When Ellie Broke From the Script, They Walked Off the Set


Let’s look at this thing coldly, like Ellie Nesler did that morning in a Jamestown courtroom when she blew away the man accused of molesting her son.

You remember Ellie. Not too long ago, she was the epitome of a mother pushed over the edge. She was Every Parent fed up with the namby-pamby ways of the law; she was doing right by her child. The accused molester reportedly sneered at Ellie moments before he died. He made Ellie’s day.

The citizenry liked all this, it seemed. They were quoted widely in the press. T-shirts were printed up; Ellie was a legend in her time. And Hollywood loved it, but, yawn, that’s not much of a surprise.


Except now the namby-pamby types who had always wanted to put Ellie in jail say that blood samples prove she was wired on meth when she shot Daniel Driver five times in the head.

And righteous Ellie became lowlife Ellie overnight.

Plus, you think the drugs were bad, it was further revealed that Ellie, who’d served time 22 years ago for stealing a car, even had some biker pals in her past. Frontier justice is one thing, but tawdriness is entirely something else.

So let’s just say that the citizenry has been backing away from Ellie fast. Oh, and Hollywood? I’m telling you, babe, it will never sell. Gotta run.

There is a message here, I’m almost sure. Only it’s muddled with our peculiar American ideas about violence, and justice, and right and wrong.

We wanted to believe in Ellie, when she was a one-dimensional TV movie of the week, but then the real world messed that up. Damn.

Which I don’t get. I mean, did the man deserve to die or not? Are you with Ellie, or are you not? No hesitating, please.


In other words, if you didn’t have a problem with Ellie before, why should a positive drug test change that now? Is it only now that we should wonder about the wisdom of suiting up our children in T-shirts telling Ellie, “Way to Go!”?

Alas, it’s taken an illegal stimulant to put Ellie’s murderous legend under a cloud.

Yet it should also give us the chance to expose this myth of the “pure” killer for what it is: classic B-grade. Only in the movies do the men (and women) accorded the white hats get to keep wearing them even when they are splattered with their victim’s blood.

Ellie, however, broke from the script. She has a past. She has reportedly admitted thinking about killing Driver two years before she actually did. (Note to the jury: every mother’s revenge fantasy or nefarious plot?)

But whereas in the movies, they might have called Ellie’s act justifiable homicide, in real life her defense attorney says she went temporarily nuts. The drugs, he says, nursed her pain.

Put another way, members of the jury: Forgive her. What would you have done if it were your child? OK, so she took the law into her own hands. It was wrong. But The System pushed her over the edge.

All of which may, or may not, be the way it was. Ultimately the same System will decide. But the larger question behind this Ellie revisionism remains. Why is a “just” murder any less so because the murderer was not pure?


The question is at the heart of our ambivalence with the law, and the more subtle shadings that lead us to conclude what is right and wrong.

Think about the wife who finally fights back against the husband who has abused her for years. Only the time she does it, the man is asleep in his bed and her weapon is a gun.

Yes, it is murder, but is it just? And what if she took some slugs of whiskey first, or was never actually married to the man, but he was the father of her child?

Or what about the woman at the bar? It’s late, she’s a little drunk, her neckline is low. A man takes her home, then forces himself on her even though she says, “No.” Is he a rapist or is she just a whore? Does it matter what she was drinking? Does it matter that Ellie was on speed?

Naturally, such issues are a bit too complicated for a movie of the week. Perhaps the public would get bored. Perhaps it would be too tough to distinguish the white hats from the blacks.

Or maybe it would be too hard for people to identify strongly with one character or another, because they are not “clear-cut.” And surely ambivalence doesn’t make for boffo box office.


But increasingly it challenges the law.

That’s why we have judges and juries, of course, to figure it all out. Let’s just hope they take most of their lessons from places other than TV.