Few real-life crimes attracted public attention in the 1970s as much as the 1974 kidnapping of heiress Patty Hearst by the urban guerilla group the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA). For months, the media obsessed over the fate of the 19-year-old, only to react with shock when the SLA released a statement that she had joined their cause and was later spotted holding a gun when they robbed a San Francisco bank. Her case, including her 1975 arrest and trial, make for compelling drama as written by Nicholas Kazan and directed by Paul Schrader. This 1988 drama stars Natasha Richardson as Hearst with Ving Rhames as head of the SLA and William Forsythe and Frances Fisher as Hearst’s principal caretakers in the group.
One of the biggest controversies about the Hearst kidnapping was her claim that she had been brainwashed. She weighed only 87 pounds at the time of her arrest and was suffering from memory lapses. Even though there were psychiatrists willing to testify on her behalf, there was no precedent for finding somebody not guilty because of brainwashing. The prosecution’s psychiatric experts testified that they did not think she had been in fear for her life, further damaging her defense. In addition, the prosecution refused to acknowledge that she had been raped during her captivity. She was sentenced to seven years for armed robbery, though the sentence was commuted by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to time served. President Bill Clinton granted her a pardon on his last day in office in 2001.
Several films were quickly produced after her arrest, mostly low-budget releases like the fictional Abduction (1975) and a string of sexploitation and XXX movies. On a more legitimate note, Hearst and the SLA are mentioned in Network (1976) when programming executive Faye Dunaway develops a reality program starring another urban guerilla group that has kidnapped and radicalized an heiress.
Hearst tried to take control of the narrative in her 1981 memoir (with Alvin Moscow) “Every Secret Thing.” The story so fascinated Marvin Worth, the Oscar®-nominated producer of the documentary Malcolm X (1972) and Bob Fosse’s Lenny (1974), that he optioned the film rights. Hearst was eager to see her story filmed, hoping the picture would give her another chance to present her side of the controversial story.
Kazan, an award-winning playwright and the son of legendary director Elia Kazan, was hired to write the film. It was his fifth produced screenplay, following acclaimed work on the biopic Frances (1982) and the thriller At Close Range (1986). His script proved to be a major selling point in getting the film made. Once he read it, Paul Schrader signed on as director. He envisioned the film in three distinct acts: a surrealistic opening dealing with the kidnapping, a realistic depiction of Hearst’s time with the SLA and a more muted approach to the courtroom scenes. To help his cast prepare, he had them move into an apartment for several days, where they lived under conditions similar to the SLA’s.
Richardson also did extensive preparation for her role, studying the recordings Hearst had made while with the SLA and speaking with a friend who had been kidnapped under similar circumstances. She also worked with Hearst, who gave the production 12 pages of notes on how her abductors spoke and behaved.
Patty Hearst premiered at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival, which marked the start of its mixed critical reception. Although Richardson’s performance was praised, critics there were offended by the film’s depiction of the SLA militants as bumblers. In the U.S., Roger Ebert called the film “brooding and pale,” while Time Out labeled it “an airless, exhausting film.” Vincent Canby of The New York Times was more positive, calling it “a beautifully produced movie…. It is stylized at times, utterly direct and both shocking and grimly funny.” Perhaps the film’s biggest champion was Pauline Kael, long a fan of Schrader’s. She labeled the film “a lean, impressive piece of work” and praised its depiction of Hearst as “a girl who is raped in mind and body, and no longer knows when it started.”
The real-life Hearst followed her time in prison by marrying one of her bodyguards, Bernard Lee Shaw, with whom she had two children. She has done extensive charity work for groups fighting Alzheimer’s and AIDS and for Meals on Wheels, while also participating in dog shows with her prize-winning Shih Tzu and French bulldog. The most curious chapter in her later life started when she met director John Waters at the Cannes Film Festival. The two became friends and still communicate regularly. Waters cast her in five of his films, most notably as the woman Kathleen Turner murders for wearing white shoes after Labor Day in Serial Mom (1994).