Crime as Entertainment: A Necessary Evil
January 2, 1990
If you’re like me, you know perfectly well what you were doing during the summer of 1980. Waiting, along with approximately 83 million other hype-lashed Dallas fans, to hear who shot J.R. Ewing. Perhaps it was because the outcome was such a letdown — the perp, if you recall, was the petty conniver, Kristin — that the high crime and misdemeanors of the Ewings began to lose their charm.
Somewhere along the sweep of the decade, I found my attention diverted to more riveting stuff. The domestic psychodrama of Joel and Hedda. The pastoral cavorting of Robert and Jennifer, and, of course, the adolescent hijinks of Tawana Brawley. Night after night, I found myself rushing home — with an urgency I had not felt during my preceding years or so as a journalist — to catch the evening news. There to find Joel, Hedda, Tawana, et al. strutting and fretting upon a stage like day players in one enormous, long-running soap.
It would be no exaggeration to call the ’80s the decade of Crime as Entertainment. An epoch where fascination with “reality” permeated every nook and crevice of television. The first and most visible manifestation of the phenomenon was the unprecedented number of miniseries and movies-of-the-week based loosely upon true tales of mayhem. In 1981, there was Murder in Texas recreating the demise of Texas heiress and equestrian, Joan Hill. The following year brought The Executioner’s Song based upon Norman Mailer’s Pulitzer Prize–winning account of the felonious life and ultimate electrocution of Gary Gilmore. Nineteen-eighty-four was a bloody year, giving us both The Burning Bed and Fatal Vision, followed close upon by the following year’s extravaganza, The Atlanta Child Murders. Nineteen-eighty-seven produced not one, but two, network miniseries on the rather minor case of Frances Schreuder, a demented Mormon heiress who induced her son to kill her father. And, of course, in the closing months of the decade were offerings fresh off the newsstands: The Preppie Murder and Howard Beach: Making the Case for Murder.
Within the past three years, crime stories have become fodder for a pair of more novel formats: the populist slugfests of Morton Downey Jr. and Geraldo Rivera, and more recently, the evening tabloid magazines that Rupert Murdoch’s Fox Network churns out with assembly-line efficiency: A Current Affair, America’s Most Wanted, and The Reporters. All of this has raised the hackles of the journalistic establishment (always difficult to identify, but in this case the ringleaders seem to be Fred Friendly and Don Hewitt). These pundits routinely lament the disappearing distinction between fact and fiction, assail reenactments — you know, the footage where actors with features eerily similar to those of the actual principals plod broadly through scripted re-creations of the events — and join in cacophonous outcry against the evils of “trash television.”
Now, I’m no big fan of Geraldo, and reenactments leave me queasy. That fiction has no place on the evening news goes without saying. I felt as cheated as anyone else to learn that ABC’s footage of “Felix Bloch” handing a suitcase to the “CIA man” was a grainy fraud. But having said that, I will risk being smothered under an avalanche of lofty opprobrium by asking — is crime as entertainment necessarily evil? Put another way, might it not be a necessary evil?
As a practical matter, “tabloid TV” is simply doing what print journalism has done for nearly 200 years. No matter how infuriating the excesses of the print tabs may be, students of media have to concede that these raucous rags make their own unique contribution to a free marketplace of ideas. During the past nine years or so that I’ve been reporting crime, I’ve often found myself turning to the tabs to see how they handle second-day stories. In certain cases, their accounts are better reported — certainly more aggressively reported — than are those found in the supposed papers of record.
During the three years I spent in Boston working on a book about Dr. William Douglas, a research scientist who became entangled in an ultimately deadly affair with a prostitute, I observed the city’s two dailies covering that same story. The pious Globe approached it with distaste. As a result, it was beaten hands down by the raunchier, freewheeling Herald. But, you may ask, isn’t the Globe simply being discriminating? Isn’t it elevating public taste and morals by refusing to serve up salacious details? I think this is an unnecessarily charitable interpretation. By setting itself up as “too good” to cover certain stories — in this instance, one that elucidated the inner workings of science, law, and academe — a news organization is arbitrarily denying the public selective aspects of human affairs, flattering itself that it knows better what the public should be reading.
There is something to be said for being sensitive to what interests the public. If the people want to read about the last moments of Gary Gilmore or participate in a manhunt for America’s Most Wanted, one must ask oneself why. Is it simply, as many critics seem to suggest, that true crime appeals to deviant impulses? Or does it satisfy a deeper need? That this is a dangerous world there is no doubt. Unwary commuters are pushed onto subway tracks, women are raped in elevators, children are tortured with cigarette butts. Some people cope with the imminent possibility of such violence by denying the menace exists, effecting a willing suspension of disbelief. Others — and I include myself here — prefer to see the demons flushed out into the open. Whenever I see a report of a murder on the evening news, I feel a peculiar sense of relief. In large measure, I’m sure, because misfortune passed someone else’s way. But more particularly because someone has given a name to the horror and somehow reckoned with it. “Entertainment,” as such, becomes a form of exorcism.
The way daily newspapers reckon with events, however, is by its nature episodic and often confusing. It is small wonder that viewers tune into the tabloids and movies-of-the-week to see these same episodes rendered into comprehensible stories. The mere act of watching the random details of a violent act reworked into a narrative, I believe, affords humans some sense of control over their own experience. The persistent criticism leveled at the TV tabloids is that they are not “news.” Docudrama is not “history.” In short, they are not “truth.” But crime as entertainment may be capable of arriving at a truth that is truer than an agglomerate of fact.
I am always reminded of the opening line from Joan Didion’s White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” We look for the sermon in the suicide and the moral lesson in the murder. There is a yearning to look for meaning in tragedy and some of the better docudramas of the past decade have gone to the heart of the American experience. The Executioner’s Song demonstrated the chilling randomness of evil. The Burning Bed, for its part, dissected the perplexing coexistence of tenderness and hate in a violent marriage. These tales, drawn from richly idiosyncratic particulars, rise to the stature of American myths.
More often than not, however, the TV docudrama is rendered not as myth but as morality tale, squeezing the facts of a case into a hackneyed and even priggish formula. Having had the opportunity to report several of the major crime stories of the decade, I’ve also had the opportunity to see three of them made into TV movies. (Since I had no financial interest in any of these, I can discuss them with perfect candor.) Murder: By Reason of Insanity, the story of Adam Berwid, a mental patient who killed his wife while out on a day pass; Death of a Centerfold, the for-television rendering of the Dorothy Stratten story; and The High Price of Passion, the TV version of the William Douglas case, all treated the same theme: “Man kills wife or girlfriend when she bucks his control.” The producer, screenwriter, or whoever the guilty sob sisters in charge of these projects were, reduced the complicated struggles between these adversaries to tales of unblemished Virtue ravaged by unqualified Villainy. The High Price of Passion, in particular, was denuded of its eccentricity to the extent that the heroine’s black pimp was written out of the script entirely, presumably because, if he remained, the girl would lose sympathy in the eyes of a primetime audience.
Some of the same criticism, I’m afraid, can be leveled at Star 80, the movie version of the Stratten case (a project in which I did enjoy a financial interest, but which I will nevertheless discuss with candor). This film was based on my own article, “Death of a Playmate,” published by the Voice in late 1980. Director Bob Fosse approached the work with the same passion for verisimilitude that made Lenny so mesmerizing, even calling me up to ask for details about the actual principals to assist in casting choices. In the end, however, Star 80 fell into the same trap as its TV predecessor. Apparently fearful of offending Hugh Hefner and Peter Bogdanovich, Fosse soft-pedaled their own exploitation of Stratten and placed the entire onus of villainy upon her husband and killer, Paul Snider.
It takes considerably less effort to fashion cardboard victims and villains than to tackle a tale of moral ambiguity. From that standpoint, the most stunning crime drama of this decade, in my opinion, was Sidney Lumet’s 1981 feature film, Prince of the City, wherein a corrupt New York City vice cop, based on the real-life character of Bob Leuci, discovers he can only find his way back into society’s good graces by informing on his buddies. In Prince of the City there are no clear-cut heroes. The police are dishonest. The “good guys” are squealers. The prosecutors are ambitious. Everyone uses everyone else. You do not come away from the film on a natural high, but you do feel strangely comforted that someone has taken the trouble to tell you how it is. That in a rotten world one must still struggle to find the honorable way. Prince of the City is truly one of those stories we tell ourselves in order to live.
Arguably, any crime story contains the seeds of myth. I always felt, for example, that somewhere in the peculiar affair of Ginny Foat, the feminist leader accused and later acquitted of killing two men, there was a classic lurking. Foat was reportedly peddling the rights to her life story to TV, as was Hedda Nussbaum, who is said to have sold hers to CBS for $100,000. That means we will probably see them coming to the screen — though I shudder to think in what mutant form. These dames still have a lot to answer for, in my opinion, and shouldn’t be allowed a free hand to rewrite their own histories. When the actor is director of his own memoirs the result is less likely to be art than artless self-justification.
About a year and a half ago, I spent time in Utah doing a piece on the Singer Family, a renegade band of fundamentalist Mormons who bombed a church to protest “persecution” by their mainstream brethren. This episode grew out of an incident that occurred nine years earlier when the clan’s patriarch, John Singer, was shot by lawmen in a standoff arising from his refusal to send his children to public school. I was tipped to this story by an independent film producer, a friend of mine who had been hoping to acquire rights. If I was interested in doing a story, she said, she would introduce me to the Singers. Producers often encourage articles of this sort, believing that it will draw attention to the case and give their film project momentum. (It is worth noting here that I approached this assignment strictly as a journalist. Since the great screenwriters strike of 1988 was in progress, I could not have done movie work even if I was so inclined.)
When I arrived in Salt Lake City to attend the Singers’ trial, I was surprised to find a handful of other producers prowling the hallways of the federal courtroom, hoping to sign the rights of Singer’s widow, Vickie. Among them was Lindsay Wagner’s mother, who was researching properties for her daughter. Gerry Spence, the flamboyant Wyoming defense attorney who had formerly represented the clan’s matriarch, Vickie Singer, also made a brief but magisterial appearance, in order, it was rumored, to scout out film possibilities for his good friend Bo Derek.
Clearly, Hollywood thought this story had potential. But as what? During the course of the trial, I had the opportunity to read Vickie Singer’s journal, which had found its way into the court record, and was fascinated to find that after the death of her husband she had been contacted by a freelance screenwriter with whom she had since been collaborating more or less informally on her life’s story.
First, let me say that it gave me a frisson to consider that the good Mrs. Singer might have planned the bombing with an eye to providing a socko climax to a TV movie. What was more illuminating, however, was a rough, rather amateurish draft of the screenplay, tucked into that journal, giving a firsthand look at how Hollywood might play the Singer yarn. Not surprisingly, it was the story of God-loving individualists persecuted by the Establishment. We saw the Singers raising a cabin, baking bread, reading Tennyson, and only incidentally amassing an arsenal. I’m certain there is a larger-than-life story to be told about this family. A mythic American tale of zealotry, believers deluded by their own faith. Whether anyone has the sophistication and courage to bring it to the screen… (Sidney Lumet, your country needs you!)… I’ll stay tuned into the ’90s. ■
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