First (not chronologically), the sudden death of Michael Jackson, about two months shy of his 51st birthday. True, in recent years he had gained more renown for legal battles than for any artistic achievements, but there was a period of nearly two decades when it was the other way around.
Jackson was a remarkable singer even in his pre-teens, as he led the way for the Jackson Five, the last big act to come out of Motown while it was still based in Detroit (the company moved to Los Angeles in 1972). From the energetic "I Want You Back" to the brilliant ballad "I'll Be There," Jackson had it all down, precocious yet soulful. The hits diminished by the mid-'70s, though he managed a few at the end of the decade, both with the Jacksons and on his own. They were produced by pop-jazz veteran Quincy Jones, and they were a signpost for the future.
In late 1982, Jackson released "Thriller," which became a huge hit and spanwed a number of singles. Jackson's inventive videos made him the first black artist to get wide airplay on the still-new MTV, which was hailed as a breakthrough. (Given what MTV is now, it's hard to envision it was that big a deal.) Jackson had a few more hits in the '80s, but by decade's end, he was better known for his rather bizarre behavior.
If the self-labeled description "King of Pop" was a bit too presumptuous, there can be no doubt that Jackson, at his best, was an inventive artist, spanning both the end of Motown's glory days and the beginning of the video era. (Incidentally, 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of Motown, and the Detroit Free Press has been doing a yearlong tribute to the company, well worth checking out. Go to http://www.freep.com/article/99999999/ENT04/90111018/1039&template=theme&theme=MOTOWN012009).
But the primary focus of today's entry isn't on Michael Jackson, but on the entertainment figure who died earlier in the day, and whose passing was somewhat upstaged by Jackson's unexpected death. I am obviously speaking about Farrah Fawcett:
I think it's only human nature that most of us contemplate how we'll be remembered after we leave this mortal life. Obviously, others remember you by your words and deeds, but for public figures such memories tend to be encapsulated in an image. Images, after all, are what defines a celebrity.
Farrah Fawcett knew it all too well. There was that poster which, along with the hit TV series "Charlie's Angels," made her the sex symbol of the mid- and late 1970s. (And she had long been a beautiful woman; in the mid-seventies, I came across her picture in a University of Texas yearbook from a decade before, and she was stunning.) The poster and show made her famous, and marketable (remember there was a shampoo named for her?), but it also threatened to bring her down as quickly as she came up.
Fawcett tried to escape the trajectory. She left "Charlie's Angels" to make films, just as Goldie Hawn did after leaving "Laugh-In," but Fawcett wasn't as accomplished an actress as Hawn, and her material was nowhere as good. Her first starring vehicle, the comedy "Somebody Killed Her Husband," was dubbed "Somebody Killed Her Career" by wags in the press. By the start of the '80s, she was yesterday's news.
But Fawcett persevered. If theatrical movies weren't going to work for her, then the TV movie genre would. (Think of how TV movies in the 1970s enabled Elizabeth Montgomery to escape the ghost of Samantha Stevens.) There was "The Burning Bed," where Fawcett played the decidedly unglamorous role of an abused wife -- and won plaudits for it. A biography of pioneering photographer Margaret Bourke-White followed, and it was also well received.
Suddenly, she was being recognized as a serious, capable actress -- but part of her probably realized that it might not be enough to dislodge the image of that poster, a symbol of '70s kitsch. And while people within the industry generally liked her personality and professionalism, there were enough occasional weird incidents that left the public wondering about her.
But fate would hand one final role to her, a role no one would have asked for: cancer victim.
In 2006, Fawcett was diagnosed with anal cancer. While no form of cancer is pleasurable, for a one-time sex symbol to have anal cancer seemed like a raunchy, bitter joke. If she had retreated into a shell to live out the rest of her days, few would have blamed her.
But she didn't. Maybe she noted how fellow TV icon Mary Tyler Moore had helped others by not only publicly admitting she had diabetes, but working hard to raise money for a cure (and she'll be known for that role long after Laura Petrie and Mary Richards are forgotten). Or maybe Fawcett realized she had one card to play, so she might as well play it for all it was worth -- and that's not meant to sound cynical.
She made millions aware of the disease and its effects, taking her battle public and appearing on an NBC documentary released earlier this year. There was no glamour in this fight, only pain -- but she had the courage to let us view what she was going through. If it made people aware of the risks of cancer -- and how to approach it, with toughness and dignity -- then she did her job.
Fawcett's death came before longtime companion Ryan O'Neal could fulfill his promise that they would marry -- but when the end came, he was there, as were the doctors who had aided her through this difficult fight. And perhaps, in the back of her mind as she breathed her last -- an "angel day" for a TV "angel" -- Farrah Fawcett realized that she had ensured a legacy that had nothing to do with a poster.
Godspeed, Ms. Fawcett.