In 1994-5, Marcia Clark wasn’t just under the immense pressure of the massively scrutinized O. J. Simpson case, she was also a mother going through a divorce. On top of everything, in a trial that was intentionally needling at the depths of the race problem in American, Marcia Clark’s hair really stirred things up as well. Why did Marcia Clark’s hair symbolize so much to us then, and what does it all mean now?
When Marcia changed her hair mid-trial from curls to a straight bob with the help of celebrity stylist Allen Edwards (the man responsible for Farrah Fawcett’s signature look,) the world flipped out. The morning her new hair debuted the crowd gathered outside the courthouse erupted in applause, and the reporters wanted to know all the details. “Get a life,” Marcia good-naturedly laughed, but getting a life that didn’t involve investigating Marcia’s hair choices was not on the docket that day. By the afternoon, Allen Edwards had been inundated with interview requests. What, exactly had happened with Marcia Clark’s follicles was a major concern.
Women purporting to be feminists turned on her, lashing out at what they saw as an image change that sought to make her more sympathetic to the public. One particularly strange and spiteful newspaper piece lashed out at Marcia for “motherizing” herself by wearing pink and smiling. The narrative was that she was a tough prosecutor who was pandering to some sort of agenda by straightening her hair and smiling. The truth is that those things aren’t mutually exclusive. Sure, she was a tough lawyer, but she was also a person. She was a mother after all, a stressed-out mother whose personal life was falling apart. She was a person, full of doubts and insecurities fighting a failing case she believed in while the entire world watched.
The public’s visceral obsession with her hair reflected a cultural anxiety, in a way. It was a sore spot, a sign of stress and fluctuating identity. On top of everything else, Marcia was supposed to get her hair right, to put her case and her life and her style together flawlessly like a polished, ceramic nighttime soap lawyer who wakes up from her night terrors in fresh makeup, and never gets lipstick on her wineglass. If you wanted her to be softer, she seemed too hard. If you wanted her to be hard, she was too soft. She was never who we wanted her to be.
Sarah Paulson, who plays Marcia in the FX American Crime Story miniseries about the trial, recently spoke out about the erroneous impression the public had of Clark at the time:
“I sort of believed a lot of what the press was telling me to believe about her at the time. I just didn’t take the time to delve any deeper. Nobody did,” says Paulson, who was then 19. “The truth of the matter is we got a lot of two-dimensional versions and media spitting out ideas about what she was — which was sort of an aggressive, hard-nosed b****.”
“Having two small children and a husband who betrayed her and the public nature of all that scrutiny, which she was completely ill-prepared to handle, was like walking into a battle without any armor,” Paulson said at a TV Critics Association meeting. “She just didn’t have the skin for it. She just wasn’t designed as much for public life.”
Sarah Paulson has taken her embodiment of Marcia extremely seriously, even tracking down the 90s formula of Marcia Clark’s perfume, Lancome’s Magie Noire. Paulson found out she’s not a fan of the perfume, but still found the scent inspiring to her: it helped her get into that particular place in time. Scents are a very powerful element of the human experience, of our psychological reactions to things, and how we form our memories. It would be interesting to know how other actors use scents to help them transform into a role.
Marcia retired from prosecuting after the Simpson trial, and wrote a book about it called Without a Doubt. Now 62, she’s spent the past few years writing crime novels. The FX show has been intense for her, bringing up raw feelings. “This is such a weird time,” Clark told Vulture. “It is extremely painful to live through this again. But I understand the series is going to explore the racial aspect of the case, which is very important. I just hope that in addition to that, it reminds us there were two victims here. Everybody seemed to forget throughout the trial that there were two innocent people who lost their lives. And whatever you think of Simpson’s guilt, it’s a tragedy because no one has been brought to justice for it.”
“I was so wishing it wasn’t going to happen. And then I heard Sarah Paulson was going to play me. And I thought, Well, you know, that’s a pretty big honor,” Marcia said of her ambivalence about dredging everything back up. “I’ve been a big fan of hers for many years, and I think she’s a brilliant actress. But for me, this is not entertainment; it’s extremely painful. And I’m reliving now a horrible time in my life — the nightmares I lived through that felt like [they] would never end. And by definition, because it’s a ten-hour series and it was a 15-month case, it’s not going to be right. There are going to be inaccuracies, and the whole subject is going to hurt. It hurts already. The silver lining is I’m played by someone who is a genius, and I love her. I saw her and I thought, Thank goodness it’s her playing me.”
When Marcia had dinner with Sarah halfway through the show’s shooting, Marcia brought up her infamous hair and apologized for it. “People I’ve met after the trial, when they found out I didn’t have curly hair, that that was just a perm, that my hair is naturally completely straight, wanted to kill me,” Marcia said. “I’m looking at Sarah and I’m going, What the hell was I thinking? I mean, I know what I was thinking. I wanted wash-and-wear hair. I had two little boys in diapers, and I did not have time to mess with that stuff.”