Roseanne Barr the lottery loser of all time
As poor white trash she was America's sweetheart, as rich white trash she ain't.
Monday 17 February 1997
The producer and star of Roseanne has already declared that this will be her last series. So far, the offerings in year nine are so bad that ABC Television may pull Roseanne in mid-season, an almost unthinkable coup de grace for a show that once occupied the top three of American television through four straight years.
The writers of Roseanne, by bowing to the whims of its titular star, have all but ruined the show, allowing Roseanne to win more than $100m dollars in the lottery. Imagine, the blue-collar Connors with more money than Rockefeller. This absurd dramatic device turned Roseanne inside out and removed its heart as well.
Instead of being a clever comedy about trying to be married, with children, on a limited budget, Roseanne has served up duff episodes where the show's star has dressed as Xena the warrior princess, and a centrefold. Roseanne's woes are seen in the American press as a betrayal of those who stayed loyal to the show, no matter what its outrageous star did in her excessive overreactions to stardom.
It seems Roseanne Barr, now worth almost a billion dollars, has tired of realism and has turned self-indulgent instead. She is spending this season playing at dressing-up, glamorising her character, upping Roseanne Connor's income and profile, pushing her closer to centre stage. In short, she is forcing the TV character of Roseanne to metamorphose into a close approximation of the real Roseanne. With character Roseanne looking set to divorce Dan Connor, we can all look forward to an episode where Mrs Connor marries her new chauffeur in a champagne ceremony at the New York Plaza, only to reveal later that her second husband is a cross-dressing lesbian.
What's wrong with that is not the sexual politics, but the spectacle of a Hollywood star turned monomaniac, abusing a much-loved national treasure, her show, just because she can. It's Roseanne as the kid who builds big sandcastles so that she can knock them down.
Admittedly, life can get pretty strange when your job occasionally involves a $70,000 shopping spree with Mike Tyson, especially if 18 years ago you were a trailer park mom with a bell-hop for a husband. It gets even more weird if, as Roseanne Barr believes, your mind contains at least 22 personalities, the consequence of sexual abuse by a father who behaved like a demon and forced you to leave home prematurely for pregnant life in a battered mobile home.
The puzzle is, why have these pyschic forces imploded now? For most of her nine seasons as queen of US television, Roseanne has somehow managed to surmount her chaotic personal life. Roseanne the sitcom remained funny and inventive while the real-life Roseanne kept careening all over the place through her seemingly whacked out claims of child abuse, a lost- and-found daughter and the allegedly homicidal tendencies of Tom Arnold. Against all these odds, she retained a finely tuned comic sensibility that kept her show from self-destruction. No more. Roseanne's evil genie is out of the bottle.
It's too bad. Roseanne rocked the TV landscape in a way that's still sending out aftershocks. "It's hard to remember how raw, how rude - how real - Roseanne seemed in the glitzy 1980s," says Preston Beckman, a senior executive at NBC television. "Since then, for better or worse, television has come around to Roseanne's view of the world."
"All the other serious sitcom actresses thank Roseanne for opening the door for them," says Dorothy Swanson, a New York theatrical agent. "Roseanne has taken a lot of hits, but she changed things for women in television."
Roseanne knows that she has been a revolutionary, thrusting her attitude right in tinseltown's frequently smug face.
"Hollywood is the pipe from hell," she said in November 1995. "The noxious gases come up and affect everyone. They're always trying to put me back in my place. The reason everyone is so scared of me is because I'm so normal. They're appalled at women who look like me, act like me, come from the class I come did, the fact that I'm Jewish. The people out here, they live to pose. I have the screaming kids. I'm always yelling at them. I'm a real mom. I'm not Hollywood."
Since Roseanne made those remarks her looks have changed, plastic surgery shaping her face and stomach into something closer to the Hollywood norm. Doing all that, it is hard to stay focused on a show that worked because it voiced the fears and frustrations of working-class Everywomen - and did so smartly, in the subversive context of situation comedy. Roseanne was a hit because it tapped into the audience's desire to see something other than the typical idealised, upper middle-class television family. The show had parents who screamed and struggled with weight problems.
No one was better suited to this role than Roseanne Barr. She was born one of four kids into a poor Jewish family living among the Mormons in Salt Lake City. In 1968 her life was changed for ever when she was struck by a car and nearly died from internal bleeding. Thereafter Rosey, as her parents called her, seemed to spin out of control, experimenting with a hippie lifestyle and bearing an illegitimate daughter, called Brandi, whom she gave up for adoption. Roseanne also spent several months in a psychiatric hospital. Then came Bill Pentland, a hotel clerk. It was the early 1970s, and the couple lived in a Denver trailer park.
Her sister Geraldine was the force that drove Rosey up on stage. The two women became habituees of the feminist Woman to Woman bookshop and local comedy clubs where Roseanne's profane "domestic goddess" persona was shaped. They formed a 10-year plan that would carry Rosey's battered self to the Johnny Carson show, an HBO Special and Roseanne.
It worked, although not for Geraldine Barr. In 1992 she filed an unsuccessful $70m breach of contract lawsuit against her big sister. The two have not spoken for years, and now Geraldine follows Rosey's turbulent life through the media.
"I'm watching this woman I knew and love," she says. "And all of a sudden she gets her breasts cut off. Then she gets her nose cut off. This is really scary for me to see."
Although not more frightening than Roseanne's sudden accusations of parental sex abuse, published out of the blue three years ago, which portrayed Mr Barr as a man obsessed with menacing his daughter while holding handfuls of his own excrement.
Whilst Geraldine was leaving Roseanne's life, Tom Arnold, her second husband, was filling the void. The two met when both had problems with substance abuse, and the marriage ended when Roseanne ran off with her driver/bodyguard while claiming that she thought Arnold was about to kill her.
Hollywood's failure to ostracise Arnold - in fact the reverse happened - has Roseanne especially steamed up. "This town can't hand Tom enough rewards, and they all know what he did," she said last year. "I have 17 pictures of my body all bruised."
It seemed that with her third husband, the ex-driver/bodyguard Ben Thomas, Roseanne had found emotional peace. They had a long-fought-for child late last year (after miscarrying two embryos), a minor miracle considering that the star's tubes had been tied six years ago. The baby is fine, but there are rumours, strong ones, that she and Thomas are finished.
Roseanne says that she has a condition called dissociative identity disorder which she describes as having a personality that's been "hit with a hammer and smashed, so all the emotions have been separated". The star, in therapy now for five years, says her personalities are so distinct that they have different signatures.
So here we have the most probable explanation of what has happened to Roseanne. The show was one of television's icons. There's a Roseanne who only wanted to be just that, the symbol of prime time TV. There's another Roseanne who hates all of that and says so.
"Hollywood is the Night of the Living Death," she remarked last month. "Everyone's afraid here. They're afraid they can't keep what they've got. Everything's built on stilts, including the stilted egos. They're just a bunch of freaks. Even the parties are about work. Nobody has any fun here."
The result of the conflict between these two Roseannes? A decision to deconstruct one of the most successful sitcoms in history, to use the Connors' lottery win as a means to mock the show's own foundation and aspirations, to make it a parody of everything that Roseanne fears but also covets.
Roseanne Barr once said that the show has been her most effective form of therapy. On the evidence of this last and final season, it has entered the Gestalt phase. One can only imagine, as Roseanne's real life apparently lurches to another crisis, what the final episode will be like. Watching it may rank up there with stopping to gawk at fatal road accidents.
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