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Farrah Fawcett's Stunning 'Story'

Mark Harris discusses the ”video diary” of the ailing actress

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Farrah’s Story, the ”video diary” of actress Farrah Fawcett’s struggle with cancer that takes her from her initial diagnosis in 2006 to her present as a gaunt, bed-bound, barely conscious figure close to death, is an immensely moving piece of horrifying self-exploitation — and if you think that’s a contradiction in terms, you’re right. The TV special, which was made by Fawcett’s friend Alana Stewart and aired May 15 on NBC, gets many things glaringly, gruesomely wrong. It’s soaked in the saccharine music and earnest blather of an E! True Hollywood Story, which is vulgar. It argues that American hospitals ignore alternative cancer treatments without discussing the success rates of those treatments, which is irresponsible. It fails to make a single clear statement that Fawcett’s type of cancer may be preventable for many women if they’re vaccinated for HPV and treatable if it’s detected early using anal Pap smears, an omission that, given the size of the audience it could have enlightened, is inexcusable. And the final minutes, when Fawcett’s son Redmond O’Neal — on a brief prison leave to say goodbye to his mother — lies beside her, still shackled, as she fails to recognize him, virtually demolish any sane notion of boundaries. Did everyone involved really think that moment required 9 million witnesses?

Yet for all its showbiz tastelessness, Farrah’s Story is one of the most accurate documentaries about the effects of cancer on a patient and that patient’s family that I’ve seen. The vast majority of the estimated 565,650 American men and women who died of cancer last year could not even begin to afford frequent flights to Europe for medical treatments, as Fawcett could. Nor did they have cameras trailing them, nor did Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith show up to commiserate. But what works about the film is, surprisingly, how ordinary it all feels: The sickening shatter of the moment of diagnosis. The way you constantly renegotiate your own sense of hope incrementally downward. The blessing of remission; the horror of recurrence. The opportunistic fevers and medication schedules and emotional crashes. The fight to hold on to whatever you think makes you you — whether it’s your hair or your mobility or an activity you love. Because Fawcett is no more special than any other cancer patient, and knows it, this small, vulnerable lady facing something terrifying has become, in the last act of her life, something she never seemed before: Unexceptional. Relatable. One of us.

Lately, death has turned into exploitation TV’s final frontier, the last piece of oneself that a famous person can offer for sale. (Someday soon, a celebrity will Twitter straight to the grave.) In England, reality star Jade Goody packaged her cancer into a series of media opportunities designed to secure a financial legacy for her children, selling access to her decline until her death on March 22 at 27. And now this. It’s easy to dismiss Farrah’s Story not only as an act of flabbergasting crassness — right up to a stunningly inappropriate red-carpet premiere and the announcement of a sequel — but as the final chapter of a life in which Fawcett often seemed complicit in her own violation. After all, this is someone whose right nipple, on the most famous poster of the 1970s, made her a sensation, who rolled naked in paint for an ”artistic” Playboy video, who has infamously overshared — how can she complain, as she does in the film, about anybody invading her privacy?

But on this subject, Fawcett turned out to be a tougher, angrier, more interesting person than anyone might have guessed. Certain that someone at the UCLA Medical Center was repeatedly leaking her private records, she tested her theory by withholding the news of her cancer’s recurrence even from her family in order to isolate the leak’s source. It worked; she busted the hospital for insufficiently safeguarding her files, shined a brutal and punishing spotlight on her longtime nemesis the National Enquirer for allegedly buying them, and survived to see the California legislature take on the long-ignored issue of medical-record integrity. Ultimately, Fawcett asserts that people who seem to have no sense of privacy nonetheless have a right to it. Her life is hers to exploit, nobody else’s. As legacies go, that’s an interesting one. It suggests that underneath Fawcett’s long history of turning herself into a problematic spectacle, there was a complex woman who, ironically, may have been underexposed all along.