Christine Chubbuck: The Humanising Biographical Drama

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

Okay, initially we were going to review just the Antonio Campos film Christine (2016). Then we decided to include Kate Plays Christine (2016).

But then we decided to cover, as thoroughly as possible with the information available, Christine Chubbuck. Simply to pay respect to her. It’s not been done elsewhere (from everywhere we’ve checked), so we’ve done our research and put together this profile for her.

As it’s only in recent years the world has come to learn so much more about Christine Chubbuck, which we wanted to showcase beyond the sensationalist aspect of her story.

Christine Chubbuck’s Life and Career

Christine Chubbuck

Christine Chubbuck was born on 24th August 1944 in Hudson, Ohio. 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, friends, and colleagues recount her as extremely intelligent, talented, and capable, with a good sense of humour leaning towards the absurd.

In her spare time, she enjoyed listening to popular rock/folk music of the day. She was a big fan of the singer Roberta Flack. She also loved reading. And being a Florida resident in Sarasota, she loved the sea and was an avid scuba diver and beachcomber.

She was also, by all accounts, just really nice.

Her colleagues have confirmed that. But there are other stories, too. When she was 16, she had a 23-year-old boyfriend called Dave. Unfortunately, he was killed in a car accident. His friend was also paralysed in the crash. She 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 success of all this, accounts suggest she was frustrated with the station owner’s focus on violent news stories and sensationalism to try and gain more viewers.

And accounts also indicate she was increasingly frustrated about her personal life—primarily her dating prospects.

At college, she’d jokingly formed a Dateless Wonders Knitting Club for her peers who didn’t have dates on a Saturday night. The name alone shows off a fantastic, self-deprecating sense of humour.

But, unfortunately, these issues followed her into adult and working life. And her self-deprecation would often give way to serious personal criticism and doubts.

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

“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.”

In 2016, her brother Greg Chubbuck provided several interviews. These coincided with the films, which he was entirely against. And so he spoke out against them, revealing new information about his sister.

“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.”

The last time he saw his sister was on a Sunday night in July 1974, when they were at their mother’s house. She was using her handmade puppets to entertain his young daughter.

“In retrospect, there was an uncomfortable calm about her. She was more resolved than she usually was about everything. At the time, I didn’t see that.”

Sadly, her brothers seemed aware of her issues from a young age. Mr. Chubbuck’s older brother, Tim, told him:

“We have to hug Chrissie extra hard because we aren’t going to have her very long. He was 12 and I was 8 and in the back of our minds we always knew that our time with her was not going to be infinite.”

He added his sister received therapy support for depression, but in the circumstances that offered little genuine help.

“If you are treating someone for general depression and they have bipolar depression they actually get worse. So with that in mind, you can imagine my parents’ 20-year odyssey to try and help my sister understand why she didn’t look at the world the way everybody else did, while very expensive did not turn out to be fruitful. That never made my parents give up on my sister or quit loving her. Her two brothers adored her. My wife at the time and my little girl just worshipped my sister and none of that made any of the outcomes change.”

As you can see, Mr. Chubbuck believes his sister likely suffered from bipolar disorder. But it wasn’t a recognised condition in 1974.

However, we’ve 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.

Autism would certainly explain the extent of her social awkwardness that, despite her intelligence and good looks, led to major struggles when navigating social interactions. Although this is just speculation on our part.

And yet, despite the negative perception of herself, she was well loved in her community.

Her family, friends, and colleagues all describe her as a vibrant personality with a ready dry wit. In an interview with People magazine, her former boss, Gordon Galbraith, confirmed her sense of humour.

“Christine had a bizarre sense of humour. She was 29 years-old and she had no problem admitting she was a virgin. So one afternoon we were doing a mock newscast and because she had no qualms about being virginal at 29 she named herself Pristine Buttocks. ‘I am Pristine Buttocks and here is the news.'”

Now, we love absurd humour (which is why this site exists) and self-deprecation. And that bit of wordplay had us laughing like idiots, we must say.

Her friend Pauline Lunin also had this to add:

“She was a unique person. She was different. It was the ’70s and we were into folk things and the earth colours and she dressed in a bright way. I thought she was very talented.”

All we can do here is speculate. Unfortunately, in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s the understanding of mental health issues, and neurodiversity, just wasn’t as advanced as it is now.

And that means with the recent open dialogue on mental health that’s emerged over the last decade, this story from 1974 is a constant talking point online.

Yes, Christine Chubbuck could have been autistic, bipolar etc. But others believe she was lonely—nothing else. We’ve even seen one person on a forum claim her real problem was her ego (!), highlighting the many viewpoints about Christine and how she’s become the centre of attention in online debate nearly 50 years after her tragic passing.

For us, we simply want to know more about her. And that’s why we’ve done our research into the personality traits available online.

Our stance on this is, based on the range of descriptions about her, there was clearly an underlying issue blocking her. We have a portrait of a very intelligent, very likeable misfit. But when you’re a misfit trying to be normal and fit in, but failing, it can get very painful.

Particularly in the 1970s, when the pressure was high on women to get married, have kids, do the familial thing.

This is clearly something Christine Chubbuck also really wanted, so the pain was magnified alongside her other struggles.

What’s clear is she went to some lengths to plan things out. She suggested to her boss the station run a story on suicide. He agreed, so she spoke to a local police officer about the best gun to use and how to do it. And then she bought the gun.

Weeks before her death, she joked to 22 year old colleague Rob Smith about shooting herself live on air. He moved the subject on as dark humour.

Then, three days before her suicide, she invited her colleagues around to her home for a party on 12th July, 1974. Her colleague Craig Sager said:

“She didn’t seem the type to hang out and then all of a sudden we get this invitation she is going to have a huge party at her place. We thought, ‘This is fantastic. She is coming out of her shell. This will be a treat.’

[She] was smiling. She was having a great time. It was like, ‘Oh my god, this is such a different side to her.’ About 30 people, including co-workers and friends, attended the party.”

Of course, this turned out to be her farewell to her colleagues. And you can even see a picture of her two weeks before her death, smiling for the camera. The common masking behaviour severely depressed people can put on to cover their issues.

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. Over 100 people attended her funeral.

And her death did spark debate about mental health and depression, which is documented in local newspaper clippings from the time.

Three years after her death, she was remembered in this local news article.

Christine Chubbuck news story 1977

The director of the news station, Mike Simmons, tried to pass this off as a 29 year old being upset that she wasn’t married. Again, missing the complexity of the situation (likely to protect the news station’s reputation).

But he did at least have the clarity to say:

“It happened in July. Mention was made that day in the newsroom, three years later, that today is the day. She was an extremely intelligent girl and a good reporter, a real asset to the news department.”

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.

As what happened is very sad. This is a reflection on mental health struggles and, unfortunately, what can happen with the lack of proper support.

To note, 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.

But it’s just added to the legend.

And now 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.

As her struggles with mental health issues, not very well understood during her lifetime, led to such actions. And we have to just reflect on the loss of someone who, let’s face it, sounds so cool.

Christine (2016): Rebecca Hall’s Masterclass in Tragic Portrayal

We believe the first Christine Chubbuck film here portrays her in compassionate, intelligent fashion.

Simply called Christine, the 2016 release was directed by Antonio Campos. British actress Rebecca Hall stars as Christine Chubbuck in the 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 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 again, Christine’s brother 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: Unusual Documentary and Psychological Thriller

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.

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 allows you to do so.

2 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

    • Amongst the stupidity of my blog, I always expect you to add reason. Thank you kindly! This story does mean a lot to me and, after looking around online, I can see it does to a lot of other people in modern life. It hits an unflinching, raw nerve.

      Liked by 1 person

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