2 films recall life of TV reporter notorious for her on-air death

SHARE 2 films recall life of TV reporter notorious for her on-air death
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Rebecca Hall in “Christine.” | The Orchard

It’s one of the most shocking moments in TV history that virtually no one has ever seen.

In the midst of an afternoon broadcast on July 15, 1974, reporter Christine Chubbuck informed viewers that “in keeping with Channel 40’s policy of bringing you the latest in ‘blood and guts’ … you are going to see another first: attempted suicide.” The Sarasota, Florida, newswoman pulled a gun from under the WXLT anchor desk and shot herself in the head, dying hours later at age 29.

Since then, the footage has been seemingly impossible to find. It doesn’t exist online, and the only known tape has been in the possession of the former TV station owner’s widow, Mollie Nelson, who told Vulture she gave it to a law firm for safekeeping after her late husband refused to release it.

The irony that Chubbuck wanted her death to be seen, yet it’s now lost, is part of what intrigued Robert Greene, writer-director of “Kate Plays Christine” (scheduled to open at the Gene Siskel Film Center in December). The quasi-documentary follows actress Kate Lyn Sheil as she goes through the exercise of preparing to play the late journalist, conducting interviews and doing research around Sarasota.

“A lot of people have that vague sense of ‘I thought I knew about it,’ since it reverberated through pop culture,” says Greene, noting how Chubbuck supposedly inspired the 1976 black comedy “Network,” in which a character vows to kill himself on air. Instead, her suicide has become something of an Internet urban legend, inspiring clickbait lists of “most shocking deaths” and conspiracy theories that she may have never died at all.

Kate Lyn Sheil in “Kate Plays Christine.” | Grasshopper Film

Kate Lyn Sheil in “Kate Plays Christine.” | Grasshopper Film

That the footage has been kept under wraps for so long is not something “that’d exist today,” Greene says. “It comes from another era where, for good or bad, it was more swept away. People didn’t necessarily think they should see that type of thing. We live in an era today where we think we have a right to see everything.”

But for actress Rebecca Hall, Chubbuck’s life is just as fascinating as her death. Hall plays the troubled reporter in a new drama, “Christine” (opening in Chicago on Nov. 18), which explores how her severe depression and frustrations at work may have contributed to her demise. Chubbuck repeatedly clashed with her dismissive boss (Tracy Letts) over his desire to sensationalize the news to goose ratings.

“Her story is a harbinger of a lot of things we have trouble talking about,” Hall says. “We’re still having discussions about how we judge a woman in the workplace, the likability factor and different standards” that men are held to.

Chubbuck struggled with mental health issues and suicidal thoughts long before they entered the national conversation, which is part of what makes her story relatable for many.

“We all know what it’s like to feel stymied at work, to get depressed and feel unloved,” Hall says. “The film asks you to notice that [with the culmination of] those things — plus arbitrary circumstances of time and place, gender and brain chemistry — we might all go over the edge. … I related to knowing what it feels like to feel thwarted by life and that you’re not going to get over it, but I do, because I have the tools and she didn’t.”

The Chicago International Film Festival will show “Christine” at 5:45 p.m. Saturday and 8:15 p.m. Sunday at AMC River East 21. For details, see chicagofilmfestival.com.

Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY

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