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Town Without Pity 

Wednesday, Apr 24 2002
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Photo by Slobodan Dimitrov

YOU WOULD HAVE THOUGHT THEY'D COLLARED EICHMANN all over again last week. News of Robert Blake's imminent arrest for the 2001 murder of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, detonated across TV screens last Thursday with a white flash that momentarily blinded viewers to even the possibility of other news. For a few hours it seemed as though the networks had activated an emergency broadcast system that existed for the sole purpose of announcing alerts about troubled celebrities. A triangulation of camera locales quickly emerged during the media's carpet-bombing of L.A. with Blake stories: the gate of the Hidden Hills neighborhood where the actor was arrested; Vitello's Restaurant in Studio City, the scene of Bakley's last supper; and, of course, the county jail.

The Baretta star and his bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, were arraigned Monday, and the cirque du media resumed outside the Van Nuys courthouse early in the morning amid a gallery of hand-printed placards. One ascetic-looking man sat surrounded by a jumble of them ("Ariel Sharon Is Humpty Dumpty"), Melrose Larry Green walked about with several ("The Parrot Did It"), and even Lyndon LaRouche's organization beamed down a table of activists with their own ("WWIII Will Not End the Depression!"). Later, a woman distributed glossy posters for a documentary purportedly telling "the shocking true story" about Blake, although her company's Web site appeared to be bogus. Around the back of the courthouse, Sheriff's deputies prohibited photographers, for "security reasons," from taking any pictures of the driveway through which Blake would be delivered from downtown -- even from across the street.

Nothing happened on the Blake front in Division 100 for the first five hours of its business, proving that the grinding wheels of justice is no empty metaphor. The large courtroom's subdued lighting, wood paneling and sprinkling of desert plants gave it the air of a Palm Springs steak house. Reporters had nothing to do but watch the small human-interest stories of drug- troubled youths unfold before them. Occasionally Blake's attorney, Harland Braun, would appear here or in the hallway, kidding around with the press and filling the air with his lawyerly, back-of-the-Pacific-Dining-Car laugh.

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EVEN THOUGH AERIAL FOOTAGE OF A WHITE SEDAN ON the freeway taking Blake to jail filled last week's TV screens, the obvious comparison to the O.J. Simpson white-Bronco chase was more farcical than appropriate. In fact, the phrase most often heard this week was "Blake will not be O.J.," meaning that the D.A. and LAPD have spent 11 months meticulously gathering their evidence so as to not repeat the mistakes that tarnished their case against O.J. Simpson eight years ago.

More subliminally, however, it means that Blake is not on the same celebrity plane that Simpson was in 1994 -- in terms of either star magnitude or sex appeal. Certainly, Bonny Lee was no Nicole, just as Studio City is not Brentwood and Vitello's is not Mezzaluna -- Earle Caldwell isn't even Kato Kaelin. But "Blake will not be O.J." also describes a certain hardheadedness that we've acquired over the last decade. In 1994 no one could or would assume that the likable Simpson was capable of brutally slaying his wife and Ronald Goldman. Today, though, we reflexively embrace the conventional wisdom that a murdered woman's killer will most likely prove to be a lover or spouse. If O.J. could do it, anyone could.

Yet the Blake case still fascinates us because during the last few years we've become hooked on the crimestyles of the rich and famous. The media created an appetite for this kind of thing, and now the public needs -- demands -- that it be fed a celebrity every now and then. TV and the tabloids oblige by building up the suspense and importance surrounding whatever Hollywood miscreants are handy, even if people like Blake or Paula Poundstone are hardly household names. (The E! network aired its new True Hollywood Stories episode on Blake a week ahead of schedule.)

In a sense, the media are like the Colombian drug cartels -- merely appeasing an existing demand of the American public -- but it would be simplistic to blame tabloid news for our celebrity obsessions. Pop culture has entered a phase in which our movie stars not only mature, grow old and eventually die before our eyes, but one in which their personal lives form a kind of national meta-drama. This creates an irresistible narrative arc: It's one thing to see Mickey Rooney and Jackie Cooper evolve from child stars to adult actors, it's quite another to see them go from embodying apple-cheeked innocence to murder most foul.

Commentators are now gleefully ransacking Blake's film work to find telling ironies, especially from the more violent movies in which he played baby-faced loners -- usually In Cold Blood, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Electra Glide in Blue. But it is Blake's 1961 role in Town Without Pity that must taunt him the most today.

In it, he plays an accused gang-rapist who left behind an incriminating piece of evidence at the crime scene. ("Something goes wild inside me and I don't care who the girl is," he tells lawyer Kirk Douglas. "She hasn't got a chance.") And, in the same manner of the trash-talking orchestrated by Braun against Blake's wife following her death, his movie lawyer saves Blake's neck by impugning the victim's morals.

Monday's arraignment was about as anticlimactic as possible. A little past 2 in the afternoon, Caldwell walked in wearing an unbuttoned white shirt and slacks, followed by Blake in a light-gray herringbone suit -- a formal look oddly belied by the kind of greaser haircut he wore in In Cold Blood. Looking at this senior citizen with a 1950s juvenile delinquent's flip, at a man who is neither Eichmann nor O.J. but whom we instinctively "know " is guilty, the only thing left to wonder is, who will play him on TV?

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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