief film genre of the late 70s-early 80s in which young people, usually girls, found themselves in dangerously adult situations. Sometimes they were runaways, sometimes they were prostitutes, sometimes they were runaway prostitutes. Sometimes they found themselves in prison, or stalked by a murderer. Whatever it was, two things always held true: the girls were always very innocent, and always wore very skimpy clothing, acting as both a cautionary tale for young female viewers, and wank fodder for male viewers of all ages.
Though Linda Blair in Born Innocent is probably the best remembered example of the genre, Eve Plumb had a good run at it too, with 1976’s Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway.Dawn was such a hit that it got a sequel just a year later, Alexander: the Other Side of Dawn, focusing on her kind-hearted boyfriend.
With the shocking election of Donald Trump as President came the news that white people are upset that they’re not as important as they used to be. Indeed, this is reflected in current media, where white people problems account for only 75% of the plots of movies and TV shows, as opposed to all of them. We’re just not seeing as many juicy dramas about lonely doctor’s wives, or bored, absurdly rich teens who spend much of their time either engaging in loveless sex or basking in the warm glow of their own ennui. We also just don’t see as much grade-A pulp like 1980’s The Babysitter, in which a miserable upper class family is torn to shreds by their manipulative, psychotic hired help.
The film opens with the Benedicts, newly moved to a remote island off the coast of Seattle. Dad Jeff (William Shatner) is a workaholic dentist, ignoring the needs of both his brittle, bitter wife Liz (Patty Duke) and their possibly emotionally disturbed, definitely creepy adolescent daughter Tara (Quinn Cummings), who spends much of her time alone, sullenly muttering to a rag doll. They seem to have it all, but, of course, still aren’t satisfied.