2020 Film Essays

Tracking Tania: The Dramatic Life of Patty Hearst

Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst

The 1974 Kidnapping of Patricia Hearst by members of a revolutionary group calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was an event which seemed to confirm an abiding dread about the potential of politicised youth culture. In the minds of many who clung to the notion of the USA as the ultimate force for global good, the Hearst kidnapping became a dark fable whose lessons nobody dared believe, joining the panoply of social maladjustment the defiant spirit of the 1960s had unleashed: the Manson Family, the Weather Underground, the Unabomber, Jonestown, Kent State, Mỹ Lai. The kidnapping was attended by a realisation that nothing could prevent the wounds of the 60s from bleeding into the 70s; it served as the final confirmation that the shift in consciousness could not be reversed, and that everyone would have to make their own negotiation with the new contours of the discourse.

The participants in this story belonged to the first generation that was fully immersed in America’s all-encompassing media landscape; they grew up in the glow of TV; they came to view life through dramatic conventions, and took those lessons into the real world. As the granddaughter of press baron William Randolph Hearst, Patricia is a beneficiary of the media empire her family created, and the “yellow journalism” her grandfather was famous — and notorious — for utilising to control public opinion and twist events to advance the interests of his class. The radicals who flocked to the Bay Area in search of the fabled counterculture at The University of California-Berkeley were raised on a diet of Robin Hood and Saturday morning Westerns which inculcated both a levelling impulse and the valour of violent retribution. Consequently, the kidnapping was played out across the airwaves, with regular ‘communiqués’ from the SLA being broadcast, and the press camped outside the Hearst family home for updates. The media functioned as the conduit through which the terms of the conflict were set.

To begin with, the Hearst family was able to control the narrative: that their daughter was “a victim of thought control by terrorists”; that her decision to renounce her life of privilege and join forces with her erstwhile captors under the name “Tania” was a symptom of the acute Stockholm Syndrome from which she was suffering. But over time, Patty’s role in the story became more ambiguous, and people began to ask questions of the story that had been constructed: Was Patty Hearst a tragic victim, or the most flagrant traitor to her class? Did the SLA activate in the heiress a latent revolutionary impulse? Was this an act of generational revenge? It was in the realm of documentary that the version of Patty disseminated in the media began to be placed under scrutiny and found wanting. The 2004 film Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst and CNN’s 2018 mini-series The Radical Story of Patty Hearst portray Patty as a protean figure, capable of pouring herself into whichever form the situation demanded; one minute the self-described “urban guerrilla,” the next reverting to the Hearst scion.

In the aftermath of Patty’s return to the Hearst fold, the picture was simple: Patty Hearst belonged to America’s Brahmin caste (she is described by talking heads in Guerrilla: The Taking of Patty Hearst and The Radical Story of Patty Hearst as “uncrowned royalty” and “American nobility”); she embodied everything that is dynamic and alluring about the American free enterprise system. But to the SLA combat unit led by ex-con Donald DeFreeze, Patty was “an enemy of the people,” a grotesque excrescence of “the fascist insect that preys upon the life of the people,” and the SLA set out to strip Patty of her “bourgeois conditioning.” The dramatic recreations of the mid-to-late 70s were more than willing to preserve and promulgate this account; Patty’s onscreen surrogates remained  high-society princesses in peril, driven by grim necessity to criminality.

The Radical Story of Patty Hearst 

Joseph Zito’s lurid exploitation piece, Abduction (1975), is ostensibly based on Harrison James’ 1972 novel Black Abductor, but it was retrofitted to take full advantage of the Hearst publicity (the protagonist’s name has been noticeably altered via ADR to Patricia to lend it extra topical resonance). Though it takes pains to distance itself from “persons living or dead,” class=”Apple-converted-space”> Abduction uses the Hearst kidnapping as the template for its racially charged scare story. It puts forth the conception of Patty as the damsel under duress, an ideological naïf ripped from the bosom of security, thrust into political machinations beyond her tender ken, and lulled into militancy by a charismatic extremist (a version of DeFreeze played with a strange kind of hesitancy by David Pendleton). While Abduction is concerned that “self-styled revolutionaries” are creating “a new age of political anarchy,” its overriding dread is that of miscegenation. The fear of black potency is palpable; Pendleton’s Dory Palmer is depicted as monstrously alluring, possessed of almost otherworldly powers of persuasion, and politics is merely a pretext for sexual retribution. Abduction revels in its sadism while professing to condemn it, exhibiting the prurient self-loathing of all conservative outrage cinema.

The 1979 TV movie The Ordeal of Patty Hearst is an unsubtle but instructive work based on the recollections of FBI investigator Charles Burns (Dennis Weaver). The Ordeal is something akin to a silent majority horror story; the ordeal is the establishment’s, and Patty becomes a symbol of the innocence and self-esteem the country must retrieve, speaking to the state of disorientation which would animate the impending “Reagan revolution” (Reagan was the governor of California when the kidnapping took place). Armed “creeps” are its monster, stalking the shadows of suburbia to an ominous score with shades of John Carpenter. It is as much a lament for the passing of “the good old days” of the FBI, in the wake of new scrutiny following the Church Committee, where numerous Bureau misdeeds were brought to light (among them the COINTELPRO program). The brainwashing hypothesis — which has been dismantled by the likes of Jeffrey Toobin — once again comes to the fore; Felton Perry’s DeFreeze is positioned as a budding Manson, incapable of exhibiting anything beyond hatred and coercion. Once again, Patty is stripped of the agency she clearly displayed throughout her time with the SLA (she spurned multiple opportunities to escape), and it is left to the cruelly rebuked Bureau to overcome the “active contempt” in which it is held and rescue Patty from the lair of the seven-headed serpent. The end result has all the nuance of Dragnet.

Patty was effusive in her praise for the 1988 adaptation of her controversial autobiography, Every Secret Thing. Adapted by Nicholas Kazan and directed by Paul Schrader, Patty Hearst is an exercise in grappling with the caveat of its origin and sorting through the emotional detritus to retrieve something beyond strict subjectivity. As with Schrader’s other character pieces, Patty Hearst manages to burrow under the surface and unearth the contradictions; Kazan attempts to resolve the tension between what is stated and what is understood, to mollify its author while letting in the harsh light of historical fact (given Patty’s approval, it was evidently a successful effort). As one would expect from an artist of Schrader’s calibre, Patty Hearst is a cut above any previous treatment of the story; it is stylishly shot by Bojan Bazelli, hallucinatory in places; its use of lighting and angles is reminiscent of the nightmarish effect Welles created in The Trial (1962). Schrader and Bazelli dramatise Patty’s descent into death, turning her struggle for definition into a sort of ghost story.

As Patty, Natasha Richardson is a light years ahead of Judith-Marie Bergan in Abducted and Lisa Eilbacher in The Ordeal. She is the first to invest the dramatic Patty with something more than submission, bringing out the defiance and exasperation which drifts towards a realisation that the seemingly solid foundations are much more pliable than she dared believe. Richardson deftly evinces the bewilderment of existing outside of a fixed reality; nothing bears any weight for Patty, and Richardson skilfully brings forth her precipitous mental freefall and desperate grasping for some semblance of self. Upon her capture, she is thrust back into life wondering where “the real me” is situated; she remains as unknown to herself as to any observer; she only exists to generate more questions. Ving Rhames lends an undercurrent of vulnerability to Kazan’s more multi-faceted rendering of DeFreeze; it is a forceful but focused performance that serves to bring home the smallness and fragility of the SLA, the desperation and imposture which undergirds so much of its bluster. This new family has its own interpersonal intricacies, and the other members of the group are fleshed out to become more than functionaries blindly following DeFreeze’s ironclad diktats.

Patty Hearst is keen to frame this story as more than a battle of wills between Hearst and DeFreeze, which had been the preoccupation of the previous versions; so the female voices of the SLA are presented as a counterpoint to the bombast and machismo of DeFreeze and William Harris (William Forsythe). Patty encounters a kind of female solidarity that her old life had never afforded. A cynic may contend that Patty was simply being primed for indoctrination, but the point is made rather persuasively that we are all subject to social conditioning; we all reside in a state of compromise; we all adapt by jettisoning what is antithetical to the conventions of the collective. The women rebel against the retrograde sexual politics that threaten to assert themselves in the fractious relationship between William and Emily Harris (Frances Fisher). At the same time, Wendy Yoshimura (Jodi Long) resists William’s attempt to reduce her to a useful ethnic prop in his insurrectionary designs, stating that “I don’t want to lead anyone.” Wendy condemns William as “the guilty racist” who is searching for “a black god to save him,” that his anger is driven by “wanting to be tall and black.” Kazan manages to critique the New Left from a position of proximity and sympathy (which is somewhat ironic, given his father’s history), adding a much-needed note of complexity. Within the later exchanges are the seeds of the New Left’s eventual splintering into distinct interest groups when it no longer had the Vietnam War to bind it.

In all the previous retellings of this story, Wendy Yoshimura had been a peripheral figure; but Semi Chellas’s adaptation of Susan Choi’s 2003 novel set out to redress this. Though it makes clear that “This is a work of fiction,” American Woman (2019) is a retelling of the events surrounding the aftermath of the shootout with an LAPD SWAT team at the SLA safe house in Inglewood, California, which resulted in the deaths of six SLA members. This left the Harrises and Patty to continue a struggle many saw as over by 1975; Richard Nixon had resigned in disgrace and the war in Vietnam was over (as investigative reporter Tim Findley comments in Guerrilla: “The Left just doesn’t know when it’s won”). The remnants of the SLA holed up in a remote Pennsylvania farmhouse, where they planned to write a book, and Wendy was brought in to assist them in putting the book together. Wendy — renamed Jenny (Hong Chau) in American Woman — went underground after the arrest of her Revolutionary Army cohorts in 1972; at the outset of American Woman, she is working as a carer for Miss Dolly (Ellen Burstyn) and struggling to maintain contact with her imprisoned boyfriend. 

American Woman finds Wendy waiting to burst into self, but having to be content with gratifying the white narratives around her; she doesn’t have the privilege of William’s romanticism; she cannot seep back into the white tide. Patty — renamed Pauline (Sarah Gadon) — is a plangent reminder of Wendy’s otherness in the eyes of these children who have forsaken “good homes” to place themselves on the outside. William — renamed Juan (John Gallagher Jr). — has the largesse of the victor, commending “Orientals” for their “exceptional aim” and being aggressively expansive with any person of colour he meets; he parrots the language of liberation, but lacks the sensitivity to put his ideals into practice. Wendy was born in a Japanese-American internment camp; she has stared into the eyes of American power in a way none of her fellow revolutionaries could comprehend. Patty is a vision of that power, “the princess” to her core, and Wendy grasps that she can shelter in Patty’s rays.

American Woman Movie Film

Though American Woman is Wendy’s story, it is inevitably shaded by Patty’s talismanic presence. Chau delivers a mesmerising performance as a woman who is equally awestruck and repulsed by Patty, played to bereft perfection by Gadon. Patty becomes a burden Wendy feels obligated to shoulder, knowing deep down that “she was always a captive” and “a girl like that doesn’t really change.” She is content to play along, with the understanding that their story will not end with divisions being bridged or revelations being reached. The world will return to its previous configuration, and they will go back to their separate lives. Though it occasionally sacrifices accuracy in pursuit of its own conclusions, American Woman brings into relief the fissures that would tear the New Left apart, as its white intellectual founders drifted from the dispossessed of the American experiment. In all her dramatic iterations, Patty Hearst stands for an American purity that was always illusory but remains hallowed, that successive generations have set out to wrest back from the forces of complication. It is a return to a morning or a greatness whose limits those dispossessed know all too well. 

D.M. Palmer (@MrDMPalmer) is a writer based in Sheffield, UK. He has contributed to sites like HeyUGuys, The Shiznit, Sabotage Times, Roobla, Column F, The State of the Arts and Film Inquiry. He has a propensity to wax lyrical about Film Noir on the slightest provocation, which makes him a hit at parties. The detritus of his creative outpourings can be found at waxbarricades.wordpress.com.