I know, I know, this post is SO 2019, but it wasn’t until I watched the most recent film mentioned here that I realized that there had been enough versions of this one story to constitute an entire subgenre, and then I wanted to wait until Mother’s Day for my own impish reasons so here we are.
Dee Dee Blanchard is the Missouri woman who was killed in 2015 by her teenage daughter Gypsy Rose and her slow boyfriend Nicholas Godejohn, after a lifetime of hurts wrought by Dee Dee’s Munchausen’s-by-proxy. Gypsy Rose had been a prisoner her entire life, confined to a wheelchair, administered all manner of daily drugs, and exploited for free swag, including a donated house, and free vacations, and lots and lots of attention. In the end, it turned out there was nothing wrong with the girl. She and her boyfriend are now cooling their heels in the slammer. Gypsy’s ostensible motivation in the stabbing of her mother (or having her stabbed, her boyfriend committed the act) was self-defense and escape, but there has to have been a modicum of revenge in there as well. Was Dee Dee a con artist and an abuser? What do those words mean when the person who commits them is clearly mentally ill herself? Some believe that Dee Dee also starved her mother to death, too. She was obviously a monster, but she was just as clearly not right in the head. A tale this tawdry is tailor made for trash TV, but it is also fascinating and raises all sorts of thought provoking questions about our culture. A mother who uses the trappings of maternal devotion to actully feed off a child to make a living, and more than a living? It has something in common with stage mothers, like these we wrote about here, but naturally, worse by orders of magnitude.
The show biz machinery moves so quickly nowadays. There used to be a grace period of a decade or two before true crimes were exploited in film and television drama. Today, the corpse has not even cooled and the screenplay is already warm from the printer . News programs and documentaries came out as early as spring 2017. A few months later came the dramatizations, with all the deperate dispatch of Sooners staking claims during the Oklahoma land rush. Good or bad, I’m not going to feel guilty about watching some of these films as camp. For they are that; the only question is whether or not the filmmakers know it. This is a sideshow situation, with a literal gaffed freak at the center of it. It’s the sort of thing John Waters would probably have loved to get his hands on in his prime, with Divine as Dee Dee and Edith Massey in diapers as Gypsy. It is a story one only tells for its bizarrerie. Surely behavior like Dee Dee’s is not a common problem, spreading through society like wildfire, is it? Surely it’s nothing we can relate to? In the reality TV tradition, its one semi-redeeming story value is “look at the freaks.”
At any rate, for all those whose own mothers are less June Cleaver than Mama June, I heartily recommend these cathartic Halloween/Mother’s Day horror cocktails:
Mother of All Murder (January, 2018)
This was the second epiosde of James Patterson’s Murder is Forever program on the ID network. It aired in January, 2018, over a year before Godejohn was finally sentenced for his role in the murder. This being an ID show, if falls somewhere between a documentary and a drama, with the narrative taking place at the level of true crime show re-enactment.
Sharp Objects (July, 2018)
We hasten to stipulate right off the bat that this terrific HBO series was NOT inspired in any direct way by the Dee Dee Blanchard events. It’s based on a 2006 Gillian Flynn novel, a work that was already in bookstores almost a decade before Dee Dee was laid out on the cooling board. But it does take us deep into a Munchausen’s by Proxy scenario, and the timing of its presentation seems to posit it within this little subgenre. If not specifically tied to the news events. If nothing else, it’s part of the zeitgeist. Both stars, Patricia Clarkson as the mom from hell and Amy Adams as the sickened daughter, were nominated for Emmys.
Love You to Death (January, 2019)
There is no cheesey Lifetime role Marcia Gay Harden will not lower herself into like a carnival Amazon into a mud wrestling pit. In her Dee Dee inspired character, she sports a fat suit, a Marty Allen wig, and traditional trailer park accent, and she definitely belongs across a dinner table from Glenn Close’s character from Hillbilly Elegy. It stands to reason that Lifetime would be the first to plant the flag (after ID Network’s reenactment style dramatization) on this story, and they give it their patented, torn-from-the-tabloids in-house treatment, making it easily the hokiest and most cynically conceived of the bunch. Technically, the movie is fictionalization. The names of the characters have been changed, though little else. Emily Skeggs is the Gypsyesque character. Best of all, we were delighted to see that Joe Cook’s great grandson Brennan Keel Cook (whom we mentioned here) is in it, as the Godejohn character. It’s good to see the family hasn’t left the circus after all.
The Act (March, 2019)
This eight-part series, which premiered on Hulu, is not just the definitive telling of the actual story, but the best artistically. It is the creation of journalist Michelle Dean, who’d written about the events in a Buzzfeed article as early as 2016, in collaboration with Nick Antosca, who was earlier the creator.showrunner of Syfy’s Channel Zero (2016-18). It is better by an order of magnitude than the Lifetime version, it should go without saying. It’s not just beautifully shot but terrifically acted. Patricia Arquette as Dee Dee and Joey King as Gypsy both took home Emmys. Unlike Skeggs, who’d worn a bald skullcap for her Lifetime role, KIng shaved her head. Cutting off your hair doesn’t make you a better actor, but it speaks to the level of commitment the cast brought to this series. I was especially floored by Chloe Sevigny, whom I associate with posh, sophisticated characters, in a very down-to-earth working class role as a neighbor who gets drawn into the events. The show also has Adam Arkin as a detective (Arkin also directed an episode), Juliette Lewis, AnnaSophia Robb, Calum Worthy et all. Arquette’s work is especially to be savored, though: subtle, nuanced, and even sympathetic. She took the trouble to try to figure the woman out, and it yielded dividends.
The Politician (September, 2019)
Ryan Murphy never met an exploitable gimmick he didn’t like and so a major thread of the first season of his Netflix show The Politician (co-created with Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan) is the still topical Dee Dee-Gypsy story. Naturally, the events are fictionalized so as to serve the main plot thread of the ambitious Ben Platt character’s rise to power. Season one is about high school and his race for Class President. Initially he and his team want to exploit the “special”, wheelchair bound Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutsch) for sympathy votes, but they soon learn that she and her grandmother/caregiver (Muphy muse Jessica Lange) are more dangerous sharks than he is — and he’s an aspiring Richard Nixon. One interesting twist in this version is that Lange’s character is a gorgeous, if tacky, old glamor-puss. It’s a worthy entry into her catalog of late career harridans. She’s at the top of her game these days; I’m planning a big post on her. I think she is the bees knees; to me she’s what it’s all about. She’s quite monstrous on this show, and loses her shit more than a few times, with electric results. Needless to say, it’s hysterical. It was my favorite thing about the show, and that’s saying a lot on a show that also has Gwyneth Paltrow, Bob Balaban, Judith Light, Bette Midler, Jackie Hoffman, January Jones, Dylan McDermott, Martina Navratilova, and (blast from the past) Terry Sweeney!
Run (October, 2020)
Run, co-written by Aneesh Chaganty (who also directed) and Sev Ohanian (who also produced), demonstrates the virtue of letting a story percolate and aerate, and talk to other stories, so that it can develop a life of its own. Clearly inspired by the Blanchard events, it also has moments where it reminds one of everything from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? to Stephen King’s Misery. Here we are several steps beyond fictionalized reality, and into a psychological horror story with its own merits. The presence of Sarah Paulson (another Murphy Muse) as the nut mom had me ready to expect camp, and it was rewarding to be disappointed — it’s a pretty straight-up scare fest. The genius of this version is that we stick close to the Gypsy character (Kiera Allen), and we share her isolation and terror as she is trapped in her house with a psychotic mother who has been giving her dog tranquilizers that paralyze her legs. In this one, we root for her escape; it’s less about a murder plot, though we do get some good twists at the end. This movie was originally produced for theatrical release with an opening slated for Mother’s Day weekend. Because of the Covid shut down it was instead released on Hulu last fall — where it became the platform’s most-watched show ever. It’s available at this writing on Netflix. Watch it today with your mom!