BY MOST ACCOUNTS, it was a beautiful day in Los Angeles, one of those sun-drenched afternoons that have always enchanted the city’s filmmakers. There was something equally cinematic about the car chase on Interstate 405. The movie Speed had opened just a week before, and the Ford Bronco’s perilous journey was a distorted echo of Keanu’s bomb-laden bus ride in the film. Here were two action spectacles unfolding on the same Los Angeles freeways, framed by the same sweeping helicopter shots, shadowed by the same specter of violence and decay. But the man in the back seat, threatening to blow his brains out, had much darker cinematic forebears. If Keanu Reeves was acting in an action fantasy, O.J. Simpson was living out the bleakest kind of film noir.
From its very beginning, the life of Orenthal James Simpson was haunted by the movies. He’d been named after his aunt’s favorite actor, a Frenchman whose birdlike moniker he grew to hate. His trajectory from USC football star to big-screen performer mirrors the career of John Wayne, another American icon defined by his capacity for violence. But for all his countless hours on film sets and photo shoots, it’s the events of June 17, 1994, that represent O.J.’s cinematic apotheosis. As he hurtled down the freeway, accused of the murder of his ex-wife and a friend, O.J. was playing out a scenario that might have been written for the screen by Dashiell Hammett or James M. Cain. He was riding the same currents of lust and betrayal, anger and despair, that propel classic LA noirs like The Big Sleep and Chinatown.
In the hands of one of the great Angeleno directors — a Charles Burnett, perhaps, or a P.T. Anderson — the O.J. story might one day form the basis for a compelling feature film. Until that time, the most indelible portrait of “the Miracle on the 5” remains a made-for-TV documentary. In June 17th, 1994, director Brett Morgen intercuts the O.J. chase with a series of prime-time broadcasts from the same afternoon. As the O.J. Show gradually overtakes the Stanley Cup finals, the NBA championship, and the first-ever World Cup on US soil, we watch a local news item become a global spectacle; we see a small-screen farce morph into a wide-screen crime drama. Even with the real-time updates and instant commentary of our postmodern media landscape, the O.J. chase was entirely visual and inherently cinematic. It was a feverish journey into what the critic J. Hoberman calls “the dreamlife of the nation” — the feedback loop between movies, media, and mythology that shapes our popular culture.
Sports — especially football and hockey — and violence are inextricably linked within our collective imagination. O.J. was a Hall of Fame running back, a man widely acclaimed for his ability to inflict pain and absorb it from his opponents. Whatever the personal circumstances that led to his fall from grace, it’s hard not to see the events of June 17 as a cautionary tale about the violence of the gridiron. In recent years, we’ve been inundated with studies linking football to neurological decay. These revelations have coincided with a spate of gruesome crimes by prominent football players. Where the O.J. chase struck viewers in 1994 as an aberration, a sports movie gone wrong, it now seems like yet another example of the noir-tinted blood fury bursting from our football fields.
No stadium could contain the life of O.J. Simpson; his story is as sprawling as Los Angeles itself, suggesting another genre: an epic in the tradition of Hal Ashby’s Shampoo and Robert Altman’s Short Cuts.Like these classics of Angeleno cinema, the O.J. story offered a panoramic perspective on the fragmented communities between the Santa Ana Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It revealed their racial segregation, their obsession with celebrity, even their car-centric lifestyle. (If O.J.’s French namesake were fleeing Paris, he would have surely headed for the train station.) The unraveling of O.J. Simpson has become a definitive episode in the civic folklore, shaking his adopted city like the earthquake at the end of Short Cuts. This San Francisco boy, born to the poverty and anonymity of a bayside ghetto, has entered the lives of Angelenos in ways both abstract and trivial, immediate and profound.
When I was a kid, I used to frequent the same Ben & Jerry’s on San Vicente Boulevard where Nicole Brown stopped for ice cream on the night she was murdered. For years afterward, that store stopped carrying my brother-in-law’s favorite flavor, Chocolate Peanut Butter Cookie Dough, because it was reportedly found in a cup at the crime scene. When you stepped into that ice cream parlor, you felt a sadness you couldn’t shake, a spectral presence amid the heady scent of waffle cones and butterscotch. Like so many details from the O.J. saga, Nicole’s final dessert melted away into the streets of Los Angeles, sticking only to the memories of beat cops and sugar-mad 5th graders.
A friend of mine from the same neighborhood, who I didn’t know at the time, experienced the O.J. spectacle in the throes of a Harriet the Spy obsession, and after devoting the ninth and 10th years of her life to cracking open the case, she decided that O.J. was guilty, a man consumed by terrible and murderous rage. Along the way, she acquired disturbing suspicions about a series of potential accomplices: a traffic guard near her school in Santa Monica, an orange VW parked at the end of her street. As in the old LA noirs of the 1940s, the entire city became implicated in a web of corruption.
For some Angelenos, I know, the sound of a buzzing helicopter still recalls the events of June 1994. As the news choppers ferried between O.J.’s house on Rockingham and Nicole’s condo on Bundy, the city’s Westside residents were blasted with the roaring staccato of the spinning blades. O.J.’s children, Sydney and Justin, must have heard that machine-gun rattle as their grandparents ushered them to safety. Lou and Juditha Brown must have shuddered at the racket, struggling to conceal their rage and sorrow.
But like the rumble of those choppers, the family’s noir-inflected tragedy was rippling out across the city, slowly morphing into an urban — and global — epic. As the LAPD tracked O.J. toward his Brentwood estate, Los Angeles was less a functioning metropolis than a cinematic backdrop. And like Tod Hackett in The Day of the Locust, bowled over by the celebrity-hungry mob at a movie premiere, we were all swept up in the tawdry pageant along the freeway. Even with Speed in theaters and the NBA Finals on TV, this was the best show in town.
On the bus ride home from school that evening, a buddy of mine looked up and noticed crowds of people by the walls of the 405, craning their necks to get a glimpse of O.J. They waved their T-shirts, they carried signs, and, as the sun began to set on that cloudless, achingly gorgeous Friday evening, they watched the fall from grace of one of the city’s favorite sons. By most accounts, though certainly not all, it was a beautiful day in Los Angeles.