'Now you're going to see another first... an attempted suicide'
The name of Christine Chubbuck - the US newscaster who shot herself on live TV in 1974 - had faded from the public consciousness. Now she is the subject of two new films
Published 09/10/2016 | 21:31
In the morning of July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old television presenter, arrived at work with a .38 Smith and Wesson in her bag.
Her colleagues at Channel 40, a fledgling Florida TV station, later remembered her as being in a particularly upbeat mood; certainly no one saw any reason to query her decision to switch around the running order of her show, Suncoast Digest, opening with a newscast rather than an interview.
The programme went on air at 9.30am, but a few minutes in there was a technical snarl-up, and a pre-recorded video piece about a local shooting failed to roll. After barely a moment of dead air, Chubbuck started to read from a script in front of her.
“In keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts and in living colour,” she said, “you are going to see another first — an attempted suicide.” And with that she raised the gun to her head and pulled the trigger.
When Chubbuck’s name has been remembered since, it is for that moment. The story was a sensation at the time: Chubbuck died later that night in Sarasota Memorial Hospital, becoming the first person to kill herself on live television. Shortly afterwards, Sally Quinn of the Washington Post came to town, and wrote a 5,500-word article that remains the source of almost everything we know about Chubbuck’s life and death.
As the years passed, Chubbuck’s name faded from the public consciousness. There was a background hum of interest in one element of her story: a rumour that a recording existed of her suicide. Most of the station’s broadcasts were not recorded, but Chubbuck had specifically requested that that day’s show be taped.
In the aftermath of her death, the tape disappeared: some said the station’s owner, Bob Nelson, had it; others that it had been seized by the police, or given to Chubbuck’s mother. In dark corners of the web, meanwhile, people muttered about copies of the footage falling into the hands of the FBI and the Federal Communications Commission. Some said they’d seen it online, or earlier, on videotape.
Over the years, little was added to the sum of knowledge about Christine Chubbuck’s life. But recently, by bizarre coincidence, she has become the subject of two biopics, both of which premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The first film, Christine, is the bigger production — Rebecca Hall takes the title role — and tells the story straight, hewing closely to contemporary news reports. (Chubbuck has a brother still alive, but he was not consulted by the film-makers.) The second, Kate Plays Christine, is the more complex: a hybrid of documentary and fiction, in which the actress Kate Lyn Sheil plays herself, becoming increasingly distressed as she prepares to take the role of Chubbuck in a never-to-be-realised biopic.
Robert Greene, director of Kate Plays Christine, first heard the Chubbuck story around a decade ago. “My first thought was, that’s an amazing story, I can’t wait to do it,” he says, down the line from Columbus, Missouri. “And then, the second after I’d thought that, I felt really bad that that was my instinct.
“I thought: you, Robert, are not allowed to make this story. It would actually be impossible, because it requires seeing if her mother’s still alive, which would make me feel ill, and it would require going and talking to her brother, who has made it very clear that he doesn’t want to talk about it.”
Chubbuck is an unlikely subject for a biopic. Her story is all ending: we have only the faintest sketch of her early life and personality. Quinn’s reporting, thorough though it was, came laced with the prejudices of the time. The people around Chubbuck speculated that she killed herself because she was single — “a spinster at 29”, as her mother put it — or worried about her fertility. Her depression is touched upon, but it’s painted more as a function of her personality than as a serious medical problem.
Chubbuck’s final words made it clear that she disapproved of the direction Channel 40 was taking. Some of her pieces had been bumped in favour of more sensational stories, and her brother Greg later said that she “detested” the more salacious side of journalism. The idea that Chubbuck’s death was a stand against the vulgarisation of the media was reinforced by the release, a few years later, of Sidney Lumet’s Network.
The film shows the breakdown of a superannuated news anchor, played by Peter Finch, who rails against the misery of modern life, and threatens to kill himself live on air.
The screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky, had certainly heard of Chubbuck’s death — one version of his script contains a reference to “that girl in Florida” — and once the film came out, it helped to recast her suicide as an act of extreme satire.
All the theories about Chubbuck’s death are dutifully ticked off in Christine, but Greene was wary of simplifying her story. “The lack of information makes you do what you always do, and create a narrative,” he says. “We want to understand it, because if we can understand it, we can put it in a box and put it away. It’s almost too tidy and too banal. I’m asking us to maybe say, maybe we didn’t know anything, actually. Maybe not knowing, maybe saying we didn’t know, is healthier.”
The question of the tape was at the back of Greene’s mind while he made his film. “It is, sickeningly or fascinatingly, however you look at it, the Holy Grail of death on camera,” he says. “The fact that there is footage, the fact that she wanted it to be seen, all that stuff is a knot in our chest, and we’re asking why we want that knot to be unravelled.”
During filming, Greene discovered where the tape was. He didn’t pursue the lead, but he understands why people want to watch it.
“It’s such a human desire,” he
says. “We watch images because they tell us things about ourselves that we couldn’t otherwise see. We believe the footage would tell us something deeper than we can imagine.”
Earlier this summer, Mollie Nelson, the widow of Channel 40’s owner, confirmed that the tape did indeed exist. It had been kept by her husband, who insisted that it not be destroyed, and after his death, she had passed it into the hands of a large law firm.
Greene admits that if someone sent him the footage, he would watch it; but the impulse to do so bothers him. “She wanted to be seen and heard,” he says. “But that person being recorded was someone who was deeply disturbed. She was in need of help, not in need of being mythologised.”
Kate Plays Christine is released on Friday, October 14