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The Trials of Marcia Clark: Sarah Paulson in ‘American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson’

The Trials of Marcia Clark: Sarah Paulson in 'American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson'

So, where were you when the Bronco chase happened?

For most of us old enough to have paid attention, the unprecedented media circus that was the mid-’90s O.J. Simpson murder trial remains with us in a handful of memories: that highway chase, broadcast on every network; Johnnie Cochran’s bombastic phrase-making; the Dancing Itos; and, I’ll regretfully admit it, Marcia Clark’s hair. I’m honestly not sure if this was just through my own observation, or because there was as much media analysis of the lead prosecutor’s looks as there was about a battered woman and her boyfriend having been brutally murdered.

Playing Clark in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” premiering Feb. 2 on FX, Sarah Paulson gives us a new perspective on what it was like to be the only woman at the front of that courtroom, prosecuting a case she understandably thought, at the outset, was a slam-dunk.

Our culture of celebrity worship is one of the main themes in Ryan Murphy’s latest anthology series, and Clark’s total uninterest in it is apparent in an initial phone call telling her that legendary athlete O.J. Simpson is, unbelievably, a suspect in a double homicide. “Who?” she says.

Clark is wrangling two young sons while on the phone in that scene, and the series, based on Jeffrey Toobin’s book “The Run of His Life,” also brings to light the way in which her being a single mother impacted her experience on the trial. Here’s something I don’t remember about that time: How much shit Clark got for speaking publicly about being a working mom. In one scene, she tells Judge Ito she can’t stay late in court that day — as he’s just decided everyone will — because she needs to take care of her kids. The next day, Cochran makes a crack about his next witness being able to testify, “barring any more childcare crises from Ms. Clark.” She tears into him: “Mr. Cochran may not know what it’s like to work a 70-hour week and also take care of a family, but I do. To belittle childcare issues in the courtroom is unconscionable. And totally out of line.”

Unsurprisingly, this does not suddenly make her a feminist hero in the eyes of the public or the jury, but only increases her reputation as a bitch. We see this from the beginning of jury selection, in which a mock jury is shown a video of Clark and asked what their impression of her is: “I wouldn’t want to be her boyfriend,” says one. “She’s shifty,” says another. And the classic: “She’s a bitch!” That Clark is watching this from behind a two-way mirror illustrates a key point that was easily forgotten in the trial that became the world’s first reality show: She wasn’t a character on a series. She was a real person processing every insult thrown at her, from cruel and shallow TV commentators (“Frump incarnate!”) to her own colleagues, who suggest, “You might consider changing your appearance. Changing your hairdo. Smiling a bit more.”

In the series’ sixth episode, “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” Clark’s staunch belief in the overarching power of justice begins to crumble. Though she resists her boss’ repeated emphasis on the “optics” of the trial, she finally gives in to public scrutiny and gets a haircut. Her arrival in court the next morning is heartbreaking, as Paulson goes from holding her newly shorn head high to sitting down at the courtroom table near tears. It’s enraging to watch — especially in light of the oft-downplayed misogyny at the heart of this trial.

In another moment — which seems like a typical Ryan Murphy embellishment, but who knows — she’s even harassed while buying groceries, as a male cashier looks at a box of Tampax and snarks, “Uh oh. I guess the defense is in for a hell of a week, huh?” True or not, it’s a great illustration of the indignities Clark suffered as the lone female in the highly publicized court case.

It’s Clark who repeatedly calls attention to the fact that Nicole Brown Simpson was a woman who had experienced 62 (recorded) instances of abuse and stalking from her ex-husband prior to the murder. “You know what pisses me off?” she says, chain-smoking in her office. “This went on for years. All that battering, before he was even arrested. He got away with beating her — he’s not going to get away with killing her.”

But Clark’s blind confidence that OF COURSE they’ll win this case leads her to make some bad decisions, ruling out witnesses because they talked to the media (“let’s stick to the high road,” she says, in complete contradiction of the defense’s whatever-works strategy) and disregarding Christopher Darden’s (Sterling K. Brown) warning that racist cop Mark Fuhrman seems like a disaster waiting to happen — which, of course, he was.

She also mistakenly believes that a reliance on the huge amount of physical evidence at the crime scene, coupled with evidence of Simpson’s prior abuse, would convince the jury of his guilt. Underestimating the power of Cochran to change the narrative, she fills her opening statement with facts, while his is based on a brilliantly emotional appeal to a jury still recovering from the Rodney King riots just two years earlier.

“The People v. O.J. Simpson” also points out the laughable double standard enjoyed by the defense because of Simpson’s celebrity cache: When the jury is taken on a tour of the crime scenes, Cochran slips in to redecorate Simpson’s ostentatious mansion with art to make it look “blacker,” while Nicole Brown Simpson’s apartment is shown to the jury only after every stick of furniture has been moved out — essentially erasing it of the power to convey, as Clark says, that “she was a mother. There was a family here.” Repeatedly, the series cuts between the table of powerful men representing Simpson and Clark and Darden at the other table, looking increasingly under fire. When Clark objects to Cochran’s constant obfuscating, she’s treated as if she’s simply being shrill and hysterical. It’s so infuriating, and so well done, it made me I wish I could go back and watch the trial again with new eyes.

Beyond Paulson, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” manages the neat trick of being both an incisive look at the behind-the-scenes of the trial of the century and a delightfully hammy true-crime watch.

Witness David Schwimmer as lawyer, and obsequious Simpson BFF, Robert Kardashian, lecturing his young children that “We are Kardashians. And in this family, being a good person and a loyal friend is more important than being famous.” The wax-faced John Travolta as narcissistic lead defense attorney Robert Shapiro. Connie Britton as woozy Faye Resnick, the friend of Nicole Brown Simpson whose opportunistic, ghost-written book chronicled their love of cocaine and the “Brentwood hello” (a euphemism for oral sex). And Courtney B. Vance as the preening, masterfully oratorial lawyer Cochran, who became the key to Simpson’s exoneration. For so many reasons — Paulson’s bravura performance chief among them — this is one miniseries you won’t want to miss.

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