Guest blogger Sean Kinsell can usually be found at WhitePeril.com, where he writes about popular culture, Japanese politics, the gay marriage debate, and other topics. Visit his blog for current thoughts on Michael Jackson and Madona's inevitable old age tour.
When I was living in Tokyo, a Japanese buddy of mine complained that Americans were hard to get to know. I found that strange, given how famously guarded the Japanese are when they meet you. But his point was that what made it hard to navigate with Americans (and Australians and Canadians—“Maybe it’s a former-colony thing,” he giggled) was that we seem completely open. We’re friendly and inquisitive and forthcoming about things Japanese people would never discuss in a million years with someone they’d just been introduced to. You can walk away from that first meeting thinking you know everything, a misjudgment you’d never make after a single conversation with a Japanese person. You think everything’s on the surface, my friend explained, and only afterward do you realize that your gabby, fun-loving American friend’s personality actually has hidden spaces.
That was the kind of image Farrah Fawcett embodied when she became famous: frankness rather than reserve. Quick action rather than contemplation. Playful sass rather than misgivings. The impression of full visibility. She conveyed the sense that she had nothing to fear from letting you see all the way in because her coolness and sexiness and confidence went all the way down. It was the illusion of no-maquillage attractiveness, the opposite of the geisha who has to spend years of training and a half-day of being dressed before she’s ready to walk out the door. Women saw her as a woman who could look pulled-together and radiant even while wearing a basketball uniform or sprinting in a ball gown. Men saw her as a woman who would be ready to look great on their arm at dinner without spending an hour in front of the mirror; they could touch her wonderful hair without feeling sticky hairspray and her cheeks without getting blusher on their cuffs.
Of course, reality was different. Fawcett wore make-up. Her clothes were altered to hug her body by the costume department rather than being bought off the rack at Nordstrom’s. Her best takes were selected so she seemed to have no bad angles on film. None of that makes her different from other actresses, but other actresses weren’t nearly as good at coming out at the end of the process seeming fresh and spontaneous.
All this may sound like a back-handed compliment: Fawcett was good at being a sexy, dumb blonde object. But I don’t think that was really how she came across, even on Charlie’s Angels. For one thing, part of the joke of that show—which the lead characters were explicitly in on—was that they were good detectives because the male (or butch female) criminals they were investigating underestimated them. Their assumption was that women beautiful enough to be new showgirls or models or what have you might naively "ask too many questions" but couldn’t possibly be working purposefully to solve their crimes.
And for another, lead roles in action series (as opposed to police procedurals) are rarely cerebral even if they’re men. The whole point is to see them going risky places and using their intuition to unravel things as they go along. What do you do when Charlie asks you to go undercover as some sort of self-displaying tart? You find a self-displaying-tart get-up in your size and get to work. What do you do when some spooked person seems to know something important? You question her then and there. What do you do when you’re looking for information on the malefactor? You walk politely up to his office, break in, and start riffling through his papers. The whole point of the Townsend Agency was to hire out detectives who went into the field and did something hands-on about the client’s problem.
But as the Charlie’s Angels brain trust realized, these things can read differently when female characters are involved, so in order to avoid the condescending "women’s intuition" trap, they assigned Kate Jackson’s Sabrina Duncan character the role of the "smart one." Unfortunately, they fell into a different trap, giving Sabrina a generic "braininess" that was frankly unbelievable. Her big thunderclaps of realization at 50 minutes past the hour were almost always both laughably obvious and contrived. By contrast, Fawcett and Jaclyn Smith were—yes, I’m dead serious—very plausible, even if the plots they were put through rarely were. They felt their way forward by hunches. Their risks often got them into hot water, but taking risks was the whole point of their job. And when they found themselves held at gunpoint by a gangster-flunkie in a leisure suit, it was precisely because their instincts had accurately led them to the source of the trouble. Jackson was most enjoyable to watch when she was undercover along with the others; she was her most annoying when she was back at the office with Bosley, fake-cogitating while Fawcett and Smith were out getting the actual work done.
While Smith and Fawcett had similar characters—confidently athletic when they needed to give chase and confidently sensual when they needed to flirt—they embodied them differently. With that smoky voice, that tangle of darkly lustrous hair, and those dark pools of shadow cast by her perfect features, Smith definitely seems like someone whose personality could have hidden spaces. The writers, with typically coarse excess, exploited that by giving her a preposterous back story. (She was damaged by being an orphan with an abusive foster mother who locked her in a closet and took away her dolly.) As for Fawcett, she had the sort of blonde beauty that was summery rather than springy: ash-blonde and dusty pastels rather than golden blonde and porcelain-clear peachiness. She looked as if she belonged outdoors—delicate and feminine but not fragile. All that sun, wind, and water appeared to have swept away anything dark.
Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t true. Fawcett had the same sorts of troubles anyone in her position would have, and she didn’t always handle them well. We found out about her darker self then, as she made misjudgment after misjudgment. That didn’t make her ’70s can-do, open Americanness a lie in and of itself; it just revealed that its apparent effortlessness had always been a fantasy. To her immense credit, Fawcett ultimately had the mettle to stay positive and forward-thinking when it wasn’t so easy. Just about every American family has a member who’s soldiered gamely through cancer treatments and eventually died with dignity among loved ones. Fawcett’s willingness to be part of that more everyday narrative is a sad but pleasing end to a public life that started by casting her as an icon.