Sunday, October 9, 2011
|With Daria Halprin|
Never heard of him? Don't let it bother you. He was never really that famous, and if he ever was, it was for a brief moment in the very early 70s. He was never part of the glamour of Hollywood, but a footnote to an idealistic, but misguided, era. He is exactly the kind of character I like. He was a might-have-been that never was, and maybe, really, never should have been in the first place. He would still be alive had he not taken his convictions to the Quixotic heights that he did.
Not the greatest actor (his first starring role was a decidedly wooden effort) or bank robber (he was convicted in 1973), he nevertheless holds a fascination for me.
This erstwhile French Canadian bad boy could well be called a victim of the Hollywood fame machine, but he took the opportunity given and used Hollywood for his own ends as well. Of course the trade-off was less than equal (it always is concerning Hollywood), but he left enough of a smear on the life of social commentary for me not to forget him.
I first came across Zabriskie Point in the early 1980s. Where I grew up we only had three TV channels, and one of them was French. There was a program on French CBC called Beau Dimanche, or Beautiful Sunday. It was there, in English with French subtitles, that I saw Frechette. Beau Dimanche could be at times racy, being French, and there was always the chance I could see some male frontal nudity, something a budding gay boy is forever in the mood for. Zabriskie Point, directed by Michelangelo Antonioni, was suppose to be a comment on modern America, laying bare the angst and ennui of the young American counter-culture. The director had scored a hit in 1966 with Blow Up. Zabriskie Point, though, ended up being an indulgent and derivative expose of how Hollywood money pandered to the youth culture of the time. In it, Frechette plays 'Mark', a constantly mopey and disaffected young man trying to do the right thing, and at the same time, doing his best to stick it to The Man. He is sought by the police in a shooting incident, but whether or not he actually fired the gun is not clear in the film. There are a lot of things in the movie that are not clear, and even to my teenage critic, (the person who I was at that time), the film was quite ridiculous.
Regardless, Frechette was in it, and I was transfixed by his handsome face. Whether life imitates Art, or it is the other way around, Frechette's life after Hollywood was a strange experience in Déjà vu. It is almost as if, in taking the role, he fulfilled it as a true character not in the movie itself, but in real life. He went on to make a few European films, one of them called Uomini Contro, in 1971. It is quite a good anti-war film, in which he looks smashing in period costume - and acts reasonably well - even if his voice is clearly dubbed.
He was discovered for his role as a star in Zabriskie Point on Charles street in Boston by Sally Dennison, Antonioni's Assistant Casting Director. He was apparently bearded and yelling 'mother fucker' in an altercation at a bus stop, and that was enough for Dennsion to push him to the head of the short list. No doubt his handsome face under the beard and his attitude went a long way for her. "He's 20 and he hates," was the oft quoted reason for his casting.
The movie was greeted with howls and labelled a bomb, the two leads, Halprin and Frechette, were called blank and flat in their portrayals - no arguments there. The script is also awful, full of counter-culture buzz words and silly student debate. Even before the movie was released, it had been picketed for its anti-Americanism by right wing groups. Antonioni was an avowed leftist, and had inserted an ending with Frechette sky writing 'Fuck you America' with his stolen plane. It was cut by the censor board and does not appear in the final edit. The FBI was tailing the cast and crew. It really was one of the artistic nadirs of Flower Power.
Frechette received about $60,000 for his work, which he gave to Mel Lyman, a pre-Manson cult figure in the Boston area. Frechette had been trying to enter the cult for some time. It was his money that opened the door. There is a Dick Cavett talk show clip on YouTube that features Frechette and Halprin. At the time, they were obviously in the thrall of Lyman. The Lyman community was characterized as a cult that 'did not kill people', in reference to the famous nights of Charlie Manson's carnage in '69 - although by all accounts Lyman was clearly off the rails. He was a folk musician turned 'God', in his own words. The Lyman trust actually survives as a construction company, the beginnings of which were the creation of the community and restoration of part of a ramshackle set of buildings in a Boston neighbourhood called Fort Hill. With Frechette's rise to fame he was allowed to enter into it. Previously, while on the set of Zabriskie Point, he constantly left copies of Avatar, Lyman's God fanzine, at Antonioni's trailer door.
After Zabriskie Point, Uomini Contro and other smaller European film work, he ended up at Fort Hill in the Lyman cult at loose ends. On August 29th, 1973, in what Frechette called an 'inevitable' incident, he and two other Fort Hill members staged a robbery of the New England Merchant's Bank. He later said that the robbery was a culmination of his feelings about society at the time and was a perfect response. He noted, succinctly, that bank funds are insured - and the bank would be reimbursed - so no one was the real loser. No one, except for one of his accomplices, that is. Frechette's gun was not loaded and was thrown down as the robbery unraveled, but 'Hercules' Thein, one of the three, was shot dead in front of Frechette. Frechette and Sheldon 'Terry' Bernhard were convicted of armed robbery and sent away for up to 15 years.
It was in prison, a few years later, and in a deep depression over the death of Thein, that Frechette was found with a barbell resting on his neck, having died of suffocation in the prison gym. It was a strange death, but there was no sign of a struggle and so his life was easily brushed aside by the authorities. He had not been eating and had lost weight. He was pressing about 70 kg, but was weak and the barbell slipped. He was 27 years old. When the robbery had put his name back in the papers (he had virtually disappeared inside the Lyman compound), he told the press, "I just do what I have to do, because if you fall asleep like most people in this society, you're a fuckin' dead man..."
In finding out more and more about this young, tragic, and forgotten fellow, I was greatly helped with information by a few articles from the Boston Phoenix and Rolling Stone Magazine, written by Dave O'Brian. Trawling the internet, you can find small bits of information. As well, I recall a book by Michael Medved, which I have since misplaced, called The Golden Turkey Awards. I stumbled across it and bought it shortly after seeing Zabriskie Point on CBC. In it was my first taste, hilariously sent up by Medved, of the over-blown self-importance and vacuity in the making of what has eventually become a cult classic.