Why Amelia Bombed

Glamour and charisma are two different things.

DoubleX (Slate) , November 10, 2009

Amelia Earhart was daring, adventurous, modern, and beautiful, among the 20th century’s most enduring icons. Sixty years after her disappearance, high-profile advertising campaigns for Apple and the Gap were still employing her image as a symbol of independence and glamour. A movie about her must have seemed like a sure thing. Yet Amelia is a critical and commercial disaster. What went wrong?

It would be easy to blame the project’s specifics. Director Mira Nair did, after all, manage to turn Thackeray’s lively satire into the ponderous, unwatchable Vanity Fair. A less earnest director or more creative script might have produced a more interesting Amelia, one less reliant on half-hearted soap opera and more focused on the challenges of early aviation. But the real problem may be Amelia Earhart herself.

In the 1920s and ’30s, “the aviatrix was the ultimate glamorous and daring modern woman,” notes Kristen Lubben in Amelia Earhart: Image and Icon, the catalog for a 2007 exhibition of Earhart images at the International Center of Photography. Earhart, of course, was the ultimate glamorous aviatrix. She achieved that status not because she was the best female pilot—many were better—but because she was media-savvy and able to embody the public’s multiple aspirations. She was feminist yet feminine, casual yet elegant, modern yet wholesome. “Hers is the healthy curiosity of the clean mind and the strong body and a challenging rebuke to those of us who have damned the youth of the land,” declared a 1928 essayist who saw her as an antidote to Jazz Age decadence. He concluded, “What a girl!” Such a glamorous figure makes an effective advertising icon but an emotionally flattened protagonist. She loses her individuality.

During her life, Earhart was transformed from a person into a persona—idealized, distant, and glamorous, her mythic allure heightened by the mystery of her disappearance. The more time passes, the more her individuality recedes. “She has become an increasingly abstract symbol—of the thrill and danger of adventure, of the possibilities for women, and of the courage to break with … conventional expectations,” writes Lubben. Eternally young, Earhart remains unblemished from the kind of eccentricity or controversy—or ordinary individual—that could make her a compelling subject for a modern biopic. To preserve her glamour, Amelia must keep her at a distance, without flaws, doubts, or character development. We learn nothing of the struggles of her youth, her political commitments, or her limits as a pilot. She ends the film essentially the same as she began it—as an icon.

Here, another recent film about a pioneering aviatrix presents a sharp contrast. Currently making the film-festival rounds and expected to air on public television in the spring, The Legend of Pancho Barnes and the Happy Bottom Riding Club is a straightforward documentary made on a tenth of Amelia’s production budget. Yet for all its still photos and talking heads, it is far more entertaining. While Amelia struggles against the glamour of its heroine, The Legend of Pancho Barnes is imbued with its protagonist’s charisma. The contrast between the two pilots, and the memories they left behind, illuminates the distinctions between these two often-conflated qualities.

Glamour is an imaginative experience, charisma a personal characteristic. A place, an idea, even an object can be glamorous, but only a person can be charismatic. A still photograph best captures glamour; a live performance most powerfully conveys charisma. Glamour operates at a distance; it requires mystery, allowing the audience to fill in the details with its own desires. Charisma works through personal contact. It draws the audience to share the charismatic figure’s own commitments. Charisma enhances leadership; glamour enhances sales.

For Florence “Pancho” Barnes, the commitment was to flying. An irrepressible spirit and a pilot’s pilot, she was at the center of two great—and deadly—eras of aviation. In the barnstorming era, she was a pilot herself, doing aerial stunts in a half dozen Hollywood films, testing planes for Lockheed, and in 1930 breaking Earhart’s speed record (just two years after taking her first flying lesson). “Amelia Earhart got all the publicity and Bobbi Trout made all the money, but I was the best pilot,” she bragged. Despite the rivalry and Pancho’s distaste for Earhart’s promoter husband, the young pilots were friends. They belonged to an elite sorority who met at hangar parties, raced in the transcontinental Women’s Air Derby, and mourned the fellow pioneers who died in crashes.

Unlike Earhart, who supported her flying with commercial endorsements and lecture fees, Barnes was an heiress with independent means. Profane, outspoken, and chunkily built, she didn’t have, or try to cultivate, a marketable image. To the contrary, Pancho—a name she got when she ran away to Mexico—used flying to free herself from the constraints of Pasadena high society. “It’s my escape from everything conventional,” she said. “It acts as a safety valve. Why do I fly? To keep from exploding, that’s why.” She felt at home in the air and among her fellow pilots, male as well as female.

When the Depression wiped out her wealth, however, Barnes had to sell her property, including her beloved Travel Air “Mystery Ship” plane, and give up flying. She rebuilt her life on a tiny, barren ranch in the Mojave Desert, where she and her young son started farming alfalfa in 1934. A child of privilege, she proved a natural entrepreneur. By the time postwar test pilots began flying jets out of nearby Muroc Air Field (later known as Edwards Air Force Base), she had a thriving guest ranch, with its own air field and hotel, restaurant, gambling hall, and stables. Soon renamed the Happy Bottom Riding Club, Pancho’s place became the test pilots’ hangout, with plenty of booze, lots of pretty hostesses, and a proprietor who understood the excitement and perils of experimental flight.

“Pancho was, above all, a very accomplished pilot,” says Robert Cardenas in the film. “We could talk to Pancho about what we were encountering in flight, and she understood.” The documentary’s writer and producer, Nicholas Spark, says his interest in Barnes began with Tom Wolfe’s short but memorable depiction of her in The Right Stuff. “I was intrigued by the idea that she was friends with all these test pilots,” he says.

It wasn’t just pilots. Misfit though she was, throughout her life Barnes attracted friends from every stratum of society: ranch hands and movie stars, the refined attorney Shirley Hufstedler and the flamboyant evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, Howard Hughes and George Hurrell. The friendship and loyalty she inspired were heightened by the shared cause of aviation. But Barnes was never a symbol. She married four times. She spent years in a nasty court battle with the government, which wanted to seize her ranch to expand Edwards. She was herself—a woman without mystery.

And that is why she has been largely forgotten. Barnes survived Earhart by nearly 40 years, but she was legendary only to those who knew her personally. Charisma dies with its possessor. Glamour is fragile because it is imaginative and illusory; it can vanish when aspirations change or the audience learns too much. But as long as it has an audience, glamour can endure forever.