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The Burning Bed (1984) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

francine mickey abuse children

Principal social themes: women’s rights, child abuse/spouse abuse, divorce, education/literacy, homelessness/poverty

Tisch Productions. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Farrah Fawcett, Paul LeMat, Richard Masur, Grace Zabriskie, Penelope Milford, Christa Denton, James Callahan, Gary Grubbs, Virgil Frye, Dixie Wade, Deena Michaels, Jeremy Ross. Written by Rose L. Goldemberg based on the book by Faith McNulty. Cinematography by Isadore Mankofsky. Edited by Richard Fetterman and Michael Stevenson. Music by Charles Gross. Produced by Carol Schreder, Jon Avnet, and Steve Tisch (executive). Directed by Robert Greenwald. Color. 98 minutes.

Overview

Based on an actual case, The Burning Bed was one of the most important telefilms ever to deal with women’s rights and spouse abuse. Playing a victim of battered woman’s syndrome, it was the most critically acclaimed performance of Farrah Fawcett’s career. After suffering a beating, her character poured gasoline on the bed in which her former husband slept, ignited it, and killed him. She was acquitted of a murder charge using a defense of temporary insanity. The Burning Bed was broadcast by NBC on October 8, 1984, and it received a large number of Emmy Award nominations. The Burning Bed was named as Best Feature at the first International Television Movie Festival.

Synopsis

The film opens as Francine Hughes (Farrah Fawcett) is fleeing from her burning house with her three children in March 1982. Shortly afterward, she is charged with murder. Her court-appointed attorney, Aryon Greydanus (Richard Mauser) meets with her but finds her dazed and unresponsive. He pleads with her to cooperate, and she finally begins to tell her story, going back to the mid-1960s when she met the volatile Mickey Hughes (Paul LeMat). She fell in love with him, even though she felt he was somewhat of a bully. They marry and eventually had three children, Christy, Jimmy, and Nicole. She becomes terrified of his physical abuse, which began to grow in intensity. She applied for a divorce, gaining custody of her three children. Mickey then has a terrible automobile accident. When Francine visits him in the hospital, he was entirely covered in bandages. She decides to help with Mickey’s rehabilitation, even moving into the small house adjacent to the Hughes’ place. As he recovers, Mickey seems to be genuinely grateful. In spite of being pressured by Mickey’s parents and her own mother, Francine refuses to remarry Mickey. However, he still considers himself to be her husband. When she tries to leave, he takes custody of the children. She contacts a number of social agencies to assert her rights, but none are able to help her. She realizes that in order to be with her children she has to return to the house adjacent to the Hughes’ home. Mickey’s abusiveness continues to get worse. At one point, she has to flee and locks herself in the closet at the home of her in-laws. The police come to get her out and take a statement, but they would not charge Mickey because they did not witness his assault. Francine decides to complete her education and wins a special scholarship. Mickey decides to undercut her new independence by beating her and ordering her to burn her books. He then forces her to have sex with him. After he falls asleep, Francine takes the gasoline he made her use to burn her books and pours it around the bed in which he is sleeping. She ignites it, driving off with her three children. At this point the flashback ends, and Greydanus begins to research her case. The law does not provide any loophole for battered women to claim self-defense in their state (Michigan), so he decides to take the risky course of claiming temporary insanity. Mickey’s parents are witnesses for the prosecution, claiming that they never witnessed any abuse. Christy, the eldest daughter, however, provides devastating testimony about her father’s relentless abuse. Francine herself makes a credible witness, and she wins acquittal.

Critique

The Burning Bed has been credited with inspiring legal reforms regarding women’s rights in many states. The telefilm, in fact, caused a minor uproar. It is a remarkable effort on many levels. The brutality is very difficult to watch, quite different from the stylized violence that flavors so many films. The performances are remarkable and believable, particularly Farrah Fawcett’s as Francine. The choices she makes throughout are frequently wrong, although her intentions are correct and honest. Her biggest mistake is her sympathy for Mickey after his accident and her decision to help in his rehabilitation. She had escaped the trap, and then foolishly stepped back in, even without her firm decision not to remarry. This essential point is misunderstood by some viewers, who do not realize that Francine and Mickey are divorced during the last half of the flashback. Technically, Mickey’s attacks are not spouse abuse, but straightforward assault and battery. The consideration of rape, another obvious situation in the case, is never addressed. When Francine seeks help from various social agencies, they let her down, advising her to get a lawyer. For some reason, she is unable or unwilling to take this step, and she even shows a reticence at first to deal with her own court-appointed attorney. Her fears are that the law might turn against her, declare her an unfit mother, or otherwise destroy her life.

The picture, however, is not flawless. The story is presented in a haphazard fashion, which sometimes dilutes its clarity and impact. The courtroom scenes are flat and unrealistic. For example, there never appears to be any cross-examination. The story could have been further enriched by examining the district attorney’s attitude in prosecuting the case. The audience is never aware if he even acknowledges the horrendous abuse. Interestingly, the jury is largely female, one that could more readily understand Francine’s desperate plight. Besides women’s rights, abuse, and divorce, the screenplay also addresses other factors affecting Francine: her poverty and lack of psychological support. Her main breakthrough, her decision to return to school, is in many ways a triumph. She only snaps after Mickey destroys this dream, her lifeline to a better future. One of the best areas for discussion after viewing The Burning Bed might be an examination of Francine’s possible options and the prospect of success for each alternative. Conversely, it is important to decipher Mickey’s character. Was he a hopeless case, a monster with no redeeming features? Did he have such an inferiority complex due to his lack of education that he panicked when Francine began to improve herself? At what point in the storyline could an intervention with him have been successful? What about Mickey’s parents? To what extent are they responsible since they were on the premises during all the main events of the story? Finally, what was the impact of these experiences on the three children? Did they suffer any guilt for the events after they unfolded? Could they ever have a normal relationship with their grandparents? The Burning Bed , in any case, addresses a large number of social concerns worth exploring.

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9 months ago

I thought this movie was a great movie