A long time ago, the latest O. J. story goes, a construction worker discovered a knife in the fresh ruin of Simpson’s house, where he’d been part of a crew tasked with tearing the haunted place down. He handed the knife over to an off-duty police officer, whom he met on a movie set. The cop held onto the knife—apparently believing it to be a possible murder weapon—for an inexplicable twelve years, until about a month ago, just as television audiences had begun to thrill to the morbid nostalgia of FX’s “American Crime Story: The People v. O. J. Simpson.” Just last Friday, investigators from the Los Angeles Police Department announced that there was “no nexus” between the knife and the most bizarre exercise in justice yet undertaken in America. Thus, let’s hope, ends the odd journey of an innocent piece of silverware.
Texturally, the incident was classic O. J. There were talismans and secrets, belated disclosures, and stupid—and possibly illegal—behavior by bit players. There was the inevitable—if, in this case, basically meaningless—connection to Hollywood, and an unresolved chord of anticlimax at the end. And its confluence with the miniseries confirmed, if there were ever a real doubt, that the story of the trial will be a spectre that hangs over national affairs through the twenty-first century and probably beyond. One imagines the classicists of the future poring over ancient texts—the Iliad, the Tanakh, the Orenthal—and debating the existence of a historical O. J. We enter now into the myth’s adolescence, the time of miracles and hoaxes, retellings and revisions. Think of the knife as the fraudulent tooth or fingernail of a popular saint, and of “The People v. O. J.,” perhaps, as a crucial near-contemporary codex, an early attempt to force the imperatives of art—narrative, coherence, harmony of action and meaning—onto the strange and unsettling tragedy that was the truth.
Seen this way, the final episode of the miniseries, which was directed by Ryan Murphy, was an all but unmitigated success. The first scene, in which the defense attorney Johnnie Cochran helps O. J. into his shirt, cuff links, and suit—preparing him for the appearance of a lifetime—echoes the show’s insistence on the primacy of performance and celebrity in the case, up to and including its waning moments. Later, too, just before the announcement of the verdict, an officer watching Simpson as he shaves his face says, “Guarding you has been a real pleasure,” and asks for a signature for his kid. David Schwimmer’s Robert Kardashian, a shaky proposition early on, continues his development into a sad-sack proxy for the audience, fazed into silence, and then exhausted retreat, by the absurdity of the outcome. The best and subtlest touch is the dramatization of the jury’s crazily short deliberation, and the near-total absence of the machinations that sway the two jurors who were initially unconvinced. That sad process remains a two-headed mystery—bleak and unapproachable in fact, infinitely intriguing as it continues its path toward legend.
On the Sunday before the finale, the Esquire Network ran a twelve-hour marathon of footage from the real Simpson trial, from opening statements to the verdict, with any number of dramatic and indelible moments in between. I started streaming it offhandedly, somewhere around 9:30 A.M., expecting to turn away before morning’s end. That never happened. All day I sat transfixed, reminded that the overlay of dark humor for which “The People v. O. J. Simpson” has been rightly praised had always existed, and not only as subtext, within the source material itself. There were moments of weird levity throughout the proceedings; each of the attorneys, on both sides of the exercise, played, at some point, the inappropriate Catskills comedian, openly looking for laughs from the court audience and the jury. Judge Lance Ito offered dry asides. Even O. J. grinned from time to time, and chatted in excited whispers with his lawyers as if watching a summer blockbuster. And nobody strained the boundaries of good taste like the witness Kato Kaelin, who was largely sidelined in “The People v. O. J. Simpson” but whose appearance in the flesh is still a less-than-believable thing. Kaelin’s self-presentation worsened steadily across his several days on the stand, sliding in tone and bearing from wide-eyed bystander to slapstick antagonist to—once the tabloids and publishers had so obviously started whispering lucrative nothings into his ears—genuinely confused future ruined millionaire. It dawned on me, after watching him again, that his stubborn resistance to seriousness must have been a particularly damaging milestone in the prosecutor Marcia Clark’s disastrous courtroom politics. Her best questions were precisely the ones that Kaelin undercut with a smile and a stupid—and surprisingly well-received, every time—little quip.
The fact is that the trial—despite the sombre horror of the Brown and Goldman murders that it was convened to address—was always camp enough to beat the band. The only uncanny and unfunny note borne out by the tape but totally missed by the show was the bodily presence of O. J. himself. The casting of Cuba Gooding, Jr., in the role was, as others have said, the series’ great, if rare, misstep. The genius of the other selections is sure: I hadn’t appreciated how near in timbre and in spirit Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark comes to the genuine article, how artfully and minutely Paulson exaggerates the pained unction in the prosecutor’s salvos to the jury. Ditto for Sterling K. Brown, who captures the persistent, sometimes apparently crippling, unease of the prosecutor Christopher Darden, who was pitted so awkwardly against his co-racialists, both outside and within the courtroom. Brown’s rendition of Darden’s closing argument—a half-narrative, half-psychological account of the murders—is one of the most chilling and affecting moments of the episode, and, indeed, the entire series. Courtney B. Vance’s brilliance as Cochran is of a different kind entirely, beyond verisimilitude. He plays on two visions of Cochran. On one hand, there is the man as he appears on the tapes: a cold-eyed, occasionally folksy, certainly camera-aware code-switcher extraordinaire. On the other, there is the popular caricature, mostly imagined, and more than slightly racialized—a huckster in a bad suit, rhyming and jiving the judge and jury into a kind of hypnotized state; a snake-oil salesman successful unto the extinction of the cobra. Vance angles his performance into the space between these poles, and is therefore helpfully—maybe even symbolically—chameleonic. It is impossible to know what his Cochran really thinks or who he really is. He is florid and emotional in one scene and imperturbable in the next. Even his final, half-muttered disclosure—that he considers President Bill Clinton’s belated attention to the problem of police brutality to be his ultimate victory in the case—seems like a performance, if only to himself.
But then there’s Gooding. After the finale opens with the aforementioned primping and pep talk, Simpson walks into the courtroom and speaks aloud in that space—which is, for the moment, jury-free—for the very first time. His short speech is nothing but a last-second grab for sympathy, a Hail Mary of dubious worth but undeniable drama. “Good morning, your honor,” he begins, “As much as I’d like to address some of the misrepresentations made about myself, and my Nicole, concerning our life together, I am mindful of the mood and the stamina of this jury.” On he goes in this blankly polite manner—give or take a quick jab at Clark—until he delivers an emotional plea for the whole ordeal to finally, mercifully end. In Gooding’s hands the moment is mush, a nervous, twitchy, cartoonish indication of obvious guilt and potential mental trauma. But, when I watched the speech as it was actually delivered by O. J. Simpson, who looked every bit the star athlete standing at a press-conference podium, totally and insanely unfazed, all of the power and inarticulate terror of this divot in America’s history rushed toward me for real. Gooding’s limits notwithstanding, no actor in the world could deliver so deep and lingering a chill. Some items, even in the surest artist’s hands, even tempered by the softening distance of time, will always resist explanation, reproduction, or balm. This is how we know they will last.
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