Director: Robert Greenwald
By Marilyn Ferdinand
It came as an enormous shock to the cultural system when Farrah Fawcett, pin-up supreme of the 1970s, smashed her Barbie Doll image by playing the smashed-up wife of an abusive husband who eventually murders him by setting fire to their bedroom as he sleeps off another drunk. Blondes are supposed to have more fun, right? Fawcett didn’t see it that way, and her choice to take on this savage tale that would see her beauty hidden beneath bruises, blood, and K-Mart clothing was a bold statement about herself, her art, and perhaps even her view of domesticity. The Texas belle herself married and divorced one time only and endured a severe beating at the hands of Hollywood producer James Orr in 1998 after spurning his proposal of marriage. Francine Hughes, the character she plays in The Burning Bed, must have haunted her thoughts in the wake of her own battering.
Certainly, this made-for-TV film has haunted my memories from the moment I saw it and created a respect for Fawcett in me and many other people that lasted the rest of her too-short life. Viewing it again last night, I am in awe anew over Fawcett’s realistic, powerful portrayal of someone who started off not so different from herself—a pretty, flirty girl of the 50s—who saw her life close violently around her when she found herself in the crushing grip of her alcoholic husband and his enabling family, and trapped in poverty by her lack of education and opportunity.
The film opens at night. Three children are drowsing in a car. A woman runs out of the house in the background and gets behind the wheel. As she inserts the key in the ignition, a second-floor window in the house shatters as flames leap through it and hungrily grip the sill, walls, and roof. The children scream. The woman drives off. People from around the neighborhood, including the parents of the man of the burning house, run out and urge the fire crew to the rescue, but the house is quickly consumed.
The driver, Francine Hughes, is taken into custody for the premeditated murder of her husband Mickey (Paul Le Mat). When she meets her public defender (Richard Mazur), she is meek and silent. Only his angry shouts to her to defend herself and presentation of a letter from another battered woman who identified with her rouse Fran to tell her story to him. The rest of the film is told largely in flashback as Fran starts the story of her life from the time she first saw Mickey at a dance in 1963 to the night of the murder in 1977.
The film takes its time—it has an almost miniseries expansiveness filled with characters and incidents—so that we get a sense of the rhythms of this marriage, a look at Fran and Mickey while they are dating, as newlyweds, as parents, and watch the dynamics that cause the marriage to fracture into violence, apology, forgiveness, violence, apology, grudging forgiveness, and eventually just violence. At first, Mickey just wants to make it with Fran, but she’s saving herself for marriage. He wants her so badly, he proposes. She puts him off. She’s not sure she loves him enough to marry him and doesn’t want to drop out of school to satisfy his insistent proposals. Eventually, however, she comes to believe no one will ever love her as much as Mickey does, and they tie the knot. They move in with Mickey’s parents Flossie (Grace Zabriskie) and Berlin (James T. Callahan), where Mickey’s semi-chronic unemployment and the birth of their first child keep them for several years. Early on, Mickey strikes Francine for wearing a midriff-baring summer outfit; he says he’s jealous of how attractive she is, convincing her that she should take the slap as a compliment. She lets it slide.
They get their own house, “nothing much, but it was ours,” Fran remembers. They have a party for some friends, but when Fran contradicts Mickey, he strikes her in front of their guests. She runs into the house, where he follows her in a rage. Later, he apologizes and blames it on being drunk. Their family continues to grow, as does Mickey’s drinking problem and the frequency of Fran’s beatings. It’s always worse when he’s out of work. When Fran applies for welfare, she is told she can’t qualify unless she leaves her husband. Fran, the sunglasses covering her black eye knocked off by her toddler, says her husband threatened to kill her if she ever left him. “The state will protect you,” Mr. Barlow (Fred D. Scott), the case worker, assures her and hands her a form to fill out. “That’s it? I just fill out a form, and I’m divorced?” “Yes,” he answers and mentions a $7 fee. “Seven dollars!” she says, “Do you think I’d be here if I had $7?” Barlow pulls some cash out of his wallet for her.
As with most divorced parents, the existence of their three kids, to whom Mickey is devoted, means Fran will never really be free of Mickey. Still, she tries. When she rejects his appeals to come back, he drives off angrily and crashes his car. Seeing him helpless, in critical condition, Fran agrees to help nurse him back to health and moves into the house next door to her in-laws’ where Mickey is recuperating. Eventually, they move back together. A couple of good years, during which Fran tastes freedom with a government grant to go to business school, lead to even worse times and the climactic end of their marriage.
The script is tight and judiciously edited to bring out moments that ring true and lead us through the stages of this tragedy in the making in an economical, yet complete way. Fawcett is absolutely amazing in suggesting the advancing age and deteriorating attitudes of Fran. She is coquettish in her first meeting with Mickey, the very picture of the new bride relying on her mother-in-law for tips on married life, only later realizing that Flossie, a strong supporter of family and patriarchy, will never really back her up. Her own mother (Dixie K. Wade) urges her to return to Mickey when she leaves him the first time—it’s her duty to take the hard with the soft. Despite her strong and sensible instincts, Fran does what women have done for centuries—she toes society’s line. Fawcett shows the inner struggle Fran has trying to conform; it is from this never-expunged struggle that she finally decides to free herself with a definitive break from the rules.
Although it isn’t expressly stated, it is clear that the women’s movement showed Fran options she might not have reached for in another era. Her best friend Gaby (Penelope Milford) is sketched as another divorced mother who has gotten her act together on her own, and Gaby urges Fran to leave Mickey with a no-nonsense attitude that feels distinctly modern.
This film does not make social services out to be the bureaucratic enemy it is in many films. Given director Greenwald’s track record making political documentaries and films, this balance might not be expected, but it is a definite strength. One rather unfortunate distortion is that the film appears to have been set in the South. Several of the characters have Southern-ish accents, and it was mentioned several times that Fran’s mother lived in Jackson, which I assumed was Jackson, Mississippi. The real story on which this film is based took place in Michigan, and that’s where this Jackson was located. I think it is rather dishonest to portray this kind of relationship with a stereotypical Southern white trash veneer; this is a universal story and should either have been located nowhere or clearly in Michigan.
The most intense part of the film occurs in the short trial sequence at the end of the film. In a very real way, Fran’s legal defense—not guilty by reason of temporary insanity—does seem to be the right one, an extreme emotional response to a brutal beating, choking, and rape. It is this final beating, which Fran relates on the witness stand, that we view in its horrifying entirety. The way Fawcett cries restrainedly when she talks about being raped, and then her physical scrambling, cowering, desperate clutching at Mickey’s hands as he strangles her, well, it’s incredibly, harrowingly real. Both she and Le Mat display enormous courage in this scene. Le Mat, with a less nuanced character, does a creditable, but unspectacular job. But Fawcett is a complete miracle in this film, laying to rest once and for all any doubt that the golden girl from the frivolous “Angels” was a real actress to be reckoned with.