Why a Reporter's 1974 Televised Suicide Resonates Now More Than Ever

Images courtesy of Joe Anderson.
Images courtesy of Joe Anderson.

The movie Christine opens with the title character framed in the ghoulish light of a 1970s TV station monitor, pretending to interview President Richard Nixon. She nods carefully at the empty chair beside her, so carefully that it’s clear she isn’t imagining his response but rather her own face, and how it moves.

“Have you noticed I do this thing where I nod a little too sympathetically when I’m interviewing a subject?” Christine asks a co-worker afterwards. “No,” the camerawoman replies, puzzled.

Christine tells the story of Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old Sarasota, Florida newscaster who made history in 1974 by committing suicide, via gunshot, on live television. Afterwards, it was discovered that she had written up a news report of her own suicide, referring to it as “attempted,” apparently just in case. Her shockingly public death was not actually seen by that many people (pre-Internet, her morning talk show on Sarasota’s Channel 40 had a viewership of between 500 and 1,000 homes), but it briefly made national news. Sally Quinn wrote a long feature on Chubbuck for The Washington Post, and it remains the fullest picture we have of the incident and what may have lead to it. The story’s headline reads: “Christine Chubbuck: 29, Good-Looking, Educated, A Television Personality. Dead. Live and in Color.”


Rebecca Hall, who plays the film’s protagonist, somehow manages to fully grasp a character whose historical counterpart was, according to the Post’s interviews with family and colleagues, both beautiful and not beautiful, desperate and removed, likable and off-putting, a television personality who struggled to communicate or connect. Christine, the film tells us, is an ambitious, hardworking journalist, but her career won’t go quite where she wants it to. She’s also been hit with a devastating cascade of personal setbacks: she is a 29-year-old virgin who lives with her mother; she will have to have an ovary removed soon, and likely won’t be able to have kids; most crucially, she suffers from some sort of hazy, apparently untreated mood disorder. (In reality, the Post reports that Chubbuck was in therapy for depression and had previously attempted suicide. Her brother has recently said he now believes she was bipolar.)

Save for a few changes—siblings were eliminated, a friendship reimagined, a traumatic surgery moved into the future tense—the script broadly works within the narrative frame outlined in the Post, imagining it out into a story that has empathy for its protagonist but doesn’t lionize her, or ignore the damage she left behind. Christine, which was directed by Antonio Campos and written by Craig Shilowich, is beautifully shot, and in manually warping our point of view to match its protagonist’s frantic self-absorption, other characters are sometimes out of focus or only half in-frame. Despite this, a strong supporting cast—including Michael C. Hall, Veep’s Timothy Simons and an incredible Maria Dizzia (playing Christine’s friend and camerawoman Jean)—helps pull the movie away from the exhausting, Oscar-bait close-up it could have been into something three-dimensional, even warm, a feat considering its incredibly violent and theatrical central plot point.

In the film and in life, Christine Chubbuck was said to hate the sensational “blood and guts” stories Channel 40 relied on for its ratings, a phrase she used (“in keeping with Channel 40's policy in bringing you the latest in blood and guts”) just before killing herself on air. According to the Washington Post, WXLT-TV station owner Robert Nelson later boasted about the publicity garnered by his employee’s death. There is a fairly gaping stylistic trap here, and it’s one that Christine largely avoids; the movie is harrowing, but makes a visible effort to be more than that. “It seems very morbid and feels exploitative, and why’s there a film about this?” Rebecca Hall told the New York Times of her reaction when she first got the script. But “a lot of people go through life trying to perform normalcy, and I think you can relate to that.”

A second film about Christine Chubbuck, this one a sort-of documentary titled Kate Plays Christine, premiered in August and was released at Sundance alongside the feature film (the two are unrelated). It grapples more explicitly—albeit perplexingly, in a setup that eagerly blurs the lines between documentary and drama—with the questions raised both by Chubbuck’s suicide and our own delayed fascination with it. Kate Plays Christine, which was directed by Robert Greene, follows an actress (Kate Lyn Sheil) as she prepares to play Christine in a film that doesn’t appear to actually exist.


Sheil—who is possibly acting the entire time, although the film also draws on real interviews and footage—becomes darkly obsessed with inhabiting a character who she finds eerily, upsettingly similar to herself. She struggles to reenact the sensationalistic death of an ultimately unknowable person without “fetishizing a crazy woman”; an ethical quandary the movie eventually seems to declare unavoidable. Chubbuck’s death, according to local interviews shown in the documentary, was all but forgotten in her own hometown, and “the movie is about trying to fill in meaning for this thing where there’s such a hole or a vacuum of meaning, such a vacuum of information,” Greene told Vulture. It’s destabilizing, watching a movie that doesn’t want you to trust its motives. Kate Plays Christine is a story about our tendency to distort stories, and it questions our right to tell them at all.

Although both films approach the topic with care, and an eye to the stifling conventions that may have helped crush their subject (in Christine, the protagonist is harangued for being a “feminist,” and passed over for a big job in favor of a guy with “paternal energy”; in the Washington Post, Chubbuck was called “masculine” and “a Gloria Steinem”), Kate Sheil, like Rebecca Hall, grapples with the argument that any attempt to write meaning onto Christine Chubbuck’s life and death is inherently exploitative. And maybe it is. Christine’s brother Greg refuses to see either film. “Nobody wants to know who Christine Chubbuck was,” he told People. “They want to sensationalize what happened at the end of her life.”


While our picture of Christine herself may never be fully accurate, these films, along with the strange coincidence of their release, nudge at a compelling question: Why, after 42 years, have we chosen to commemorate this?

Illustration for article titled Why a Reporter's 1974 Televised Suicide Resonates Now More Than Ever

Women have always been watched, in some way or another, and particularly for qualities that allow the watchers to ignore more nuanced realities. We watch each other, too, to learn when to be embarrassed of ourselves. We like to look at beautiful women, and unstable women, and celibate women, and cruel women, and talented women, and, of course, dead women. We watched Tippi Hedren get silently, gracefully mauled by birds, not realizing at the time that she was being harassed behind the scenes; we watched Princess Diana so intensely that it led to her death. We’ve also watched a lot of actresses cry while watching themselves in the mirror.


In acknowledgment of this endless performance, we’ve learned to keep close watch on ourselves, checking and re-checking our human reflexes until it becomes a significant coup to behave with anything approaching authenticity.

Since Christine Chubbuck’s death in 1974, the porn industry boomed, eventually managing to dictate the appropriate look and sound of a supposedly uncontrollable moment; Grey Gardens also premiered at Cannes, Victoria’s Secret held its first fashion show, and Tonya Harding became a household name after her husband hired a bodyguard to break Nancy Kerrigan’s right leg. In 1993, Hillary Clinton was portrayed as a dominatrix in Spy Magazine, and a few years later with a dick under her skirt. Although the mainstream media has mostly tabled its obsession with her looks and sexual functioning, we continue to watch her for the canned speech and guardedness that ostensibly arose from it.


A more immediate high-profile negotiation took place when Kim Kardashian recently appeared in a sweatshirt and low hat, hiding herself and her daughter from the cameras, after being robbed at gunpoint and then scolded by Karl Lagerfeld et al. for “displaying” her wealth. Kim, whose life has been a performance for some time now, is in the process of dialing it back to a level of remove deemed morally acceptable to her critics.

In real life, Chubbuck’s struggles clearly extended beyond entrenched gender roles, but this sense of self-directed voyeurism is steeped throughout Christine. She’s watched through monitors, frowns at reel footage of herself, and performs bleak puppet shows at a children’s hospital (“How do you know it’s a stranger?” one puppet asks another. “What if you know them, but you don’t really know them?”). When she talks to George, a swaggering unrequited crush played by Michael C. Hall, she looks pained, frozen, a green glow from a nearby pool table shifting a flirtatious moment into something almost frightening. She even tries pitching something like a reality show to her boss: “That is the big question that we’re all running around trying to answer: what would it be like to be someone else?”

As I watched this movie, I was hit with a gnawing, alarming sense of familiarity with this person who shot herself on live television, a perception that also drives the narrative of Kate Plays Christine. Is there something about Christine Chubbuck—or rather, the way she’s been portrayed onscreen—that invites personal comparison, and not only from a woman’s perspective? Obsessive self-monitoring, after all, has very recently become a universal character trait.


Human nature has always made room for jealousy and curiosity; we’ve always been concerned with telling stories about ourselves and each other, working to discover what it would be like to be someone else. But today, thanks to a deadening array of iPhone-accessible narrative devices including a platform that allows a couple to litigate their conveniently timed divorce in front of their fans, not only do we have access to that (warped) information, but we also feel obligated to perform as “someone else” for someone else. Our lives can increasingly seem to amount to the narratives we build around them.

At the same time, those platforms have confronted us with endless footage of ISIS beheadings and black men getting shot by police and refugees drowning in the Mediterranean, regularly negotiating down our capacity for shock. The “blood and guts” that Christine Chubbuck protested and eventually surrendered to is now, for better and for worse, a constant reality. Her death, which managed to stay remarkably private despite her clear intentions, recalls a time when there were things we didn’t want to see.


The footage of Christine Chubbuck’s suicide vanished after it initially aired, and in recent years a very small, very determined group has been desperately searching for it. Chubbuck’s coworker Gordon Galbraith said in Kate Plays Christine that Christine asked him to record that day’s show, and Sally Quinn told New York Magazine that she watched a recording a few weeks later for her Post story; afterwards, though, the tape’s location became hazy. According to New York Magazine, the “death hags” of FindADeath.com, a site dedicated to famous deaths, have created a massive message-board documenting the search for Chubbuck’s tape. It has been designated the “holy grail” of death footage.


Mollie Nelson, the widow of station owner Robert Nelson, eventually contacted New York to reveal that her husband had owned a copy of the tape, and that, fearing for her safety, she had entrusted it to a “very large law firm.”

It’s possible that both movies were made because producers, always mining for content, randomly came across this piece of history around the same time. It’s possible that both films are resonating now because it’s a fascinating story, and one that we haven’t heard in a while. It also seems possible, however, that Christine Chubbuck’s suicide and the immediate aftermath constitutes a crucial flashpoint hovering right before we became what we are.


Correction: A previous version of this post mistakenly stated that Tonya Harding hired a bodyguard to break Nancy Kerrigan’s leg. Her husband and three others were found guilty for the attack, although Harding plead guilty to conspiring to hinder prosecution.

Ellie is a freelance writer and former senior writer at Jezebel. She is pursuing a master's degree in science journalism at Columbia University in the fall.

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I think now more than ever that women about to turn 30 and single or their careers aren’t going anywhere are much more vocal about the struggle of being lonely and watching all your friends go through those big life moments and feeling depressed as to why you’re not progressing. The studios have caught on to that aspect of the now and what other compelling way to bring that to life than with this story. I didn’t know her story but I plan to catch this film. Also, Rebecca Hall, y’all.