Farrah Fawcett: A Lot Tougher Than People Think

We remember her for her hair. We remember her for her smile. We remember her for her poster--was the word "sex" really styled into her curly blonde locks?--and the way she cooed when "Charlie" called and for whatever she was doing that night on David Letterman. But now that Farrah Fawcett has died at 62 from cancer complications, we should remember there was a time when she was taken seriously as an actress. Seriously. (Story continued below...)

Fawcett marched off the Charlie's Angels set after only a year to become a big star--and promptly flopped at every post-Angels project she took on. Then, in 1983, she took over from Susan Sarandon in the lead of an off-Broadway play called Extremities.

It was about a woman named Marjorie who is confronted by a rapist in her apartment. After a grueling hour of physical and verbal smackdowns, Marjorie used belts and cords and whatever else was within reach to somehow cage the guy--in her fireplace. Crime was out of control in the early '80s. The Take Back the Night movement was spreading across the country. Rape stories were almost daily newspaper staples. The year Fawcett went into Extremities, a woman was gang-raped on a pool table in Massachusetts. The story was later turned into the 1988 Jodie Foster movie The Accused. Marjorie--and Farrah--gave women a shockingly brutal role model and an idea of how, if necessary, to survive the worst. If lovely, vulnerable Farrah could beat the crap out of a rapist, even if only in a play, then maybe other women could take control, too.

Fawcett got rave reviews. Suddenly she had dropped her bathing suit and stepped away from being the jiggle TV poster girl. After Extremities, she starred in The Burning Bed, a TV movie with the same general theme, only this time her character sets her husband on fire after years of domestic abuse. The Burning Bed was perhaps the first TV movie to use the closing credits to give viewers a domestic-dispute-hotline number, and it was so powerful that Fawcett became inextricably linked to fighting domestic abuse. She later became a board member of the National Domestic Violence Hotline. You might even argue that without these unflinching Fawcett films, every Lifetime movie would be made of pure goo.

Of course, there was one last tough-as-nails performance. In a world full of meaningless and endless celebrity soul-bearing, the way that Fawcett publicized her illness was unbelievably brave (which is not a word you could apply to 99.9 percent of famous actors). Think about it: anal cancer. No one else in Hollywood--certainly no one who has built her career on her beauty--would come forward with that kind of stomach-churning revelation, not to mention devote the kind of time she did to raising awareness for a form of a disease that dare not speak its name. Before it aired, some people criticized her show-all documentary A Wing and a Prayer as a money-making publicity ploy. But once we saw the gruesome and desperate treatments Fawcett pursued in her last months, that view changed. To the very end, Farrah Fawcett was a lot tougher than she looked.

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