Monday, April 7, 2008

Fame through Murder

I don't think a lot of people saw Brad Pitt's recent movie The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. That's unfortunate because it offers some gorgeous shots of the American midwest and is superbly acted ... although it is pretty confusing at times. My boyfriend and I both felt like we should have made a cheat sheet to keep all of the characters straight — the kind of thing you write out while you're reading a Russian novel.

Anyway, before watching this film, I hadn't known much about what happened in the aftermath of Jesse James' death. Apparently, a few years after he killed James, Robert Ford opened a stage play in which he reenacted his killing of James. He also posed for photos in dime stores as the man who killed Jesse James. This particular film paints Ford as a man who was obsessed with making a name for himself, and he tried to use his killing of Jesse James to do that. It's reminded me of a particular modern example of sensationalistic crime where the "murderer" tried to capitalize on the crime to make money and notoriety.

O.J. Simpson's attempt to publish his book If I Did It, where he detailed just how he would have killed his wife and Ron Goldman, if he had in face committed the crime was at first curtailed because of intense public criticism. The projected was announced in mid-November 2006. Potential readers were shocked at his audacity, writing what seemed to essential amount to a confession. Many people stated that their opposition lay in the fact that Simpson was trying to profit from the deaths, deaths which he had been found responsible for in civil court. A website was started, called, and within four days of the book's announcement, 58, 395 people had signed a petition to stop the book's publication at this site. Meanwhile, over at, pre-orders for the book placed it as the site's #20 bestseller. Clearly, as much as some people were appalled by the ethics of the project, others were intensely interested in reading it. However, due to the great controversy, on November 20, the book, and an accompanying TV special, were cancelled.

Somewhat quietly, over the summer of 2007, the Goldman Family acquired rights to the book through bankruptcy court. It is now being marketed as If I Did It: Confessions of a Killer with added commentary from the Goldman Family, the ghostwriter, and Dominick Dunne. You can find copies of the book on It is far from a bestseller now though. It comes in at #8,122. Profits from the book go toward paying the settlement that Simpson still owes the Goldman family. Although, some speculate that the Goldmans' motivation is not financial but is to have a confession from the man they believe to be the killer of their son published and released.

We like to blame modern media for our drive for sensationalism, but clearly, our lust for celebrity and our desire to hear all of the gorey details predates our current age. We can see by the way people treated Robert Ford after Jesse James' death that there was interest in meeting the man who killed the great train robber. Clearly, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a modern movie, but the historical facts stand: Ford did act in a play that retold the story of his murder and he did post for photos with people who wanted a picture with him. He became a celebrity; people wanted to meet him, people wanted to know his story. The fascination with high-profile figures, their deaths, and the deaths they help to bring about is not unique to our age of mass media.

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