Why did reporter Christine Chubbuck shoot herself live on air?

Actor Rebecca Hall had serious reservations about tackling the macabre story around why Chubbuck killed herself in 1974. So what changed her mind?

The official trailer for 'Christine', the macabre story around why reporter Christine Chubbuck killed herself live on air in 1974. Video: Curzon Artificial Eye

 

On the morning of July 15, 1974, Christine Chubbuck, a 29-year-old television presenter, arrived at Channel 40, the local Florida TV station where she worked. “She was in extraordinary good spirits,” wrote Sally Quinn in a Washington Post article the following month.

None of Chubbuck’s colleagues (a technical director, her male co-anchor and two camera-women) saw any reason to question her decision to change the running order of her show, Suncoast Digest, which would now open with a report on a local shooting rather than an interview.

The programme aired, as usual, at 9.30am, but within minutes the team hit a technical snag when the prerecorded VT failed to roll. There followed a moment of dead air until Chubbuck returned to her script: “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.”

With that, Chubbuck took a .38 calibre Smith & Wesson revolver from the bag in which she kept puppets – used to give shows at a local hospital for intellectually disabled children – and shot herself behind her right ear. Thousands of viewers witnessed her on-air suicide.

As she was rushed to hospital (where she was later pronounced dead), a coworker found a blood-soaked news story on her desk. It was Christine Chubbuck’s account of her own death, written in longhand.

Fateful footage

Within hours the story had made headlines all around the world. Within months it was forgotten, save for those morbid investigators who, once the internet age took hold, would obsess over finding the fateful footage. It remained an obscure historical footnote until last year, when not one but two films about Christine Chubbuck premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

The second of these, simply titled Christine, has earned strong reviews for actor Rebecca Hall, who provides a forensic account of Chubbuck’s final weeks. Hall had never heard of Chubbuck when she first met with director Antonio Campos (who directed Simon Killer) and screenwriter Craig Shilowich.

Indeed, Hall’s first reaction was to hide the screenplay from herself: who would ever want to see such a macabre project?

“My gut feeling was fear,” says Hall. “I didn’t know why you would make this film. There’s an endless circular irony to the things she did. Of course, she was suffering from a horrible, horrible mental illness, and this is the end result of that. But against that, the things she did have to be contextualised as a sort of primal scream against a world that was becoming more exploitative. She was literally exploiting her own suffering in front of the world. That demands a balancing act.

“If you can make a film that is about sensationalism without being sensational, then you’re really on to something. But I’m proud to say that I think we did it.”

Hall, the daughter of opera singer Maria Ewing and theatre director Sir Peter Hall, made her screen debut in 1992, at the age 10, in the miniseries The Camomile Lawn. She has subsequently proven her thespian clout across a variety of dramas (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Frost/Nixon, The Town), blockbusters (Iron Man 3, The BFG), comedy (Everything Must Go), and a cache of award-winning theatrical productions.

Senseless suicide

Hall’s portrait of Chubbuck is a remarkable thing: a counterweight to such dismissive terms as “senseless suicide”. The tragic journalist’s mood disorder is not depicted as a flat-line slump but, rather, a nuanced account of depression in which Christine can giddily look forward to a date with her handsome co-anchor (Michael C Hall), engage in girl-talk with a colleague, Jean, and end up in screaming matches with both her mother (J Smith-Cameron) and her station boss (the indomitable Tracy Letts).

“If I feel something for a character, then I feel responsible that I should probably try and make other people feel something,” says Hall. “I felt a huge responsibility to the real person.”

Last summer, screenwriter Shane Black revealed that Hall’s original role as the villain in Iron Man 3, was pared back due to “merchandising concerns”. The actor is hardly unaware of or untouched by misogyny. Yet the sexism faced by Chubbuck was far more monolithic. When the journalist raises concerns about the news becoming increasingly lurid, her boss’s response is appalling, but not atypical of her 1970s office environment: “What’s your problem, Ms Chubbuck? You’re a feminist. You think that the way to get ahead is by talking louder than the other guy. That’s the whole movement in a nutshell.”

“I think this is an important exercise in understanding people,” says Hall. “There’s a parallel with the character Jean in the movie, who is a woman working in the same pressurised environment. There’s a moment in the film when she says to Christine: ‘When I feel sad, I eat some ice cream and sing a song.’ In essence, she’s saying: ‘I have the tools to carry on surviving. I might not like it, but I can deal with this.’

“What we are asking with Christine is to spend two hours in the company of someone who doesn’t have those tools. And then, hopefully, you have a greater understanding of how terrible that environment is. In truth, nobody should have to deal with that environment.”

Essentially unknowable

But why did Chubbuck do it? The film doesn’t provide any easy answers. Did Hall develop a working hypothesis to carry her through the performance?

“Part of the balancing act of the film is that it’s asking you to get close to someone who is essentially unknowable. It does that very respectfully, because it makes suggestions without creating false certainties. You’re dealing with someone who was a true journalist. We had to honour that.

“I suppose I ended up logically working out that if you are someone who, for whatever reason, has an impulse to kill themselves, then every day is a fight to stay alive. Every day she gets up and thinks: if I just succeed at this thing, if I just make friends with X, then I won’t kill myself. I’ll make it through the struggle of the day. She works out that if she’s going to survive, she needs to provide juicier ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ stories. And realises: If that’s what you want, then I’m not going to make it.”

Kate Plays Christine, an experimental documentary about Chubbuck, was released here last year. Why have these two films about a forgotten historical episode emerged independently of one another? And why now?

“Her story is just very emblematic of so many things that we are grappling with as a society right now,” Hall ventures. “The notion of living your life in front of a camera. The notion that it didn’t happen unless it happened on camera. Fake news. The fact that she is subject to gender prejudices that haven’t gone away. Mental health issues that we still don’t entirely know how to talk about or ask for help. The stigma around suicide.

“What she does is to sum up all of that in some sort of way, and really throw it at you, and ask you to think about it.”

Christine is on release now.

PANEL: UNSEEN FOOTAGE

Christine Chubbuck’s suicide: Thousands witnessed the TV reporter’s suicide live on air. But all copies of the video were reputedly destroyed at the request of her family. Last year, the widow of the news station’s owner, Robert Nelson, claimed she had found a copy among his effects.

Dnepropetrovsk Maniacs: The Dnepropetrovsk maniacs are Ukrainian teenage serial killers who committed 21 murders in June and July 2007. Their mobile phones and personal computers contained multiple video recordings of the murders, at least one of which was leaked to the internet.

Steve Irwin’s death: The Australian wildlife presenter known as the Crocodile Hunter was killed when a stingray attacked him while filming underwater in 2006. Once reviewed by Queensland police, all copies were reportedly destroyed at the request of his family.

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