It’s a cynical world, and there isn’t much to do about it. I grab rare glimpses of virtue whenever I can, but I’m seldom overwhelmed with opportunities. A couple weeks ago, however, we all caught sight of incredible bravery, strength of character and guts, and I couldn’t let the event pass without taking note.
But before I go into that, I need to clarify what I believe Hollywood’s standard definition of an actress is: a body. If the body can recite lines of dialogue somewhat convincingly, so much the better.
As an actress moves into the field of celebrity, how she looks becomes even more important to the grist mill. Is she getting fatter? Is she sickly thin? Is her hair short, long, thick, thinning? None of this really relates to her acting ability, but all of it seems to be preeminent on the minds of the Tinseltown machinery. I haven’t seen Angelina Jolie’s turn in last year’s A Mighty Heart. Maybe she’s really great in it. I don’t know. But I know that her biggest roles, from the animated Beowulf to the Tomb Raider flicks and this summer’s Wanted, have relied very heavily on her looks. That’s just Hollywood and, in all honesty, it’s always been that way. Above and beyond possessing talent, an actress has to look good, and so the maintenance of the body becomes almost an all-consuming task.
Cut to the shocking announcement. Christina Applegate, only in her 30s, was diagnosed with breast cancer. We came to know her almost 20 years ago as the ditzy, slutty Kelly Bundy on Fox’s Married … With Children. She was, to be blunt about it, the eye candy of the show, but she also had sharp comic timing. She wouldn’t get enough credit for it until a couple decades later, when she held her own with the big silly boys in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004), and even though the premise of her role was, again, the hot object of affection, she handled it beautifully as the nemesis of Will Ferrell’s egomaniacal newscaster.
Her most recent role, in ABC’s dramedy Samantha Who?, has allowed her to work all of these aspects, showing range, an adeptness at wordplay, and the occasional bit of slapstick here and there. She had proven again and again she was more than a body, but for many, she would always be Kelly Bundy.
Her mom had had cancer as well, so Applegate knew exactly what the family history entailed. She also knew that, although many doctors will say they “got all of it,” the rates of recurrence and spreading are alarming. When confronted with the options, I’d assume most actresses would tend to factor in what is best for the body versus what is best for their overall health.
A year of chemotherapy and radiation is hell, but it isn’t as invasive as a mastectomy. Yet daring to focus on the big picture of her health versus the effect procedures might have on her physique, Applegate did what I believe many stars would consider the last resort: She went through with the mastectomy. Even more remarkable — double mastectomy. She wasn’t about to take that heartbreaking risk when the tests come back and remission has failed.
Did I mention that Christina Applegate is my hero?
It isn’t the first time she’s shown intense courage. In her efforts to become more than just the actress who once played Kelly Bundy, she took on the daunting task of reviving Sweet Charity on Broadway in 2005; the production folded before it even got put up. The rumor is she fronted her own money to get the production going again.
The New York theater critics, a perennially catty bunch, gave her little support and rather unanimously told her to stick to the small screen. Instead, she soldiered on. Then disaster struck again — a broken foot, not a great omen for a singin’-and-dancin’ type of musical. Her understudy, it was said, would move front and center. But that didn’t happen. Applegate confounded the cynics and the naysayers by fighting for her part.
Now, speculation is rampant that the broken foot was staged, a classic hoax in the tradition of producer and huckster David Merrick, who was so Machiavellian that, when he announced the death of 42nd Street director Gower Champion at curtain call on the musical’s opening night in August of 1980, the audience was convinced they were being played. Either way, the diversion threw light back on Applegate the performer versus Applegate the former TV celebrity.
It worked. By the end of the production’s run, those same critics who had their axes sharpened long before the first curtain call had to admit she did a fine job. It was a begrudging acceptance that, yes, she was an actress who didn’t take no for an answer, even when an entire industry was shouting her down. And now, in this new fight, with enemies inside her own genes whose slings and arrows are more deadly than bitchy, she rises to the occasion and does that unthinkable thing.
You may not find it to be remarkable, but as someone who has survived family members dying of cancer, I’m here to say it’s a damn triumph. My mother, having been diagnosed for the second time after living for years in remission, would have offered up any part of her body to stay alive. Yet, as I took her to her radiation treatments, I would see patients fighting with their physicians, struggling to maintain this fleshy, fragile vessel, arguing that it was imperative that they keep it intact.
One woman cried, “You can’t take my femininity from me. I won’t let you.” I sometimes wonder where she is today, or even if she is today, but more than that, I wonder what my life would have been like if Mom hadn’t died in June of 2000, days before my father’s birthday. I wonder how she could have spoiled my nieces more that Christmas, or how proud she would’ve been that Dan got married and had a baby of his own, or to see John, who was this close to being thrown out of middle school, graduate from college. Would she have listened to the music I make, or read my column here at Popdose? Would she have been there when my grandparents died, or when cousin Jody was finally overtaken by hepatitis?
Of course she would’ve. That’s why I’m here now, her proxy, because I’ll do what she can’t.
So you see, to me, this news isn’t just a footnote in the pop-culture zeitgeist, when the trampy teen queen Kelly Bundy grew up before the world, literally shedding her skin to fight this battle. She didn’t just stare down the stereotype of the narcissistic glamour girl with the camera always trained on her. Instead she laid it to waste. To me, it’s personal. She claimed what was about to be taken from her, and nothing, not even next month’s Cosmo cover, could stop her.
I’ll say it one more time, in case my point didn’t come through: Ms. Applegate, you’re my hero.