Amelia Earhart (George Schaefer, 1976)
I remember well the time of these epic TV showcases during my formative years, with the small screen execs trying to compete against the rise of the Hollywood blockbuster, their movie ‘events’ growing bigger and gaudier, with NBC bringing in the 80’s with a five-night presentation of James Clavell’s risqué period-piece extravaganza Shogun, and while I didn’t catch Earhart at the time (though I remember the buzz), I was tickled in a nostalgic way when Le Cinéclub/The Film Society honcho Phil Spurrell suggested it for one of the random 16mm movie nights at his place, screenings set up so as not to go crazy in the face of the now-cancelled bi-weekly, well-attended, all-celluloid film program that he would be in the midst of running in normal times (and for any of those morality police-men or ladies out there outraged that we dared flaunt the latest COVID-19 rules, Quebec allows single visitors to people’s homes, so bug off, go shame someone else).
Playing over two two-hour time slots, yet still only clocking all in at 3 hours (always amazes me how much television product they push during each television hour), this bio-pic spanning the wildly adventurous life — from fairly modest early years on a Kansas farm, all the way to first iconic lady of aviation, including flying solo over the Atlantic Ocean (after first reluctantly agreeing to do it a few years before as a publicity stunt as virtual cargo, arms-crossed defiantly, stuck between two male pilots) and finally into the last infamous moments of garbled S.O.S. transmissions during her disappearance over the Pacific Ocean while in the last leg of an attempted flight around the world (not exactly a spoiler there, as we pretty much all know how that last trip around the world worked out for her) — of that most celebrated female aviator of her time known as ‘Lady Lindy’ (referencing Charles Lindbergh, the first pilot to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean, something that likely didn’t sit well with the fiercely independent Earhart, as it placed her within the context of her male counterpart, though she apparently did look strikingly similar to him).
While not shot with any particular flair during most of its dramatic content (other than the exciting, likely-second unit flying scenes, such as with Earhart first learning to fly from a rough-and-tumble rare-female vet who takes her under her wing, then with Earhart growing more cocky as a solo flyer, trying a bit too hard to prove to all the male pilots below how good she is, leading to her literally passing out mid-flight while pulling a particularly daring stunt, miraculously waking up with just enough time to pull out of a plunge that would have left her squashed on the tarmac), it does manage to both evocatively capture a time, as well the fascinating life of a complex, yet single-minded person.
Clearly rolling with the burgeoning feminist movement boiling up at the time, while at the same time also feeling the responsibility to cater to the majority of middle Americans’ perhaps less far-reaching perspectives as they watched from the comfort of their suburban living rooms, the storytellers do an admirable job with the balancing act; they celebrate her life and achievements while never falling over into maudlin hero-worship. Her determined sense of independence brought massive achievement, but came with personal sacrifice (and frustration from those around her who loved her) and a decided lack of emotional intimacy, but the movie never judges her any of those things.
While I have no idea the veracity, or levels of exaggeration, of any of it (like most well done straightforward biopics – and I include the theatrical likes of the Francis Ford Coppola-scripted Patton in this mix) it’s less satisfying on its own than it is as an intriguingly presented catalyst to lead me to want to know more about the actual person). I’ve also not seen any of the other biopics on her. For instance, it’s interesting to discover how, while Earhart grew up amongst humble surroundings, her family life was anything but un-remarkable, with her assertive mother Amy (long-time Hollywood vet Jane Wyatt, in an inspired bit of casting) leading the roost, a woman who pushed the idea of independence amongst her two daughters and had the courage to demand a divorce from her alcoholic husband (Charles Aidman) at a time and place where a divorced woman on her own was likely not looked kindly upon. Ironically, Amelie’s shown to have had a bit of a troubled relationship with her mother, while being much closer to her hen-pecked father, who quietly fostered his youngest daughter’s passion for aviation.
Shown working as a nurse and in an orphanage to make enough money to put into her flying instructions, Amelie is someone who remained emotionally distant, interested in relationships with men only if they fell into her circle (and likely offered her something). Her continuing, life-long relationship with famous movie stunt man Paul Mantz (Stephen Macht, a television actor showing, like a lot of the performers in this movie, that given good material, he can shine) is a perfect example (though it might be over-exaggerated, from what I’ve read).
Perhaps the most fascinating element of the film, on a dramatic level, is the portrayal of her marriage to the much older George Putnam (John Forsythe), an uber-wealthy magnate and promoter. The marriage is understood between them as an open one (with both having affairs); to her, it’s an arrangement of convenience (she marries him, he promotes and funds all her explorations) but to him, it’s one of love… and remained that way right until the end, with Putnam ever financially faithful (if not always in terms of nabbing a nubile up-and-coming Hollywood hottie now and then, as the movie shows), yet eternally frustrated at never having his emotional feelings reciprocated.
For network television back in those days, it’s a surprisingly mature and feminist representation (and, by that, I mean the way the latter word once represented a radical and progressive challenge to status quo thinking, rather than how it is mostly used today, hijacked into a cosey consumer —and capitalist— culture, opportunistic-minded hashtag movement). If there’s anything missing, the script could have dug a bit more psychologically, expose more of the intensity, and the likely more destructive and deeply competitive parts of her personality that drove her to do things such as take life-threatening chances to break world records while rejecting emotional connections. The closest this comes to being developed is in her complicated relationship with Putnam and it’s the most fascinating element of a very interesting film.
For Susan Clarke, a long time television actor, it’s the role of a lifetime and she shines in the part. Long-time tv actor John Forsythe (the voice of “Charlie” amongst those gorgeous Angels) is fantastic in his own right. It’s two likeable, familiar (certainly to the audiences of that day) performers showing how good they could be with elevated material.