Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
February 12, 1993
A remarkable NBC documentary airs at 9 tonight on Channels 4, 36 and 39. Academy Award winner Barbara Kopple's "Fallen Champ: The Untold Story of Mike Tyson" is brawny, roundhouse filmmaking, tapping many emotions while significantly adding to the lore about its controversial and perplexing subject. It deserves a vast audience.
But it was Wednesday night's Michael-Tells-All-to-Oprah spectacular that transfixed much of the nation and had ABC, and everyone else associated with this cash cow, moonwalking all the way to the bank.
It was at his exotic Santa Ynez estate where Michael Jackson--a giggly, emotional, bizarre-looking phantom of a figure--danced and sang for Oprah Winfrey and, like a chalky apparition fleetingly brought to life, gave the world some of the scoop it was dying to know.
No, he doesn't spend his leisure time reclining in an oxygen chamber.
No, he doesn't want to buy the Elephant Man's bones.
No, he didn't want a little white boy to play him in a Pepsi commercial.
Such weird tales about him living a life in falsetto were merely "God-awful, horrifying stories" perpetuated by tabloids.
"I'm a black American," Michael protested. "I'm proud of being a black American."
But wait a minute. Winfrey, whose own company produced this event, wasn't just a piece of furniture here. If he was so proud of being black, she wondered, then why was his skin getting, well, you know, whiter and whiter?
Not from skin bleaching, the King of Pop insisted, emotionally, almost in tears. Instead, he said his pale makeup was required to control a serious "skin disorder." If Oprah was wondering why dark makeup wouldn't work just as well, she didn't give a clue.
And on other pressing matters:
* His Face. He said he'd had "very, very little" cosmetic surgery, and in only two areas, one being his putty of a nose, which now resembles the one he wore as the Scarecrow in "The Wiz."
* His Crotch Grabbing. He has been criticized for making what some regard as lewd gestures during his dance routines. Michael Jackson Crotch Watchers reported six sightings during his celebrated 13-minute Super Bowl halftime show, whose estimated worldwide audience of 133 million obviously included many impressionable children. "I think it happens subliminally," Michael told a skeptical-looking Winfrey, adding that the music "compels" him do it.
* His Social Life. He said he dates. Who? "Right now, it's Brooke Shields."
* His Marriage Proposal to Elizabeth Taylor. Not true, Michael said. And emerging from the wings to validate his story was Taylor herself, adding as a bonus that Michael "is the least weird man I've ever known." Always the diplomat, Oprah let that straight line pass.
Proving she could be savage, though, Oprah ultimately got around to the question that the globe was waiting to hear, the excruciating but necessary question that had to be asked of 34-year-old Michael. Gradually building up to the moment like someone having a few stiff drinks to gather her courage, she finally blew it out:
"ARE YOU A VIRGIN?"
He was taken aback, utterly shocked, giggly. "How could you ask me that question? . . . I'm a gentleman. . . . To me, that's very personal."
Michael also had been gentlemanly earlier, saying he hadn't read the book when asked by Winfrey about the veracity of "the things La Toya (his sister) has said about the family" in her tell-all autobiography. To get around that, Winfrey could have repeated La Toya's charges of physical and sexual abuse by their father, Joseph Jackson, and then asked Michael to respond.
But she didn't, although Michael himself went on to claim that as a child he had been teased about his looks and beaten by his father, and that even as an adult he was so frightened of him that he sometimes would "regurgitate" when his father would come to see him. Joseph Jackson has steadfastly denied abusing any of his children.
Happily, Winfrey never got around to asking Michael about his sexual orientation, which is no one else's business. But she could have asked him why he favored an eerie, androgynous look, why his voice was so high and why he sometimes wears bandages and a wrist brace while performing.
Inquiring minds wanted to know.
Meanwhile, you could almost hear the adding machines totaling receipts for "Michael Jackson Talks . . . to Oprah" and such related enterprises as Michael's new music video, "Give Into Me," which was given its world premiere during this TV bash. On other fiscal fronts, Winfrey devoted her daytime talk show Wednesday to advertising that evening's program, and promised to reveal on her Thursday show "the inside scoop on my interview with Michael Jackson."
Never one to let opportunity pass, KABC-TV Channel 7 on Wednesday devoted its entire 11 p.m. newscast, minus weather and sports, to "the inside story on Oprah and the Jacksons," as if nothing else happening in the world that day existed or mattered.
Not that anyone at the station would be sorry about such an omission. As with Michael, the music made them do it.
Although obviously a much different man than Michael Jackson, Mike Tyson in his own way remains just as much a mystery as he waits in an Indiana prison for Monday's scheduled appellate hearing on his conviction for the rape of beauty contestant Desiree Washington.
Tyson didn't merely fall, he crashed through the canvas.
You look at him--the tiny eyes, the gold tooth in the middle of his smile--and wonder what's going on inside his head. Filmmaker Kopple doesn't untangle the controlling interior wires, but her scintillating biography at least locates some of them.
This rare prime-time documentary, which NBC is calling a "reality film" for fear that the awful "D" word will menace viewers, at once moves and angers you in using interviews and old footage to trace the life of this former Brooklyn street hood who became a heavyweight champ at 20 and a convicted felon at 25.
More than just a story about Tyson's success and decline, culminating in the Washington rape conviction, the film examines a male environment in which violence against women is winked at. It also casts a youthful Tyson--a paradox even then--in an almost loving light, showing him as someone who almost in the same breath could express tenderness and speak about crime as being "exciting."
Even as a teen-ager, he was an insecure child inside a destroyer's body. There is some amazing footage here of a 15-year-old Tyson at the Catskills boxing compound of his surrogate father, Cus D'Amato, being held and comforted by trainer Teddy Atlas as he nervously sobs like a baby the night before a fight in which he would annihilate his opponent.
Kopple chronicles Tyson's rise as a heavyweight and the devastating impact of D'Amato's death, and the changes that occurred in him as he was battled over by the new people in his life, from Robin Givens to fast-talking boxing promoter Don King. It was Givens--to whom he was briefly wed in a stormy marriage--who "set Mike up for the Don King left hand," journalist Jack Newfield says.
It's while reviewing the Tyson/Washington rape case that "Fallen Champ" impales the Rev. Louis Farrakhan and other Tyson defenders who make light of the rape at a "Free Mike" rally. The footage is devastating.
Alluding to Washington saying she voluntarily went to Tyson's hotel room, where he raped her, Farrakhan gets huge laughs when he says:
"You bring in a hawk at the chicken yard and wonder why the chicken got eaten up. You bring Mike to a beauty contest, and all these foxes just parading in front of Mike. Mike's eyes begin to dance like a hungry man looking at a Wendy's beef burger or somethin'. . . ." While saying this, the Nation of Islam leader makes lewd, groping gestures with his hands.
Concerning Washington's testimony that she told Tyson she didn't want to have sex, Farrakhan adds with a smirk: "I mean, how many times, sisters, have you said no, and you mean yes all the time?" Then he mocks Washington, effecting a woman's squealing voice: "She said, 'No, Mike, No.' "
Appallingly, the laughter in the room speaks for itself. Just as a comment that sportswriter Jerry Izenberg says Tyson made to him in the late 1980s, when his life was coming apart, speaks for itself.
"How much more fun it used to be."
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