Tuesday, December 11, 2012
Affected Acting and Activism: Morgan Fairchild
Anyone who reads this blog has probably noticed how I tend to defend actresses who normally get short-shrifted in any discussion of "real actors." I guess it's because I always root for the underdog and am always looking for those little nuances that demonstrate that an actor has brought something to a scene that might have been more than what was on the page. As such, I've extolled the virtues of Tina Louise, Lois Chiles, Priscilla Barnes, Anita Ekberg, and Joan Collins on this blog. You won't see me doing the same for Morgan Fairchild. It's strange, but I've never liked Fairchild, even when I was a kid and she was starring on one of my favorite TV shows, NBC's short-lived prime time soap "Flamingo Road" (1981-82). I've seen and followed much of her work through the years (more than the average mortal), I think she's perfectly adequate, I have enjoyed some of her performances, and I grudgingly respect the longevity and prolificacy of her career. But I still don't like her.
It would be easy to dismiss Morgan Fairchild by calling her a "bad" actress, but I don't think she is. As I said, she is perfectly adequate in her acting and she has never given a performance where she has embarrassed herself. But, concurrently, she's never given a performance where she has really stood out and demonstrated an unexpected nuance or gesture that was not thoroughly predictable. There's absolutely no depth to her acting. She's a celebrity who is famous for being famous. Her interviews and bios usually tout her as a "star" of "Dallas" and "Falcon Crest," but she only guest-starred on one episode of "Dallas" in 1978 and appeared as a regular in only one season out of "Falcon Crest's" nine-season run. I also don't really understand why people considered her a sex symbol. There's always been a kind of thin, wispy artificiality and plasticity about Fairchild that I don't remotely think is sexy. There was never an earthy warmth about her as a sex symbol in the same manner of someone like Farrah Fawcett. When she was on "Flamingo Road," Fairchild played snooty Constance Weldon Carlyle, the richest girl in Truro, Florida. She is married to handsome Fielding Carlyle (Mark Harmon) who she starts out loving deeply, but is hurt when she learns that his heart belongs to saloon singer Lane Ballou (Cristina Raines). In any other instance, your sympathies should go to Fairchild's Constance because she is the "wronged woman," but you don't because Fairchild never presents Constance as anything more than a spoiled, petulant brat. She doesn't provide any level of nuance to Constance to demonstrate she might have underlying depth beneath the pout and blonde hair. In contrast, Joan Collins's Alexis on "Dynasty" (even though I wasn't a fan of that series) had a wry, satirical edge, and Donna Mills's Abby Cunningham on "Knots Landing" had unexpected moments of maternal warmth (she was a single mother) that gave her more texture than she might otherwise have had.
In the second season of "Flamingo Road," when adopted Constance learns that she is actually the illegitimate daughter of Lute Mae Sanders (Stella Stevens), the town prostitute/proprietress of Truro's very own local brothel and a woman who Constance has looked down on all her life, she reacts to the news with the sort of unsubtle hysteria you'd expect from someone who just broke a fingernail. Fairchild's performance during that storyline never demonstrates any warmth, vulnerability or self-awareness that raises the character above a shallow stereotype. Fairchild never provides any sense that Constance has been deeply affected by this revelation and, by the end of that episode, she is back to her lustful and scheming ways. As such, there's a missed opportunity to explore the psyche of a shallow woman who is faced with the reality of how empty her existence truly is. "Flamingo Road" was a fabulous series during the first season when the storylines were based on the original 1949 Joan Crawford movie about a carnival girl from the wrong side of the tracks trying to make a life for herself in a corrupt Florida town. Cristina Raines was marvelous playing the Crawford character--she had an earthy, heartfelt, scrappy quality that made you root for her every week--and Fairchild was effective during that first season as Raines's blonde contrast and antagonist. In the second season, the producers mistakenly changed the focus of the series from Raines to Fairchild, and the show slowly unraveled as it became clear Fairchild simply did not have the depth or screen presence to carry the entire series on her shoulders. So it was no wonder it was cancelled after its second season.
It would be easy to assume that the shallowness of Fairchild's acting was limited to "Flamingo Road," but she's just as uninspired in other roles that might have afforded her opportunities to demonstrate what she was capable of. Probably her best shot at being a real actress was her 1982 starring vehicle "The Seduction," an erotic suspense thriller where Fairchild plays Jamie Douglas, a glamorous Los Angeles newscaster who becomes stalked by an obsessed fan (Andrew Stevens). "The Seduction" was made in the wake of her success with "Flamingo Road" and was her one-shot attempt at big-screen stardom. Fairchild's acting is OK in "The Seduction," but she again fails to take advantage of any chances to bring depth to that character. In Fairchild's hands, Jamie Douglas comes off as whiney and unsympathetic. The audience never feels any genuine suspense in the story because Fairchild fails to elicit any sympathy for her character's predicament of being stalked by a persistent admirer. Fairchild's big acting moment in the movie has her on the air during a news broadcast, reading from a teleprompter, when suddenly she sees a typed message from her stalker on the teleprompter that causes her to have an on-air breakdown. She tells the audience she is being stalked and pleads for someone to help her. Fairchild resorts to a predictable bag of tricks of crying and letting her voice go down to a baby-like whisper, but doesn't do anything else particularly unique with the scene. Somehow the vulnerability and empathy she is striving for does not come through. It might have been more effective if she had played the scene without tears and approached it from a more controlled, subtler perspective. Even though she's OK in the scene, nothing remotely interesting transpires from it. You start to feel contemptuous towards Fairchild because you want to see her go for broke and really challenge herself, which would be interesting to watch even if she was unsuccessful at it, but I always get the impression that she doesn't have the guts to do it because she doesn't want to muss herself.
Fairchild had another opportunity to demonstrate what she might be capable of when she played an incest survivor on Season 5 of "Falcon Crest." Unfortunately, because it is such a serious subject matter that should be dealt with sensitively, the pain that her character purports to feel never really comes through to the audience. She cries on cue in that performance when the script calls for her to do so, but that's about it. She never creates a consistent, underlying emotional thread for that character throughout the season to give one a true impression of how such a traumatic experience has truly affected her. As if the writers knew they couldn't count on her to find genuine nuance in such a character, they devised a subplot where she suffers from a split-personality disorder as a result of her childhood abuse. This split-personality subplot simply allows Fairchild an opportunity to slip into "seductive vixen" mold that people expect from her. The two personalities Fairchild plays on "Falcon Crest" never quite convincingly gel into being one person. To be fair, the writers don't give her much, but she didn't bring much to the table to inspire them either.
In my opinion, it's not simply that Morgan Fairchild has been typecast by her glamorous looks and, as such, has been denied roles that would have shown what she is truly capable of. Unlike other actresses who are considered glamorous sex symbols, Morgan Fairchild has never had that one universally respected or praised role that she can point to which proved she was a unique and talented actress. Farrah Fawcett had "The Burning Bed" (1984); Raquel Welch had "Kansas City Bomber" (1972) and "The Three Musketeers" (1973); Anita Ekberg had "La Dolce Vita" (1960); Jayne Mansfield had "The Wayward Bus" (1957); Tina Louise had "God's Little Acre" (1958); Stella Stevens had "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" (1970); etc, etc. There are indeed rare opportunities for sex symbol actresses to truly distinguish themselves if they have something notable as an actress that allows them to stand out from the crowd. The fact that Morgan Fairchild has had nothing that's even comparable to that in her career seems to indicate that she truly has nothing unique or special to offer as an actress. But that's not to say she hasn't been given opportunities to shine as an actress. As unlikely as it may seem, and whether she realizes it or not, Fairchild has had a rather respectable career and has played decent roles that a talented actress would have made more interesting. The problem with Fairchild, as I have indicated, is that she only meets the bare minimum requirements of what is expected of her in these roles and nothing more. The few times she has actually given an interesting performance include the TV movie "The Initiation of Sarah" (1978), where she was memorably nasty and vile as a sorority sister who makes mousey Kay Lenz's life a living Hell, and her guest role as the original Jenna Wade on "Dallas" in 1978, where she instilled in Jenna a self-awareness regarding her scheming and manipulation that Priscilla Presley never gave the role when Jenna became a regular character years later. But, as effective as she was in these roles, they were just two roles in a 40-year career that she still did not invest with depth or sensitivity.
Fairchild seems to have earned some respect for branching out into comedy roles with guest appearances on "Friends," "Roseanne," "Murphy Brown," and "Cybill." However, even though these scripts gave her amusing things to do that spoofed her image, her actual acting performance wasn't really that funny because she's still giving the same performance she always gives when she's playing these roles straight. There's an overly serious quality to Morgan Fairchild that suggests an inability to laugh at herself because she is trying so hard to be taken seriously. She has touted herself as a political and social activist through the years, an effort that seems to have won her plaudits in some circles. She has even appeared on news programs and discussion shows like "Hardball," "Nightline" and "The O'Reilly Factor." While I acknowledge that Fairchild comes across as articulate, well-versed and intelligent in these appearances, there's something about Fairchild's activism that never quite seems sincere to me. It's as if she realizes she'll never really be taken seriously as an actress, so she touts herself as an activist in an effort to improve her public image in Hollywood in the hope that that will make people take her seriously. I never get the feeling that it comes from a genuine and sincere interest in helping humanity, but from blatant self-promotion. Fairchild proves to be overly-impressed about her own political and social activism. For instance, Fairchild's official website shamelessly posts countless photos of her posing with political and news figures in a thinly-veiled attempt to impress people into thinking that the esteem and luster of the people she is posing with is rubbing off on her. She gets praise in some circles for her gay activism, but I don't think it's that impressive or special when you consider how most actresses in Hollywood (or just people in Hollywood in-general) have publicly proclaimed themselves pro-gay. Fairchild's not going against the grain when she does it. It is simply not as cutting-edge, daring or unique as having someone unexpected or unlikely as former United States Solicitor General Ted Olson, who served under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2004, expressing pro-gay sentiments.
In an interview with the Washington Post in 2005, Fairchild discusses how she was in Bosnia and Croatia making a movie during the time of the Bosnian War and boasts how she "got to go into . . . Serb-held territory, and stuff like that, which is always kind of fun...And so one day I said, 'You know, if you're going anywhere that I would be allowed to go, a refugee camp or anything like that, I would love to go.' And (the American ambassador) was very sweet and called up and said, 'Well, you know, I'm going over into this no-man's land today, there's a big meeting of generals and stuff, and we can go to a refugee camp, and I can show you a couple of cities.'...And this Polish U.N. guy comes over, and he speaks English -- 'Oh, Morgan Fairchild, we have your series in our country -- what are you doing here?' And all these press people, because it was a meeting of generals -- 'Morgan, what are you doing here?'...a lot of the other actors, when we're in Zagreb, you know, they'll be at the casinos every night, and I'm hanging out with the war correspondents to find out what's really going on. So you may not have seen the movie. I had a good time making the movie because I learned a lot." In discussing her experiences, Fairchild sounds like a shallow and narcissistic starlet with her failure and inability to acknowledge the suffering of the refugees around her. She might have been having "fun" and a "good time" while she was in Bosnia making that film, but I'm sure the people staying in the refugee camps she visited weren't enjoying themselves. I feel that there is no demonstration from Fairchild of any genuine insight or humility as to what she witnessed during that time. Fairchild appears far too busy being impressed at how her celebrity status allowed her access to areas that were off limits to average individuals to be able to realize the gravity of the situation before her. She seems to behave as if her activism makes her better or more special than others. After reading that interview, I have never taken her activism seriously.
Fairchild frequently Tweets articles concerning political or foreign affairs on her Twitter page, but has nothing new or insightful to add to the dialogue. You look at her Tweets and go "So?" In the aforementioned Washington Post interview, she also includes medicine and paleontology as amongst her interests. There are even some very odd YouTube videos showing Fairchild speaking on a panel at a convention discussing dinosaur fossils and then walking amongst the audience modeling a collection of fossils. It is clear that Morgan Fairchild seems to be trying hard to impress people by trying to demonstrate how broad her interests are. However, I feel that Fairchild has so many "interests" that she doesn't have time to be genuinely sincere or serious about anything. It's not for nothing that Catherine O'Hara got a lot of mileage out of spoofing Morgan Fairchild on "SCTV" comedy skits back in the early 1980s. In one hilarious vignette, O'Hara plays "Morgan Fairchild" in a scene where she is sitting in a director's chair, looking straight into the camera, talking presumably to an off-camera audience about her Civil War antebellum handguns collection. You can see it on Youtube here. O'Hara's "Fairchild" becomes perturbed when she senses the audience is snickering at her efforts to make herself sound substantial by demonstrating her broad knowledge in unlikely topics and interests. O'Hara's "Fairchild" gets annoyed and pouty and says to the audience "What are you smiling at? You're not taking me seriously are you? You know, I know you all have this image of 'Morgan Fairchild.' I've created that image myself. But that's not necessarily me. And it's very difficult when I am trying to project another side, the many sides of 'Morgan Fairchild.' And you can't seem to accept that. I really hate it." O'Hara's "Morgan Fairchild" then makes a suggestive gesture with her lips as the camera pulls back and the skit draws to a close. O'Hara perceptively and hilariously captures Fairchild's seemingly urgent need to prove her self-worth with her efforts to impress people by discussing the various subject areas she dabbles in. It is apparent to me that Fairchild is trying hard to build a legacy for herself when, the reality is, if there is a legacy to be built for Morgan Fairchild, others will build it for her. Fairchild would not have to do it for herself if it were real.
A couple of years ago, Fairchild appeared on a VH1 reality show called "But Can They Sing?" where B-level celebrities, not known for their vocal talents, competed with one another to prove their singing prowess. Other 1970s/1980s celebrities such as Linda Evans, Britt Ekland, and Stephanie Beacham have also appeared on reality shows (mostly in the UK) where they won praise from the public for revealing an unexpected side to their personalities. For instance, Linda Evans impressed people in the UK version of "Hell's Kitchen" with her dedication and professionalism in demonstrating her culinary skills. Britt Ekland proved in the UK "I'm a Celebrity...Get Me Out of Here" that she was much earthier and warmer than people would have expected from her. And Stephanie Beacham impressed people in the UK version of "Big Brother" with her wise and self-possessed maturity amidst the gallery of eccentrics she shared time with. In my opinion, when Fairchild appeared in "But Can They Sing?," she came off as mean, snooty, petty, self-centered, and ungenerous, especially with regards to her competitor the Chinese actress Bai Ling. I seem to remember one scene where Fairchild complained how Bai Ling's outrageous antics was "humiliating" because Fairchild feared being associated with her, even though whatever Bai Ling was doing wasn't necessarily directed at Fairchild. (Screenshots from the show which affirm this can be found here.) In so doing, Fairchild failed to take advantage of this opportunity to present a different side of herself to the public. I believe she simply reinforced whatever stereotypes and expectations the public has of her. A few years ago, I met Bai Ling and told her how my friends and I were rooting for her to win "But Can They Sing?" and that we hoped she would beat Morgan Fairchild in the competition. I remember that Bai Ling smiled warmly and said "Thank you for saying that...she was so mean to me!"
Somehow, I was not surprised.