When cancer intrudes on a placid life, the most important asset to have is an indomitable spirit. That is the lesson Farrah Fawcett learned over months of treatments, anguish and hope, and that is the message she planned to deliver to the world when she invited a camera into her life.
“Farrah’s Story,” a sometimes uplifting, sometimes painful and thoroughly transparent documentary that chronicles Fawcett’s fight against cancer, screened Wednesday night at the Paley Center for Media before a solemn audience of friends, colleagues and media. It aired on NBC on Friday.
As the film illustrates, it is also vital to have loved ones join you in the battle. For Fawcett, she has many, but two in particular devoted themselves to her. At every step of the way, since she was first diagnosed with anal cancer in 2006, close friend Alana Stewart — who produced “Farrah’s Story” and handled almost all of the camerawork — was by her side. And Ryan O’Neal, her on-again, off-again romantic partner, has been completely on since the cancer arrived.
Stewart started on the project as a loyal friend. It was Fawcett’s idea to film her experiences, and she began by using a hand-held video camera. But early on she turned the camera duties over to Stewart, and the result is an uncompromising look at what cancer does to a human being, and what a human being does in retaliation to cancer when she simply won’t submit.
“There were things that I thought were too invasive to film,” Stewart explained before Wednesday night’s screening. “But Farrah said, ‘Film it. This is what cancer is.’”
O’Neal was asked what he hoped people come away with from the film. “If you liked her,” he explained, “you’re going to love her. And you’re going to know why you loved her.”
It is a plus in a bout with cancer to understand that human relationships are complicated, as the documentary illuminates, and “on again, off again” doesn’t do justice to the bond between O’Neal and Fawcett. Every moment in the process was “on,” and they acknowledged as much.
Another ‘Love Story’
“I will never love anyone like I love Farrah,” O’Neal says in the film. In another instance, he said he felt like he was in “another ‘Love Story’ movie.”
Stewart said of Fawcett: “He walks into the room and her face lights up.”
Clearly, as the film shows, it is a benefit to have access to the best doctors in the world. Fawcett’s journey began at the UCLA Medical Center but expanded to Germany. Specialists there applied unique and aggressive techniques, especially as it pertained to the cancer that spread to her liver. She made several trips from Los Angeles to Germany for consultations and treatments, often resulting in intense pain and discomfort. At one point, eager to return to L.A., she defied doctors’ orders and flew back too soon, which resulted in extreme distress.
But despite the resources at her disposal, the film emphasizes that cancer is an equal opportunity tormenter. It didn’t go easy on her because she is a celebrity.
To counterpunch against cancer, it helps to have a sense of humor. Fawcett and doctors did their best to save her iconic hair, not out of vanity but because it stood as a symbol of her strength and defiance. Yet after many treatments, she could hold out no longer. When she finally accepts that her locks are gone in the film, she does so with playfulness and determination to move on. “You wouldn’t stop until you got my hair,” she tells her doctor.
For most people, a struggle against cancer occurs in private, and the dodging of paparazzi is not part of the equation. Yet when a celebrity like Farrah Fawcett is engaged in combat with the disease, it becomes an opportunity for many to make money. That’s why, as “Farrah’s Story” explains, sometimes a war against insidious forces has to be waged on two fronts.
She had to watch in horror as the National Enquirer ran stories about her condition with help from leaks occurring at UCLA. Eventually the breach of UCLA’s medical records was discovered and dealt with, and Fawcett was able to declare victory against the tabloid.
A private fight made public
But she needed fortitude even when she didn’t feel up to it, when she was leaving hospitals and clinics and vermin with cameras were there to catch her at her worst moments. While the film was successful in showing how bountiful her life had been, it also underlined the point that fame isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be.
Another blessing in a conflict with cancer is perspective, and the film makes sure it’s present. It isn’t all about squirming on an examination table while needles are inserted, or vomiting into a plastic container.
There is the fairy tale, too: How she came from loving parents who made sure, as a young girl growing up in Texas, she had equal doses of baseball (her dad wanted a boy) and ballet; how she was spotted in a photo by a Hollywood publicist, who thought she’d be great for TV commercials; how “Charlie’s Angels” came along and made her a household name; how she led a life of fame, riches and adventure as a worldwide star.
Even then, there was a dose of sobering reality in the form of a 1981 public service announcement she filmed for cancer awareness. “Ironic,” Stewart said.
There is also her relationship with her father, James, who earlier had lost another daughter to cancer; her unwavering devotion to her son, Redmond, who is shown in the film visiting his mother while on a court-sanctioned visit from jail, where he is serving time on a drug charge; and her enduring friendships with Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith, her partners on “Charlie’s Angels.”
Most of all, it takes inner strength to fight cancer, which “Farrah’s Story” emphasizes. At the end of the movie, Fawcett aims a camera at the audience. “How are you? What are you fighting for?” she asks.
Without speaking the words, the suggestion seems to be that all anyone can ask is to fight as hard as she has.
Michael Ventre lives in Los Angeles and is a regular contributor to msnbc.com.