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'Chasing Farrah'
a parody out of time

She became in time a capable actress, too late

By Ed Robertson

   In the annals of pop culture, Farrah Fawcett will always evoke images of dazzling white teeth, a hot swimsuit poster, a hair style imitated by millions, and of course “Charlie’s Angels.”  When we think of Fawcett, these thoughts come to mind: pretty face, head full mostly of air. As we jog our memory further, we recall her meltdown on "David Letterman."
   The last thing that comes to mind is an actress of some depth and talent. Yet Fawcett is very much that.  
   When we watch Fawcett in “Chasing Farrah,” the pseudo-reality series that airs Wednesdays at 10 on TV Land, we are witnessing a living example of a talented actress whose career has been turned into a parody through very poor decisions. What good work she has done, on TV and on the stage, has been mulched in with the worst moments of her career. And it is those worst moments she is remembered by.
    Looking back, one wonders how such a promising career could get sideswiped. Fawcett had everything going for her in 1977.  She was starring in “Angels,” the No. 1 show on television, she had the top-selling poster in the country, and her face was plastered all over newsstands.  In a national survey, more than 14,000 high school students named Fawcett their No. 1 hero, topping world leaders such as President Jimmy Carter.
   But early on
Fawcett was paying a price for her fame, and it was in the strain her career was putting on her marriage to “Six Million Dollar Man” star Lee Majors. She was unhappy over the long hours "Angels" demanded, hours that kept her away from her husband. Things were not helped by the fact that Majors was distressed to see his wife's career suddenly eclipse his own.
  Fawcett, a
cting on bum advice from her manager, announced she would leave “Charlie’s Angels” after one season to pursue a career in movies. 
  That was Bad Decision No. 1. “Angels” producer Aaron Spelling immediately sued Fawcett for breaching her contract. The court eventually ordered the actress back to the show in 1978. 
  But the damage to Fawcett's career was already done. Critics excoriated her for leaving the show. 
   In any case, Fawcett was not ready for the movies.
Though she had shown some promise as an actress prior to “Angels,” notably playing opposite David Janssen in “Harry O,” Fawcett’s resume at that point consisted primarily of bit parts and TV commercials. Given the hit status of “Angels,” it would have made far more sense for her to stick it out as she honed her craft as an actress. The movies could wait.
  As predicted, Fawcett failed spectacularly as a film actress in her early films. Her acting was bad, and the movies she chose largely stunk.
But Fawcett kept at it. She got better, much better. In 1984  she won acclaim as an abused housewife in “The Burning Bed.” It was the first in a string of projects in the ‘80s and ‘90s that established Fawcett as a credible, competent actress: “Extremities,” “Margaret Bourke-White,” “Small Sacrifices.” 
  Now comes Bad Decision No. 2. In 1997, Fawcett turned 50, and the actress chose to mark the occasion by posing nude in a video for Playboy called “Farrah Fawcett: All of Me.” 
  But that wasn't the bad decision, as questionable as it must have seemed to many.
Bad Decision No. 2 was showing up on 'The Late Show with David Letterman” to promote the video. She should have been prepared. She was not. She came across dazed, confused, easily rattled and pretty much out of it. This became the famous meltdown, and it tails after Fawcett to this day as a piece of toilet paper stuck to a shoe, a moment in pop culture. 
    Fawcett has since earned raves for her performances in “The Apostle” and “Dr. T and the Women.” It matters not. She's still the fading airhead actress who lost it on "Letterman."
   Now to Bad Decision No. 3. Turn on your TV set tonight for “Chasing Farrah.” That's it.
   Why would an actress who has spent decades working to be taken seriously appear in a series that is little more than a spoof of the pop culture phenomenon she's become?
  The series follows Fawcett as she makes various media appearances celebrating her earlier self and her encounters with devoted fans. Like “The Anna Nicole Show” and “Fat Actress,” the series mixes actors with actual people.  Most of the dialogue ad-libbed. Unlike its predecessors, “Farrah” is less sitcom-like in structure. The vignettes that comprise each show are loosely tied to the overall theme of A Day in the Life of Farrah, making the series episodic in the truest sense of the word. 
   But there’s a scattered sense to the series. The gimmick is that some admirers are genuine while others are played by actors. To keep Fawcett’s reactions as real as possible, the producers don’t always tell her which admirers are which. The result: Fawcett comes off as clueless, reinforcing her image as aging space cadet. 
  Yet in an odd and likely unintended way, “Chasing Farrah” contributes to our pop cultural understanding. It reminds us of how deeply rooted television has become in our memories. In the early days, a show premiered, ran its course, and was replaced by another series. If the show went into reruns, it stayed in the public eye for a while. Once the reruns ran their course, the show disappeared forever. 
  Not anymore. We now seem to remember it all, down to the UltraBrite commercials and Wella Balsam spots that made Farrah so appealing in the first place. 
The effect is an odd one. While enormously forgiving in some ways, we are less forgetful. And when it comes to Farrah Fawcett, sadly, the memories are particularly unkind.

April 13, 2005 © 2005 Media Life

- Ed Robertson is a television historian and a regular contributor to Media Life. 

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