On the morning of July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old newscaster in Sarasota, Florida, announced her own death on live television: “In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living color, you are going to see another first—an attempted suicide.” A perfectionist, she had done her research, asking the sheriff’s office the best way to successfully shoot yourself (behind the left ear). And she was careful with her words; “attempted” had her covered in case something went wrong with that one shot.
It didn’t. Chubbuck pulled out a revolver, shot herself in the head, and fell to the floor. The screen went to black. Left on the desk was a script Chubbuck had planned for someone else to read, stating that the TV news personality had shot herself in a live broadcast that morning and was then rushed to Sarasota Memorial Hospital, “where she remains in critical condition.” Something close to those exact words was announced nationwide on news reports that evening, as Chubbuck was indeed in critical condition at that very hospital. She died later that day.
Chubbuck had struggled with depression since she was a teenager; she had attempted suicide four years before she succeeded. Her death wasn’t a surprise to her mother or her brother Tim, whom she lived with by the beach; she had talked about suicide often, and made sure her broadcast was on a rare day when her grandparents wouldn’t be watching. But the way she did it seemed a protest of some kind. In a 2007 documentary, Chubbuck’s brother Greg said that she was unhappy because her boss, Mike Simmons, was pushing the station to emphasize stories of the “if it bleeds, it leads” variety. In her daily show, Suncoast Digest, Chubbuck focused on human interest stories. Although she had fought with Simmons only a few days before her suicide, he argued for years that it wasn’t an editorial protest. “The crux of the situation,” Simmons crudely insisted, “was that she was a 29-year-old who wanted to be married and who wasn’t.”
This year, two male directors have made movies about the death of this woman who already told her own story in her own way: Christine, a straight biopic directed by Antonio Campos, and Kate Plays Christine, an experimental documentary directed by Robert Greene. Each proves to be a vital critique of the other, tugging its main character back and forth.
Greene is following up on his last documentary, Actress, which used the life of an out-of-work actress to observe how performance operates in everyday life. In Kate Plays Christine, he focuses on another actress, Kate Lyn Sheil, as he shoots documentary-style scenes of Sheil researching Chubbuck’s life for a role that never exists outside “reenactment” scenes in the documentary itself. To play the tall, slim, elegant, and hard-edged brunette Christine, auburn-haired Sheil gets a messy brown wig, brown contacts, and an artificial tan.
Kate Plays Christine spends a lot of time exploring Chubbuck’s personal life in a protective rather than incisive way. At one point, Sheil explains that the 1976 film Network is based on Chubbuck’s story. “The crazy thing,” she says, “is the guy who wrote Network took this depressed woman and turned her into this macho, angry man.” She’s referring to Peter Finch’s “mad as hell and not going to take it anymore” anchorman who threatens to kill himself on air. But in Mad as Hell: The Making of Network and the Fateful Vision of the Angriest Man in Movies, Dave Itzkoff reports that screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky had actually drafted his cinematic suicide before Chubbuck’s death. It was not so much a coincidence as zeitgeist: Both fact and fiction were reflections of the time and the state of the media.
Sheil’s comments in Kate Plays Christine echo the director’s original (mis)conception. “It was juicy and annoying,” Greene has recounted, “to think that they took this really hurt woman, who was going through all this turmoil and pain, and turned her into a male character who was macho and bombastic.” Instead, he takes a paternalistic yet self-critical approach to Chubbuck and her story, wrestling with his own instincts toward sexist cliché. “There’s unique attributes to Christine Chubbuck’s story that make you process ideas about ‘crazy women,’” he has said. “I was not going to make a straightforward documentary exposing how this woman killed herself because she couldn’t have children.” Instead, “what I wanted to do was show how hard it was for me to think about the story.” Greene focuses on the personal as nonpolitical. As the filmmaker, he centers on his own inability to know this woman’s emotions; any criticism about the film is built into it, as part of its own self-criticism.
Greene’s film is part of a group of recent documentaries that focus on the documentary form, and its duplicity as a form of objective truth. The villain in Greene’s film is Greene himself, but that well-intentioned reframing proves to be a cop-out. As a director, he is the kind of feminist man who—rather than stepping out of the way and focusing on a woman’s life—admits superficial thoughts in advance to exonerate himself while splashing around in his own shallow waters. Greene makes little effort for any kind of fidelity in his film-within-a-film, preferring to draw attention to its badness. And in pondering what Chubbuck’s story means, he shuns politics in favor of a personal quest to grasp the morality of storytelling. But how can a film about the death of a professional woman in 1974 not address the feminist movement of the time? How is depression for women, then and now, ever not political? Greene has Sheil read an excerpt from the 15-year-old Chubbuck’s diary in which she talks about wanting to be a wife and mother. He positions this excerpt as if it only reveals something about Chubbuck, without exploring how much things have changed for women in the past 40 years.
Christine, the biopic version of Chubbuck’s tale, takes the opposite approach. In a scene that is almost too on the nose, a fictional Mike Simmons tells his employee, “You know what your problem is, Chubbuck? You’re a feminist. You think that the way to get ahead is by talking louder than the other guy. That’s the whole movement in a nutshell.” Despite its tendency to play moments like this for their easy symbolism, however, the script of Christine is sensitive and strong. It shines at being what Greene’s film stubbornly resists being: a period piece. Campos has made a 1970s movie about 1970s films. The soundtrack is a brilliant and eerie blend of John Denver, Sonny and Cher, Alive N Kickin’, and Spooner Oldham. I’m not sure any film has better captured the scary, zoned-out disconnection of ’70s AM soft rock.
In a scene that evokes this mood perfectly, Michael C. Hall plays anchorman George Ryan, nicknamed “Gorgeous George,” whom Chubbuck has a crush on. They go on what she assumes is a date, but turns out to be a New Age intervention. The scene, as far as I know, is entirely fictional, but it takes into account not only the era and Chubbuck’s alienation from it, but also something peculiar about the relationship between these two TV personalities. In Sally Quinn’s extensive 1974 Washington Post article on Chubbuck, she interviewed Ryan. At first, he tells her, he and Chubbuck detested each other with almost screwball-comedy antagonism: He saw her as a Germaine Greer–type feminist, and she thought he was a mess. But his belief in New Age spirituality changed him, and they grew to like each other. Chubbuck seemed as interested in his change as she was in him.
Quinn’s article was a primary source for both films, but Kate Plays Christine takes her insights and turns them into clichés. In one scene, Chubbuck walks forlornly down a staircase after bringing Ryan a cake. “He rejected me,” she tells a co-worker with great bathos. Kate Lyn Sheil, after she attempts to play the scene, rails at the director. “Who admits that?!” she yells.
Greene includes the interaction as if to ask: Should men even make movies about women? And he answers, apologetically, maybe not. Yet isn’t it funny that a man feels compelled to pose such a question while he is actually directing a film about women? In the final scene of Kate Plays Christine, which Greene leaves up to Sheil to improvise, the actress wrests control of the film from him. At first glance, I thought the scene was an awkward failure. But on repeated viewings, it comes across as the film’s strongest moment. “It’s men who are making the movie,” Sheil explains, “so I feel like it’s my responsibility to represent her in some way.”
In Christine, Campos has no need to ask whether a man should make a movie about a woman; his role is secondary to that of the lead actress. While Greene has Sheil play dress-up in a “bad” film, the lanky British actress Rebecca Hall fully embodies Chubbuck. Her accent seems overstudied; it’s a confluence of Midwestern and Boston, while Chubbuck sounded like Susan Sontag playing a local news anchor, a strange mixture of disdainful and flat. But Hall finds Chubbuck through the strange way she ends her sentences, her awkward laugh. It’s an endearing and haunting performance, one that subtly conveys a woman who’s become disconnected from herself and those around her, while trying hard to assert herself. It’s sad and scary, and feels very real.
After Chubbuck’s death, whenever a strange incident would take place in the TV studio where she killed herself, her co-workers would nervously joke that it was her ghost’s doing. It’s ironic that where the fictional Christine manages to bring Chubbuck to life, the documentary Kate Plays Christine proves to be nothing but a ghost story. Here is Kate Lyn Sheil in an ill-fitting fright wig, a pale and disembodied specter, flailing as she attempts to swim in the same ocean where Chubbuck swam with strength decades ago. It feels as if the deeply dissatisfied perfectionist is looking back at us—shuffling her papers, preparing for her final scene—ready to scold us for getting her story wrong.