Friday, July 21, 2017

Paroling O.J. Simpson: The Juice is Again on the Loose

So O.J. Simpson is back in the news again. As viewers of a live coast-to-coast video stream of his parole hearing know full well,  the Juice will soon walk free after almost nine years behind bars in Lovelock, Nevada. He was convicted in 2008  of participating in a bizarre caper that involved breaking into a Las Vegas hotel room to steal sports memorabilia. Before long he’ll be at liberty to resume searching for his wife’s killer on golf courses around the world.

I first heard the name O.J. Simpson at college football games, when his USC Trojans regularly trounced my alma mater, UCLA. As a running back, he was unstoppable—and charismatic. It wasn’t surprising that he went on to a record-setting pro career, first with the Buffalo Bills and then the San Francisco 49ers. It was while he was still playing football that he began to go Hollywood. He had featured roles in a number of thrillers, including The Klansman, The Towering Inferno, and The Cassandra Crossing. This was not surprising: there’s a long tradition of football greats appearing in action flicks, as Jim Brown did in 1967’s The Dirty Dozen. During my Roger Corman days, we cast the 49ers’ Roger Craig as a cop in something called Naked Obsession, because Corman was convinced that moviegoers would pay to see him chase down a bad guy.

O.J.’s star power helped him find roles in comedies too, like the spoofy Naked Gun series (1988, 1891, 1894). And such was his personal charm that many advertisers sought him to be their spokesperson. Most memorably, he did several commercials for Hertz Rental Car: he was always pictured sprinting through airports, leaping over any hurdles in his way, in order to claim his vehicle. (In that era, Hertz billed itself as the Superstar in Rent-a-Car.) Once when I was passing through LAX, I was tickled to see Simpson as a fellow passenger on the concourse. Like me he was walking, not running—which gave me a good giggle. I was delighted to catch a glimpse of him, because even those of us who didn’t follow pro football were not immune to his amiable persona.

That’s why it was so startling to find him connected with a murder case. It disturbed me to think of this iconic man as a criminal. And yet he had a talent for capturing the public imagination: even that infamous slow-motion white Bronco chase became riveting viewing. And the long years (1994-95) when he was on trial for murdering wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman made for must-see TV.

 Of course that was all two decades ago. We’ve had lots of other gruesome stories to entertain us since. But a duo of 2016 films returned us to the grim days of yesteryear. American Crime Story’s Inside Look: The People v. O.J. Simpson  won a prestigious Emmy for Outstanding Short Form Non-Fiction or Reality Series. Though that show was a re-enactment of the Simpson story as a courtroom drama, the same year brought us a multipart (467 minute) documentary called O.J.: Made in America, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The documentary raised some Academy hackles because of its length and its TV connection, but it had the virtue of probing in some depth why O.J. Simpson’s story continues to fascinate.  Why the “Made in America” subtitle? Because O.J.’s life somehow contains all the elements—not just money and murder but also race, class, gender, and celebrity culture—that make American life what it is today.  

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