Sunday, January 29, 2012

A Lost Opportunity

"Virtually any unwanted contact between two people that directly or indirectly communicates a threat or places the victim in fear can be considered stalking."

National Center for Victims of Crime

Stalking wasn't a new phenomenon 30 years ago. It just wasn't recognized for what it truly is. Not yet.

I'm not an expert on the subject, but my best, most logical guess would be that it's been around as long as there have been jilted lovers — which means, I suppose, that it has been around since virtually the dawn of time.

(Of course, one need not have been jilted to stalk someone else. Jilted suggests that some kind of relationship existed at one time — and that is not always true.)

When I was growing up, stalking was almost exclusively used in descriptions of hunting trips. I've never been hunting, but it didn't require very vivid terms for me to imagine the mindset of a hunter stalking his prey, anticipating its moves and seeking to exploit its vulnerabilities.

It's one thing, though, to apply the term stalking to the pursuit of an animal. No matter what one's thoughts on guns and hunting may be, it's quite another issue when the term is applied to human relationships.

Combine the mentality of a stalker with the emotion swirling around a case of obsessive love, and you've got a volatile (and potentially deadly) situation on your hands.

In the 1990s, states started to take stalking seriously as a threat, mainly to women, and began writing laws making it a punishable offense. But, prior to that, most jurisdictions treated stalking as a nuisance, a hindrance to investigations into legitimate crimes, not as a probable prelude to an attack.

It was in such an environment that "The Seduction" was released on this day in 1982.

The movie starred Morgan Fairchild, a rising actress at the time, as a TV news reporter who attracted the obsessive attention of a photographer. It was a classic tale of stalking in which the stalker's attention evolved from an almost schoolboyish crush to something far more sinister.

The tag line for the movie made no bones about it, either: "Alone ... frightened ... trapped like an animal."

In 1982, Fairchild was regarded as one of the entertainment world's most beautiful women. Consequently, her casting in this role was something of a mixed blessing.

Her presence almost certainly helped the film with its box–office revenue, but it distracted attention from a legitimate issue and may well have delayed society's recognition of it.

If such a movie was made today, it would be promoted openly as a cautionary tale about stalking. The script might even be structured to provide helpful hints for dealing with such a situation.

But, in 1982, it was labeled an erotic thriller — and was widely panned by critics. It also received three Razzie nominations, two of which went to Fairchild.

I didn't feel that was fair. The word erotic was misapplied — I sincerely doubt that any 21st–century woman who has been the victim of stalking would describe the experience as erotic — but I felt the word thriller was a fair description. Certainly, there were times when I thought the movie had an Alfred Hitchcock or Brian De Palma aura, particularly when the stalker was hiding in Fairchild's closet watching her without her knowledge.

Perhaps those who nominated films and people for the then–new Razzies expected to see more skin than they did. Given Fairchild's status as something of a sex symbol, that may explain their negative reactions.

I won't pretend that the script couldn't have been better — much better, in fact. When one looks at the movie today, many of the lines sound like cliches and the acting often lacks believability. As the story progresses, one comes to the conclusion that the story has been promising something it can't or won't deliver.

Nevertheless, a great opportunity may have been lost. Several celebrities were the victims of stalkers in the 1980s, eventually prompting California to become the first state to pass anti–stalking laws in the early 1990s.

If stalking had been taken more seriously when "The Seduction" was made, actresses Dominique Dunne and Rebecca Schaeffer might not have been killed and Theresa Saldana might not have endured a near–fatal stabbing.

But the movie was panned, and it took nearly another decade before society recognized stalking as the crime it is.

Part of the problem may have been the title. "The Seduction" made the actions of Fairchild's stalker seem almost noble — the passionate, heroic and romantic (and, in that context, excusable) acts of a man deeply in love.

I have no doubt that many stalkers see themselves precisely that way. Many may be totally unaware of the negative impact their actions have on the lives of the women they pursue. They believe they are being persistent and that the object of their affections will come around.

If the title had sounded more ominous, reflecting the odious nature of stalking, viewers might have taken the subject matter more seriously, and the opportunity to make a statement might not have been lost.

At least one prominent person apparently did appreciate the effort that was made — Bette Davis, who reportedly saw the movie on cable and was inspired to write a letter to Fairchild telling her how much Davis admired her work.

Fairchild's performance really was groundbreaking in much the same way as Elizabeth Montgomery's performance in TV's "A Case of Rape," which brought attention to the shabby treatment of rape victims by the legal system a few years earlier.

"A Case of Rape," however, had a better script, and Montgomery's performance was stronger than Fairchild's.

Still, I give credit where credit is due. For all its flaws, Fairchild's performance did rise above the exploitative nature of the script.

And I'd like to think that its cautionary tale wasn't entirely lost for a decade, that there were lives that were saved and acts of savagery that were prevented before legislators in most places enacted laws designed to curb stalking.

But I doubt it.