Thursday, June 25, 2009

Farrah Fawcett: 1947-2009

An Appraisal: Sex Symbol Who Wanted to be More:

She really tried. And for a sex symbol that alone can be like an accomplishment.

A scrim of sadness covers Farrah Fawcett’s career. Her stardom traced that cautionary Hollywood arc: meteoric fame followed by years spent trying first to overcome it, then, too late, seeking to recapture it.

There were many less successful performances as well and cameo roles in B movies, but Ms. Fawcett kept trying, and that’s more than can be said of many of today’s fading stars who coast on surgically preserved looks, cable reality shows and the culture’s insatiable hunger for celebrity abasement.

Bea Arthur, who died at 86 after a long, varied and joyous career, accomplished many things, perhaps most notably making the case on “Maude” and “The Golden Girls” that an older woman with a large frame, beak nose and stentorian voice could be an object of male desire. Ms. Fawcett was not as talented or as versatile. Still, while at the peak of her career she tried to show skeptics that an object of male desire can hold her own in roles usually reserved for less glamorous, better trained actresses.

Though, of course, it was her early work that kept her famous. Nobody in recent memory comes close to the giddy heights Farrah Fawcett reached in the mid-’70s with one season on “Charlie’s Angels” and That Poster. The pinup of Ms. Fawcett in a red one-piece bathing suit, tanned, head tossed, body lithe yet curvy, was a revelation. She looked delicious but also a little carnivorous, her gleaming white teeth frozen in a friendly but slightly feral smile. That poster ended up on every teenage boy’s bedroom wall and in the annals of pop culture — Farrah was the face, body and hair of the 1970s.
I can attest to that. As a kid growing up in the 1970's I don't remember anyone who didn't have that poster (above) up on their wall, be it male, female, child, adolescent or adult. Boys fantasized about her while girls wanted to be her (if one could measure hair in terms of explosions, the "Farrah" style was a hydrogen bomb). Next to Nixon's infamous "victory sign" at the helicopter after he resigned the presidency, Fawcett's bathing suit poster is the one iconic image that stands out in my mind from that decade (and childhood).

Today, of course, we recognize the perils of gender objectification, body image and the like, but we often focus more on the dangers for those who strive to attain "the look" rather than its effect on those who actually have it. As the appraisal notes, Fawcett spent much of her life battling against the brain-dead, straight jacketed image we automatically attach to those who represent what Wolfe called "the beauty myth".

Toward the end, her private life — her son’s drug problems, her on-and-off relationship with the troubled Ryan O’Neal — eclipsed decades of work. Cancer brought it to an end.

Not all of her performances will stand the test of time, but what is worth remembering is how hard Farrah Fawcett tried.

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