Christine Chubbuck: The Humanising Biographical Drama

Christine 2016 film with Rebecca Hall
One of two films released in 2016 about Christine Chubbuck.

Okay, so this is a very sad post today. Just as a warning. And it also contains disturbing topics.

It’s also a bit more unusual in structure to our other film reviews, including a mini-biography along the way.

Initially we were going to review the Antonio Campos film Christine (2016), but then decided to include a second film review about the same person.

And then we realised we should also open with a bit about Christine Chubbuck to pay respect to the woman the films are about.

For a long time, it was believed her story inspired the Oscar winning film Network (1976). However, that turned out to be merely a disturbing coincidence.

And it’s only in recent years the world has come to learn more about her personality, rather than the violence of her end almost 50 years ago.

Christine Chubbuck’s Life and Career

Christine Chubbuck

Christine Chubbuck was born on 24th August 1944 in Hudson, Ohio. It would have been her 77th birthday yesterday. She died in 1974 on July 15th aged 29.

She was a local broadcast journalist working for the WXLT-TV news station in Sarasota, Florida.

She joined as a reporter, but the station owner was impressed and handed her a morning community affairs talk show called Suncoast Digest.

We first came across her story in early 2006 whilst we were at university and it fascinated us with how terribly sad it all was.

As the internet era began taking off, so her story started doing the rounds online and renewed interest in what happened led to two feature length films in 2016.

There’s also a lot of intense debate online about the nature of Chubbuck’s death—she committed suicide live on air after announcing:

“In keeping with the WXLT practice of presenting the most immediate and complete reports of local blood and guts news, TV 40 presents what is believed to be a television first. In living colour, an exclusive coverage of an attempted suicide.”

Despite much debate (and even a faked recording), the footage of this incident hasn’t been seen since 1974. And rightly so. Apparently, the only known remaining tape is stored within the vault of a major US law firm.

But the very public nature of her decision continues to spark debate about mental health.

An excellent feature article (published a fortnight after her death) revealed a woman plagued with depression and struggling to connect with others.

You can read the full feature on Chubbuck here (published August 4th, 1974) it’s a considerate and thoughtful piece of journalism. By Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn, it was titled:

“Christine Chubbuck: 29, Good-Looking, Educated. A Television Personality. Dead. Live and in Color.”

That’s the type of headline that highlights people’s incredulity about the incident.

Her family, and colleagues, recounted her as talented, smart, and capable, with a good sense of humour leaning towards the absurd.

She was also apparently a remarkably kind woman.

She had an older boyfriend when she was a teenager, but he was killed in a car accident in 1961. His friend was also paralysed in the crash. Chubbuck spent many years after, each morning, helping him to rehabilitate.

After this, and into the ’70s, she also created homemade puppets and put on puppet shows for the sick children at local hospitals.

Another article released the day after her death saw colleagues describe her as very liberal on many matters and dedicated to her career.

The Suncoast Digest role she took very seriously, inviting all sorts of local luminaries (politicians etc.) on for discussions.

Unbeknownst to her (she died before being informed), she was up for a nomination for the Forestry and Conservation Recognition Award by the Florida Division of Forestry for all her various community efforts.

Despite the relative success of all this, she was frustrated with the station owner’s focus on violent news stories (sensationalism) to try and gain more viewers.

But the main issue in her life was her inability to form close relationships. At college, she’d jokingly formed a Dateless Wonders knitting club for her peers who didn’t have a date on a Saturday night. But these issues followed into her working life.

She was clearly a beautiful woman, but insights from her mother Peg (who died in 1994) revealed her daughter’s struggles. She told reporters in July 1974:

“She was terribly, terribly, terribly depressed. She had a job that she loved. She said constantly that if it ended tomorrow she would be glad she had had it. But she had nothing else in her social life … She was very sensitive.

There was a haunting melody in Chris. She gave so many presents, spent so much money, not to buy their friendship but because she wanted to. It’s almost like her life was a little out of gear with other people. She was the only person I ever knew who would walk into a room and every head would turn… yet nobody ever came over and asked for her phone number. It’s been like that since she was 13.”

And in 2016, her brother Greg said in a very rare interview:

“My parents had spent a literal fortune trying to figure out why their gorgeous, beautiful, ­brilliant 10, 12, 15, 17-year-old didn’t react to people the same way as everybody else.”

He believes his sister likely suffered from bipolar disorder. But this wasn’t a recognised condition in 1974.

However, we’ve also seen various other assessments online suggesting bipolar depression doesn’t cover the full range of her struggles. And that she potentially had a high functioning form of autism.

Weeks before Chubbuck’s death, she joked to 22 year old colleague Rob Smith about shooting herself live on air. And on the day she did it, she typed out a complete broadcast script detailing what would need announcing to viewers as she was rushed to hospital.

She was the first person to die by suicide on live television.

We’d certainly like to be able to report more about her personality here, but there isn’t much more information available.

Her story does, at least, shine attention on the importance of mental health and having an open dialogue about it.

Because what happened is tremendously sad.

And the fixation of an online community in digging up a recording of her suicide is further indication of the problems with sensationalism and the distorted reality it creates.

These people are pursuing a goal with complete entitlement, believing it’s their right to see the recording. All for a morbid kick—a crude moment of carnal satisfaction, with no concern for her surviving family, friends, and colleagues.

In fact, and as we hope we’ve shown above, over the last decade more details of Christine Chubbuck’s many endearing personality traits have emerged.

We hope the focus turns towards these and who she was as a person. Along with how it was a mental illness (not understood during her lifetime) that led to such actions.

And we believe the first film here does so in compassionate fashion.

Christine (2016)

British actress Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck in this Curzon Artificial Eye production.

Scriptwriter Craig Shilowich and the film’s crew went to great lengths to recreate the early ’70s Florida vibe. And Shilowich clearly put a lot of effort into basing as much of the story as possible on real events.

All the characters have the real names of Chubbuck’s colleagues in 1974. And there are scenes such as the journalist providing puppet shows for kids in hospital—a sign they’d done thoughtful research.

However, there’s some embellishing and Hollywoodisation going on. But crucially, this isn’t an exploitative work. It’s a character study and an intelligent one at that.

Rebecca Hall is outstanding as Christine Chubbuck. It’s a subtle performance that hints at the mental health issues within, rather than any crude oversimplification.

And it’s a very strong film, even if it’s very sad to watch.

There are some frustrating changes of fact, such as the suicide taking place in the evening (when it was the morning) and Chubbuck’s mother watching live. That didn’t happen and is seemingly added for needless dramatic effect.

And how her mother comes across as clueless about her daughter’s issues, whilst in interviews it’s apparent they were very close and open about it.

To note, Christine’s brother Greg spoke out against both films in production about his sister.

“I spent a long time making sure nothing got produced. As long as my parents were alive I wanted nobody re-telling the sad story of Christine’s life.”

However, legally he wasn’t able to prevent them from entering production. And he was concerned the depictions wouldn’t be accurate. The result is he’s refused to watch either film.

This meant for us watching Christine we felt guilty given her brother’s wishes, but at the same time we consider it an important depiction on the destructive qualities of depression.

We presume his concern was his sister would be portrayed negatively—a dateless spinster out of place in society.

But that’s really not the case here. Her portrayal is very likeable and it’s only with distress that you watch her descent.

As with Nic Cage in Leaving Las Vegas (1995), another classic movie about depression, Rebecca Hall makes the film with a nuanced and intelligent performance.

Certainly the best thing she’s ever done, which was noted by top film critics such as Dr. Mark Kermode.

Despite receiving much critical acclaim, Christine wasn’t much of a financial success and was snubbed by many major awards ceremonies.

However, it’s since gained a reputation as a work that was unfairly ignored that’s something of a minor modern classic.

Kate Plays Christine

Also released in 2016 (bizarrely) was this strange docudrama.

It follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil’s preparation for a role as Christine Chubbuck in a genre blurring mix of fact meets… acting.

Straight up, it’s an odd film. Pretentious. It even, weirdly, has a scene where a makeup artist tells Lyn Sheil she’s much prettier than Christine Chubbuck was (!?). As if that’s accurate, relevant, appropriate, or even worthwhile including in the final film.

Despite a lot of Lyn Sheil brooding on screen and posing, the docudrama does have some high points.

It does, for example, explore Chubbuck’s life. In the below clip, a former colleague (19 at the time of her death) has this touching interview.

So it does go some way to find footage of Chubbuck as, despite being a TV broadcaster, there isn’t much material available to watch.

The station she worked for, WXLT, didn’t keep many recordings of its broadcasts.

In that respect, Kate Plays Christine is one of the more detailed and serious efforts of modern media to try and explore the woman behind a notorious incident.

Yet, as a film, we feel it fails to deliver much more than a vanity project for Kate Lyn Sheil.

Even though we’re sure that wasn’t her goal with the project, it’s a misguided effort to add pseudo-intellectual clarity to events whilst pouting to the camera.

Of both films reviewed, it’s still odd that two would emerge in the same year.

But if you want to learn about, and understand, the 29 year old from 1974, Christine is the project that does so.

3 comments

  1. I bumped into her story randomly sometime ago. Devastating and disturbing is a good way to describe it. It’s a shame such a talented young woman was driven to that point by a lot of circumstances which were beyond her control.

    Liked by 1 person

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