For Farrah Fawcett the role of Francine Hughes in NBC’s The Burning Bed is a crucial career move—one she hopes will shatter forever her image as a Charlie’s Angel. In New York with Ryan O’Neal, her boyfriend of more than five years, Farrah, 37, is reveling in the glowing advance reviews of her performance. Though she sports a ring of 17 heart-shaped diamonds that Ryan gave her in Paris three weeks ago, Fawcett denies the recent wedding and pregnancy rumors. “Not yet,” she says, smiling. But she rules neither out for the future. Right now she is building a career. Her acting last year—as a woman who attacks a rapist—in off-Broadway’s Extremities offered a promise of maturity that The Burning Bed fulfills. Farrah talked about abuse and the traditions that foster it with associate editor Jane Hall.
How were you chosen to play the role in The Burning Bed?
The screenplay was offered to me three years ago. All of the TV networks turned us down at the time, saying, “Nobody wants to see any woman—especially Farrah Fawcett—being beaten for two hours.” After Extremities, NBC said, “We’ll do The Burning Bed, but only if Farrah plays it.”
Why have you chosen two roles showing abuse of women?
I don’t consider myself a feminist, but I liked hearing the Extremities audience shift in their seats upon seeing the tables turned on a rapist. Before The Burning Bed, I had never thought about wife abuse, and I had no idea how prevalent it is. I learned that even though shelters are a proven help in breaking the cycle of domestic violence, we have better shelters for animals than for women in this country. I hope the movie makes people think about the problem.
Why do husbands beat their wives?
I think it’s largely due to the confusion of roles today. My parents had a traditional, loving relationship where he was big and strong and the breadwinner, and she took care of the home. Today men come home from a stressful day at work to find wives who demand equal say because they work too. Men traditionally have dominated and their masculinity is threatened.
Why do women stay with men who abuse them?
That was the hardest thing for me to understand. I kept saying to the Burning Bed director, “I want to hit back. I would never let a man treat me that way. Why does Francine stay?” In my research for the role, I attended therapy sessions and talked to 30 women in two shelters in California. Some women had broken bones; one had lost her hearing due to her husband’s beatings. The women stayed partly out of economic dependence and concern for their children. But the common thread among them was a lack of self-esteem. In all of the relationships, including that of Francine and her husband, there was love and passion in the beginning. Then the man changed. The women assumed it was their fault, and they had this incredible hope that they could change the man back. They’d say, “I should be prettier” or “I didn’t have dinner ready and that irritated him.”
Did you meet Francine Hughes?
No. I thought it would be painful for her to visit the set. And I needed to play her at her lowest point, not as she is today. I did watch a 1980 interview with her on the Phil Donahue show, and I listened to seven hours of taped interviews between her and our screenwriter. I was obsessed with those tapes, playing them over and over in my car.
Your makeup man says it was like putting his foot through a Rembrandt to make you look battered. Did you have any hesitation about looking so terrible?
Not at all. I liked not washing my hair for days. Do you have any idea how hard it is to concentrate on your work when someone keeps fluffing your hair and tilting your head so your circles don’t show? Sometimes I want to scream.
Was there ever a time when your choreographed fight scenes became real?
In one scene Paul LeMat [who plays her husband] caught my face when he was supposed to slap me as I moved away. The blow chipped my tooth. I started sobbing, for myself and for Francine. Paul held me for a half hour before we could begin again.
Have you been subject to physical abuse in your own life?
No. I certainly never saw it at home, and I never saw it among my neighbors when I was growing up.
As a child in Texas in the 1950s, were you brought up to defer to men?
Yes I was, like most women my age. When I came to Hollywood as a teenager, I was thrown into a male-dominated world, from agents to studio executives. I’ve realized that some of my anger in the past came from being brought up to defer to men.
Have you ever been hit by a man?
In an argument during my college days, I slapped someone and he slapped me, but I’ve never been slapped where a man took his fist and closed it.
What would you do if you were in Francine’s situation?
I’d fight back—and probably be killed. I’m athletic, but I don’t know how long I could withstand repeated beatings.
How do you know you’d fight back?
There was an incident in New York during Extremities. My secretary, who’s male, and I were trying to get a cab to the theater in the rain. A van came along and the driver—who didn’t recognize me—offered to take us. He passed where we were going and demanded our money. He made my secretary get out, and he pulled a screwdriver on me, saying, “Give me your money,—-.” I was so incensed that I said, “Come on, big man, use it, you’re not getting my money.” His face turned red, and I thought, “Good, now he knows the degradation he made me feel.” He said, “Get out,” and shoved me out of the car. Maybe it was my frame of mind from Extremities, but that’s how I know I would fight back.
Do you think murdering her husband was a solution for Francine?
No, obviously not. She tried to get help from the authorities many times, but none was available. She has to live the rest of her life knowing that she killed the man she loved. How can she and her children possibly have a normal life after that?