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Turning Symbionese

Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart in film and music

By Richard von Busack


Wanna Hearstburger? Open the bun, and there's no patty!

--Stupid schoolyard joke


DIRECTOR JOHN WATERS, who is to Patty Hearst what Josef von Sternberg was to Marlene Dietrich, once wrote, "The perfect exercise for film school would be to read the morning paper and complete a film on the most sensational story before the evening edition hit the streets." The first cinematic reference to L'Affaire Hearst is supposed to be 1976's Network, where a kidnapped heiress cynically negotiates her own airtime. Actually, however, the first onscreen Hearst sighting can be traced to the 1975 pirate movie Patty, starring Hearst look-alike Sarah Nicholson. Her co-star is Turk Turpin in the Cinque (you're welcome!) role. Both Turpin and Nicholson ended up as players in the golden age of pornography, Nicholson under the nome de porneau "Jennifer Jordan."

Though a copy of Patty can't be found, the titles on the soundtrack album would indicate that the first Patty film played up the erotic side of the tragedy. Songs include "Do What You Feel," "Sexy Mama," "Takin' It" and "It's Gonna Be Such a Beautiful Day." The sad fact, readers, is that some sick people find something titillating in the idea of being captured and ordered to strip by pitiless revolutionaries. Thank God it never happened to you. Just imagine how terribly degrading it would be. Really, think about it in every degrading detail.

By contrast, even the title The Ordeal of Patty Hearst (1979, directed by Paul Wendkos), advertised itself as a responsible dose of TV-movie trauma. Lisa Eilbacher played the unfortunate deb; Felton Perry (most visible as Detective Dale in Dumb and Dumber) took the Cinque role. Paul Schrader, scriptwriter of Taxi Driver, made the most impressive version of the case, the cold-blooded Patty Hearst (1988), based on Hearst's own memoir, Every Secret Thing. Schrader, fascinated with fanatics, really wanted to make a film about Cinque (the young Ving Rhames) and made his resentment clear by depicting Hearst as a princessy nullity in her early scenes. In interviews, Natasha Richardson, the film's Patty, described her accent for the role as "Hillsborough lockjaw."

By the time Patty Hearst came out, Patricia Hearst was free from jail. Talent-scouting trials, as is his wont, John Waters had observed Patty in the dock. "Always such a letdown, looking so plain in her sensible shoes and private-school outfits," he complained in his memoir, Shock Value. Little did he know he would eventually give her a makeover in four of his films: Cry Baby, Serial Mom (as the woman beaten to death for the fashion violation of wearing white shoes after Labor Day), Pecker and Cecil B. Demented. As Hearst said in an interview in 2000 to Kam Williams of blackworldtoday.com: "We met in '81 at the Cannes Film Festival at a cocktail party. [Waters] said, 'I want you in my next picture.' I thought he was just joking. But then a script arrived, and I had to go to read for him. And it suddenly dawned on me that this really was an option. I tried it, and it was something I really loved doing. So, I consider myself incredibly fortunate, even if I had to get kidnapped by terrorists to get my break."

Tania was "Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart," as the Camper Van Beethoven song put it, a symbol of how revolutionary ardor could be found even in the most patrician person. When Every Secret Thing came out, that ardor was revealed to be a sham, and one more idol of the left was tarnished. As the years went by, Patty Hearst followed that uniquely American trail from celebrity to sufferer to clown. Just as William Shatner started as a dementedly serious actor and ended by lampooning his mannerisms (he has show horses to feed, after all), Hearst today is famous for being famous. She was last seen in Cecil B. Demented, a story that parodied the Patty Hearst legend. Look for her on Celebrity Boxing vs, let's see, Angela Davis.


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From the April 11-17, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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