Somebody Killed Farrah Fawcett’s Film Career

*contains spoilers

Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009 anal cancer) or Farrah Fawcett-Majors, as she was known for a spell, was one of Charlie’s Angels (tv series 1976, 78-80) who hoped to kick-start a film career in the late 1970s and early 80s.

She failed but the results are far from disgraceful.

Lee Majors with then wife Farrah Fawcett

Married to the Six Million Dollar Man (tv series 1974-78) Lee Majors (1939-), Farrah’s first starring role carried her married name. That film was Somebody Killed her Husband (1978) which also stars Jeff Bridges. The film’s critical and box office failure earnt it the nickname Somebody Killed her Career within the film industry.

It is interesting how Somebody Killed her Husband really shot itself in the foot… You see, Farrah is cast as a thirty something mother of a baby – not the most alluring of roles – and, furthermore, her hair, for which she was so famous, is almost scrunched up in a bun.

The problem was in her hair and his beard as they alienated viewers of the day

It is not the free flowing blonde locks we had grown to love. Also, Jeff Bridges’ leading character wears a beard, something which could be forgiven and even be found sexy today, but then it would not have been considered particularly attractive, more of an oddity. Bridges had more success with a beard in the mini-classic Against All Odds (1984). It was also trimmed better.

Not much of a poster either. I can still enjoy the movie despite its shortcomings.

Yes, so visually and character-wise, the film doesn’t apparently have much going for it.

As the title suggests, it’s a murder mystery. Farrah is a young mother in a loveless marriage but… yippee!…her husband is murdered just when Bridges is taking an interest in her, offering her cheese and anchovy sandwiches for lunch. Fortunately, she loves anchovies.

People usually went to the movies to get away from babies!

Bridges is an unpublished children’s book author working in the toy department of Macy’s and he and Farrah must solve the mystery of the murder lest they get charged with the crime or murdered themselves. You get the picture as it’s only been done a thousand times. So the picture, which isn’t even a much of a screwy comedy, has even more going against it.

Wrongheadedly beautiful: Farrah deserved a better script and hairstyle

The reason why Farrah bought into something against type like this movie for her starring debut is surprising. Perhaps she already had aspirations as an “actress” as against a “sex symbol” but that would come later. It’s like she rushed into the role, or her manager did… without regard for the consequences.

Farrah had been around since the late 1960s where she made numerous television appearances going back to I Dream of Jeannie (1969-70) as well as four episodes on husband Lee’s Six Million Dollar Man.

The legendary red swimsuit poster

Big screen-wise, she was in the abysmal and impossible to film version of Gore Vidal’s book Myra Breckinridge (1970).

But it was after a 1976 poster was published of Farrah in a red bathing suit – one image that she chose out of an apparent 40 rolls of film – that she clicked and the poster became a best seller. This led to her being cast in the sci-fi Logan’s Run (1976) as a kind of assistant to a plastic surgeon as if she were working in a hair salon. It’s only a small role but she makes her mark and it was enough to score a role in Aaron Spelling’s upcoming Charlie’s Angel’s tv movie. So successful was the film about three female private investigators who work for a voice on a speakerphone that it spawned the hit series.

Farrah in Charlie’s Angels with Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith (right)

The poster sold more copies as a result and Farrah, who once thought it was she and co-stars Jaclyn Smith (1945-) and Kate Jackson’s (1948-) acting ability as Charlie’s Angels that was the key to its success, had to admit it was because they didn’t wear a bra.

The hair earned plenty of money

It was the hairstyle in the poster, blonded with a little lemon juice, which set the fashion for women’s hair for several years to come. The “Farrah-do” or “Farrah hair” would last into the 1980s.

Contract problems meant she left Charlie’s Angels for a year after the first season but she returned for two more years after that. It was during this period that she made Somebody Killed her Husband.

On top of what is really a lame murder mystery, the baby interrupts proceedings, something of little interest to moviegoers who go to the movies to escape such things.

You have to admire Farrah and Bridges for going through what was obviously going to be a failure. Apart from Farrah’s hair, her infectious smile is missing despite some of the comedy elements of the film.

The studio passed on Farrah for Foul Play (1978) spooked by contract disputes

Paramount Pictures wanted her for the far funnier murder mystery Foul Play (1978) which ended up starring Goldie Hawn and raking in the big bucks but the studio was scared off by Farrah’s contract dispute over Charlie’s Angels.

The seed had already been sown!

She was paid $750,000 for Somebody Killed her Husband and Columbia recouped its almost $5 million dollar budget in pre-sales.

Director Johnson did a better job with Lipstick (1976)

It probably would have won Razzies had the awards already been initiated.

The direction is uninspired as Lamont Johnson (1922-2010 heart failure) makes us watch a flat television episode. Johnson did direct The Groundstar Conspiracy (1972) and Lipstick (1976) with far more cult success.

It is not surprising that after this and the failure of her next film that Farrah fired her manager Jay Bernstein (1937-2006 stroke). I don’t now his net worth but I’m sure it may have been a cool million he asked for Farrah’s services, thus collecting a nice commission. But I am only guessing. The deal for Farrah was the same on her second film, also brokered by Bernstein.

Farrah fired manager Bernstein (left) but was often photographed with him later

This second film, which also recouped its money in television sales, is the dated Sunburn (1979). It goes to show that the limited budget of these first two movies took no chance at possible runaway box office success for Farrah – and the films suffer in terms of co-star wattage and production values.

But dated as it is, Sunburn is the film which captures the vitality and simple beauty of Farrah. Her hair is used to full effect in this movie, her smile is in this movie, she doesn’t affect any great intelligence – she is young and beautiful and alive. If you wan’t to see a film which captures the essence of Farrah, this is it.

Sunburn (1979) poster

It’s another comedy murder mystery and her co-star is the underwhelming Charles Grodin (1935-) who acquits himself admirably in one of his best roles, even if the role was reportedly first offered to Harrison Ford. Grodin had success the previous year with Heaven Can Wait (1978) but had a career where he usually played the other guy who loses the girl in the end.

Here, Grodin is an insurance investigator sent to Acapulco to look into a multi-million dollar claim. He must go undercover as a rich writer and hires model Farrah to play his wife something she agrees to as long as there’s no “funny business”.

Farrah with co-star Grodin. It could have been Harrison Ford!

Farrah is a bit of a klutz who arrives in Acapulco with about 20 pieces of baggage, which she’ll need for the amount of costume changes in the movie. But she’s bright and bubbly in the beginning and a real stunner as she turns up with Grodin at a local cocktail party where the hosts and guests include Joan Collins (1933-), Alejandro Rey (1930-87 lung cancer) and John Hillerman (1932-2017 heart disease) from the Magnum tv series.

Sunburn (1979) trailer

It’s a low-rent cast so no one outshines Farrah. The other main member of the cast is Art Carney (1918-2003 in sleep) who plays Grodin’s local investigator pal. He was an actor who was always good value and won an Oscar for his role in Harry and Tonto (1974). He was always an actor who looked older than he really was.

Farrah is far more relaxed and happy and fun in Sunburn

The plot to Sunburn is basic but ingenious. We know this because it makes sense even if we don’t know why. It’s explained to Farrah in the movie and Farrah has to repeat it back just so we know we understand it! I won’t go into it.

Sunburn book cover

It is based on a novel The Bind by Stanley Ellin (1916-86 complications of a stroke), which had been optioned a decade earlier. Development hell not always a good sign, three writers worked on the script including English actor and sometime screenwriter James Booth (1927-2005), who was in Zulu (1964).

When I say it’s dated, it also captures Farrah in the era of the late 1970s without descending into the horrors of disco. It’s a nice snapshot of the times. The comedy is light, Grodin’s wig obvious and the music includes songs by band 10CC and a catch title tune by 10CC front-man Graham Gouldman (1946-) which accompanies a well executed car chase which ends up in a packed bull-ring.

Graham Gouldman performs the infectious Sunburn title song

There are other faded “stars” who appear in the movie, but so slightly they barely rate a mention and include William Daniels (1927-), Keenan Wynn (1916-86 pancreatic cancer), Eleanor Parker (1922-2013 pneumonia) and Jack Kruschen (1922-2002 after long illness). Maybe their faces stood out in 1979 but now they are lost in the crowd.

Sunburn is full of faded stars including Joan Collins and Alejandro Rey here with Grodin

Sunburn gets some awful reviews but also some reasonable ones. From the Los Angeles Times which said it was “sloppy, banal and witless” to the New York Times which said it was a “breezy mishmash”.

I saw the film as a double bill at thirteen and kept the picture of Farrah in a wetsuit from the film on my bedroom wall. I liked that movie then, and having watched it countless times since, still do.

The famous Sunburn wetsuit pose

“What sign are you?,” Farrah asks Grodin in typical 70s style as they start out on their adventure. There are ups and downs along the way but Farrah was never more beautiful than when she looks unhappy while painting her nails by the pool and denying Grodin an egg sandwich. Of course they fall for each other.

It’s a movie, like Somebody Killed her Husband, which is hard to get a perfect widescreen transfer. I have to watch both films on DVDs copied from old VHS tapes. So Sunburn’s current release status doesn’t help its possible cult status obviously because of its reputation and what must be contractual difficulties, something which appears to have spoilt Farrah’s career in the first place.

But as the smiles pile up from this spunky blonde, you can’t help but like Sunburn and the ending, a dated freeze frame of Farrah smiling into the camera with a bottle of champagne frothing in her hands to the tune of Paul McCartney’s Wings song With a Little Luck, is a classic nonetheless.

The freeze frame at the end of Sunburn. A little iconic.

So having sacked her manager for using her image to line his and the pockets of the producers, Farrah may have already committed to her next major film, where she drops the “Majors” from her name. She is now just Farrah Fawcett and the film is Saturn 3 (1980).

Tragic art director John Barry

This British science fiction movie was to be the first directorial effort of the Oscar winner for Best Art Direction for Star Wars John Barry (1935-79). But apparently, upon the start of production, he clashed with star Kirk Douglas (1917-) and was dropped in favour of Stanley Donen (1924-2019 heart failure). Barry would be recruited by George Lucas for The Empire Strikes Back (1980) as second unit director but collapsed on set two weeks into shooting and died of meningitis.

The killer robot in the poster of Saturn 3 (1980) has a minute head

Saturn 3 is one of those films made in the wake of Star Wars (1977) and Alien (1979) as Kirk Douglas, in his 60s at this point, tries to prove he is still some sort of sex symbol. Poor Farrah is forced to shower and hop into bed and frolic with Douglas a number of times. This is the same girl who browbeats Grodin for possibly sleeping with Joan Collins in Sunburn as she was probably taking “those change of life pills”. I don’t know what pills Douglas is on in Saturn 3 but they must be very strong ones as he is rather randy. I guess its only natural! Especially in outer space in the far future!!

Farrah and Kirk get it on! More than once methinks!!

Set in the asteroid belt around the planet Saturn, Kirk and Farrah are the only inhabitants of some food production complex, hence there’s nothing better to do. Their privacy is soon invaded by a psychotic character, played by Harvey Keitel, who is impersonating someone else. This impersonation is heightened by the fact that Keitel’s voice is dubbed by English actor Roy Dotrice (1923-2017) which has a strange and slightly scary effect. Keitel constructs a robot he names Hector which was rumoured to have cost the film a million dollars. It sounds like a publicity stunt when you look at the robot. Of course Farrah and Douglas are in danger.

Harvey Keitel is not a very nice person in Saturn 3

Farrah is beautiful yet again, her hair straightened this time, her smile less prominent. The film was meant for teens like me, but we never saw it because it bombed with critics and audiences alike and never got a proper release. This can be traced back to the film’s production company Lord Lew Grade’s (1906-98 heart failure) ITC, which had made big bucks in English television over the years, but released the over-budget mega-bomb Raise the Titanic (1980). Grade said of that movie: “It would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic”. Anyway, the budget of Saturn 3 suffered as a result because that film got priority. They both helped sink ITC as a result.

Raise the Titanic (1980) helped sink a studio

There is a second version of Saturn 3 which played television with scenes originally cut from the movie. Again, the film was pre-sold using Farrah’s name to minimalize its losses. Not that her name meant much in terms of box office if it meant anything in the first place. Certainly it meant something in terms of television sales and ratings.

Saturn 3 (1980) trailer

I guess it’s not surprising it’s for a teen audience, as its full of coy sex and isn’t very complex or intelligent as a sci-fi, and only the slight flash of Farrah’s boobs confirms any exploitation elements the film contained were removed after the producers got cold feet about using some gore effects in one particular scene with the murderous robot at the end of the picture.

Farrah was nominated for her first Razzie for Saturn 3, as was Douglas, and the film for Worst Picture.

You can’t fault Farrah’s beauty

The martyr of this film is poor John Barry, the sacked writer/director whose fantastic sets loom large over what is a slightly disappointing movie marred by its troubled production history.

With its sexual obsession – yes, Keitel wants it too – and plugs in the back of people’s necks, its interesting, if not quite, one million dollar robot with its pin head… They are all elements of interest in Saturn 3 but it is hardly the runaway success of Star Wars or Alien. There is no comparison and teenage boys wanted more than the less Saturn 3 had to offer.

The only success Farrah had critically in the cinemas before she settled for the television movie route was the film Extremities (1986),

The DVD cover for Extremities (1986)

The Farrah hair phase gone, she wanted to be seen as a serious actress and took over the lead role in William Mastrosimone’s (1947-) play from Susan Sarandon (1946-). Farrah was good enough in the role to make it her own for the movie.

Farrah plays a woman taken at knife-point in a car by an assailant who molests her sexually. She escapes but he has her address and eventually turns up at her house she shares with two other women. There she turns the table on him and plans to kill him in revenge.

Farrah gives a gritty performance as the victim who gets revenge in Extremities

Instead of a Razzie, Farrah was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Actress and the film is the crowning glory of her theatrical movie career. It’s not great.

This is not an airbrushed fantasy or comedy. Farrah has a real dilemma on her hands in the form of the rapist played by James Russo (1953-), especially once her housemates come home.

Farrah got the kudos she deserved for Extremities (1986) trailer

It all seems a bit familiar now, but go back some thirty years or so and Extremities was a searing play in its day.

Farrah was nearing forty when the film was released and so stardom on the big screen had passed her by. She would have the consolation of television.

Farrah at Westwood. I have visited.

But I say thank you to those who gave her a Golden Globe nomination and say to those who left her off the Oscar in memoriam list the year after she died following a brave battle with cancer – shame on you! And damn her manager for going for the television deal rather than caring and believing in a product Farrah would appear in!!

For me, the freeze frame at the end of Sunburn sums up Farrah – infectious smile, wondrous hair and a persona to match – let’s celebrate with champagne! Roll credits.

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous
    Permalink

    She never really got the break she deserved. I never new this about her. Thanks

    Reply

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