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Farrah became poster girl for the instant icon

Just about everyone wants to be remembered long after they’re gone. There are no brochures spelling out what an afterlife is like, or for that matter, no certificates to guarantee that one is waiting. All that anyone can hope for is to leave a legacy.Over the years, indelible impressions have been made, ranging from the beloved to the reviled. And those individuals are the special ones, at least
/ Source: msnbc.com contributor

Just about everyone wants to be remembered long after they’re gone. There are no brochures spelling out what an afterlife is like, or for that matter, no certificates to guarantee that one is waiting. All that anyone can hope for is to leave a legacy.

Over the years, indelible impressions have been made, ranging from the beloved to the reviled. And those individuals are the special ones, at least from a purely historical standpoint. Most perish without having made any mark at all, or if so, often it is an obscure or inconsequential one.

That’s why establishing oneself as a cultural icon is no small feat. In that pantheon comprised of people who influenced other people, Farrah Fawcett’s likeness is right there at the entrance, to put smiles on faces.

The poster has received a bad rap over the years, as if there was something wrong with being adored by millions. It featured her posed provocatively in a one-piece bathing suit, her head tilted back pleasurably, the tousled golden locks spilling down her face like ribbons off a Christmas gift. Just as Betty Grable stopped a generation in its tracks with her perfect gams, so did Farrah with that one image.

It proved to be a sexy blessing and a career curse. It helped rocket her to stardom, as it coincided with her breakthrough on the television series “Charlie’s Angels.” But it cemented the impression that all she could really do was pose and look breathtaking.

In one television movie, however, the world became confused. “The Burning Bed” was based on a book by a Michigan housewife who had enough of domestic abuse and decided one day to light her husband on fire as he slept. It starred Fawcett, a curious bit of casting; today it would be like hiring Britney Spears to headline “The Queen.” The difference was that Farrah pulled it off magnificently, receiving her first Emmy nomination.

More than her famous hair

Now her legacy wouldn’t be so clear. Suddenly she added up to more than the playful hair, the 1,000-watt smile and the dream figure. She was an actress, and by a lot more than the contractual definition.

She followed that 1984 effort by starring in the stage and movie versions of “Extremities.” Based on a play by William Mastrosimone, it was about a woman who gets revenge on the man who tries to rape her. Again, it took more attention away from the poster, more of the focus away from Jill Munroe.

Over the years, Farrah would alternate between airy blonde and weighty artist. It seemed that for every Playboy photo shoot, there was a collaboration with Robert Duvall (“The Apostle”) or Robert Altman (“Dr. T and the Women”).

In between the headlines involving her marriage to actor Lee Majors and then her long-standing romance with Ryan O’Neal, there were her three Emmy and five Golden Globe nominations.

Other female stars have gone back and forth between the domains of the sexy and the respected. But few have had such a career chasm to overcome. In show business, rarely does an actress begin from such a place of immense commercial popularity and go on to win over the critics.

But such journeys are never simply from point A to point B, and triumph. In recent years, Farrah Fawcett became known more for her stumbles. There was the infamous appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman” in the late ’90s, when she seemed incoherent. Some speculated she was drunk or on drugs. Others thought she had simply lost it, that a life in the fish bowl had finally caused her to shatter.

She had another such episode last year on a Comedy Central roast of William Shatner. For a new generation, Farrah Fawcett was becoming known as the subject of Internet video clips to send to friends for a good chuckle.

Leaves a complicated legacy

When it was revealed in late 2006 that she had cancer, the jokes slowed to a trickle, then stopped altogether. Now she was an icon in danger of leaving the planet.

She represented a time of light-hearted enjoyment, a stunning beauty who along with Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith formed a trio of self-assured ladies who turned heads as they were solving crimes. As a television show, it couldn’t have been more frivolous. Yet there is a place for superficial entertainment. Anything that keeps audiences dazzled and eager for more is a treasure of guilty pleasures.

A case can be made that the best television is simply that which is good to look at. And Farrah Fawcett — at least during the 1970s and early ’80s — was the undisputed queen of that which is good to look at.

She died at 62, far too young. But as in the case of most celluloid heroes and their small-screen counterparts, age doesn’t matter. Farrah Fawcett fought cancer, enjoyed a period of victory, had to battle it again, and ultimately she fell short.

She’s lucky, in a way. She’ll always have the youthful radiance of that poster. She’ll always be the fantasy tacked up on a young man’s bedroom wall. She’ll always be a reminder that someone too burdened by the unfair side of fame can turn around perceptions with talent and hard work just as assuredly as they can be created with a wink and a smile.

Farrah Fawcett’s legacy is too complicated and far-reaching to be explained by one photo shoot.