By now everyone has heard about the deaths of Farrah Fawcett and Michael Jackson. It would be hard not to given the myriad media outlets we now have. While it is not uncommon for more than one famous person to die at any given time — death has a nasty habit of taking them away in groups of three or four, and this time when they were only in middle age — this particular pair stand out because of the barriers they both sought to break through.
I am not going to wax eloquent for multiple paragraphs about the lives and careers of either person because I did not follow them closely, but even from a distance I could see how they struggled to break free of stereotypes and being pigeonholed throughout their lives.
While Fawcett was the female sex symbol of the late Seventies, she chose to depart her star-making role in Charlie’s Angels after only for one season, attempting to stretch out in different films such as the sci fi thrillers Saturn 3 and Logan’s Run and the popular ensemble comedy The Cannonball Run. While those roles did not turn her into a movie star or convince deriders that she could act, she eventually won critics over with her portrayal of victimized women turning the tables on their abusers in the mid-Eighties movies The Burning Bed (1984) and Extremities (1986), the latter of which she performed live on off-Broadway in 1982-3 (following Susan Sarandon, who originated the role), enduring night after night of taxing physical performances. Fawcett would continue to act on the big and small screens, occasionally in highly rated TV movies, and racked up numerous Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. The actress caused a stir by posing for Playboy twice in the Nineties, at a time when older women were not considered sexy by the media, and she bravely brought her battle with anal cancer to the public through the recent, in-depth television documentary Farrah’s Story.
At one time Michael Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world. Actually, if one looks past his declining sales in recent years, possibly due to the public perception of his being a pedophile, the singer probably still is the biggest as he attracted fans everywhere he went, especially in Europe, and always caused a stir when he granted a rare television interview. I have to confess that as a teenager I was annoyed by the fact that you could not escape the Thriller album in 1984, no matter where you went. In retrospect, Jackson was the last music artist capable of commanding such massive success. Throughout his career, the multiple Grammy Award-winning Jackson coped not only with racism and its damaging effects — people often postulated that the lightening of his skin was not from treatment for a medical condition called vitiligo but from other surgery, and he clearly had his nose made smaller — but from the pressure of having an overly demanding and abusive stage father who made his childhood hellish. While I do not condone a lot of Jackson’s private behavior in adulthood, one can assume that his weirdness stemmed from a tortured upbringing. When the singer opened up about this to Oprah Winfrey in a 1993 interview, it was a groundbreaking confessional coming from such a superstar, and hopefully it opened up a lot of people’s eyes to a subject that is uncomfortable for many. Beyond this, Jackson broke down racial boundaries throughout his life and career, especially in working with a wide variety of artists from Eddie Van Halen to Paul McCartney, and he united people worldwide with his music. He was easily the most influential and successful music artist since The Beatles.
When I scanned various headlines this morning, it was interesting to see how the deaths of Fawcett and Jackson were portrayed. The scandals and eccentric behavior that defined Jackson in his later years were not as prominent as I thought they might be (although they’re slowly swelling), and Fawcett’s battle with cancer were dominant. Her sex symbol status was also focused on by some, with the Belfast Telegraph reducing her life to this: “Farrah Fawcett, icon of 12 million bedroom walls, is dead,” referring to her famous 1976 swimsuit photo.
They say that death is the great equalizer because we will all eventually turn to dust. The cruel irony of that assumption is that our mass market, multimedia world tips the scales. Jackson’s death will overshadow Fawcett’s passing and pretty much anything else this week (Ed McMahon died Tuesday, by the way), but at least she got her message about cancer out in a documentary that will be re-aired for a long time to come. And it is important for us to look at both of their lives and to see what lessons we can learn about overcoming boundaries concerning race and gender, about battling personal demons and about the concept that people are so easily pigeonholed by images and events that often take up small moments in their lives. Say what will you will about either star, but for both their talents and their flaws they did have some things to teach us about how we perceive the world and each other.
I like to think of death as also being the great uniter, and perhaps educator. Sometimes we can only appreciate someone or learn something from them after they have passed on from this mortal coil. I believe I have plead the case for both of these American icons.