The angel bids adieu

The angel bids adieu

A scrim of sadness covers Farrah Fawcett’s career. Her stardom traced that cautionary Hollywood arc: metePOSTER GIRL DAZZLES Farrah Fawcett (right) in ‘Charlie’s Angels’.oric fame followed by years spent trying first to overcome it, then, too late, seeking to recapture it.

Cancer interrupted Fawcett’s attempted comeback in 2006 and put her on a different, more didactic track — pursued by a careful-what-you-wish-for flurry of publicity. She put the incessant tabloid intrusion to the service of her illness, making a video diary of her struggle with anal cancer that, among other things, allowed her to feel that she had some control over the coverage. NBC, never shy about exploiting a celebrity tragedy, overproduced and overpromoted her film in Farrah’s Story, but never made the public service point that, besides abstinence, the HPV vaccine is the most promising form of prevention against this type of cancer, which in most cases is sexually acquired.

Fawcett died on Thursday at 62. And her last poignant appearances sometimes obscure a smaller, more gratifying story line of a celebrated beauty who worked against type to construct a more dignified second act. Long before Charlize Theron gained weight to make Monster and Nicole Kidman put on a fake nose to play Virginia Woolf, Fawcett scrubbed off her tawny good looks to play battered — and battering — women in The Burning Bed and Extremities.

There were many less successful performances as well and cameo roles in B movies, but Fawcett kept trying, and that’s more than can be said of many of today’s fading stars who coast on surgically preserved looks, cable reality shows and the culture’s insatiable hunger for celebrity abasement.

Bea Arthur, who died at 86 after a long,  joyous career, accomplished many things, perhaps most notably making the case on Maude and The Golden Girls that an older woman with a large frame, beak nose and stentorian voice could be an object of male desire. Fawcett was not as talented or as versatile. Still, while at the peak of her career she tried to show skeptics that an object of male desire can hold her own in roles usually reserved for less glamourous, better trained actresses.

Though, of course, it was her early work that kept her famous. Nobody in recent memory comes close to the giddy heights Farrah Fawcett reached in the mid-70s with one season on Charlie’s Angels and That Poster. The pinup of Fawcett in a red one-piece bathing suit, tanned, head tossed, body lithe yet curvy, was a revelation. She looked delicious but also a little carnivorous, her gleaming white teeth frozen in a friendly but slightly feral smile. That poster ended up on every teenage boy’s bedroom wall and in the annals of pop culture — Farrah was the face, body and hair of the 1970s.

That bad moment was reinforced by an ill-advised 2005 TV Land reality show, Chasing Farrah, the kind of doomed career defibrillator that was parodied so brilliantly by Lisa Kudrow in The Comeback. A camera crew followed Fawcett as she giggled and tossed her golden mane at movie openings and on shopping sprees.

She had a dazzling smile underscored by a whispery baby voice, a sweetness that allowed young male fantasists to believe that she would be a forgiving sex goddess. Bo Derek and Pamela Anderson, physical prodigies who took her place on dorm-room walls, seemed less approachable — they were positioned more as parodies of sex symbols than the real thing and seemed perfectly content in that niche. Fawcett was built on a more human scale, a cheerleader from Corpus Christi, Tex., who radiated a healthy athleticism just ahead of the aerobics revolution led by Jane Fonda and Jamie Lee Curtis.

She made movies like The Cannonball Run but also set her sights on Broadway long before it became fashionable and profitable for theaters to boost ticket sales by recruiting television and movie stars to perform onstage. And in 1983 she dared to take over a role originated by Susan Sarandon in Extremities, in the gruelling role of a rape victim who seeks revenge on her attacker. That performance led to The Burning Bed, a 1984 TV movie in which she played a battered wife and which was a television milestone. She took on other ambitious roles, not as persuasively perhaps, but they were brave choices nonetheless: the Nazi hunter Beate Klarsfeld in a 1986 television movie; the heiress Barbara Hutton a year later; and in 1989, the wartime photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White.

Her career took a detour in 1997 — that was the year of a Playboy spread and her infamous David Letterman interview, but it was also the year she played Robert Duvall’s wife in The Apostle, an affecting performance that was well received by critics, if not widely seen. She kept at it, though the offers kept shrinking; her last movie was a small part in The Cookout, the 2004 Queen Latifah comedy.

Toward the end, her private life — her son’s drug problems, her on-and-off relationship with the troubled Ryan O’Neal — eclipsed decades of work. Cancer brought it to an end. Not all of her performances will stand the test of time, but what is worth remembering is how hard Farrah Fawcett tried.

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