As a landlady sifts through some abandoned belongings of Colleen Applegate's--old Valentines, a high school diploma--you're overwhelmed by sadness.
There have been some stirring accounts of the short life of Applegate, a.k.a. porn star Shauna Grant, who died March 23, 1984, at 20 from a .22-caliber rifle shot to the head. (She was the subject of a Calendar cover story May 6, 1984, and her story also is being made into a TV movie for next season). But an enormously compelling PBS "Frontline" documentary (at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15 and at 10 on Channel 50) lifts the storytelling to a stunning new level.
Simply, movingly, effectively and unsensationally, this 60-minute production from WCCO-TV in Minneapolis retraces the route of a wholesome ex-cheerleader from her tiny hometown of Farmington, Minn., to the sewers of Hollywood porn films and cocaine addiction, a route that led ultimately to her suicide in the Palm Springs home of her 44-year-old lover.
Two years earlier to the week, she had arrived in Hollywood a fresh and beautiful 18-year-old, full of hope and unfocused dreams, soon to be making $100,000 a year as X-rated film star Shauna Grant, and blowing most of it on fast living and drugs.
Reported for "Frontline" by Al Austin, "Death of a Porn Queen" unfolds through the eyes of Applegate's parents, friends and colleagues, some of them shady and apparently destructive influences who pass through her life in a gauzy twilight.
There are somewhat graphic samples here of Applegate earning her pay in porn films, so beware. Far more interesting are outtakes from her films and some eerily candid footage that WCCO obtained of Applegate, still new to Hollywood, answering an ad and first interviewing with the agent who would introduce her to the world of nude modeling and erotic films.
We later meet her manager, Bobby Hollander, and her cocaine-dealing boyfriend, Jake Erlich, who was in jail and trying to dump her when Applegate killed herself. "You let me be Colleen; you didn't expect me to be anyone else," she says about Erlich on an audio tape discovered in his house.
Some of Applegate's acquaintances believe that it was stardom that she adored, not porndom, and that she was never comfortable performing sex on the screen as star of "Virginia," "Suzie Superstar" and "Flesh and Laces." In one year, we're told, she developed herpes, had an abortion and had sex with 37 men.
Without stunts or theatrics, "Death of a Porn Queen" delivers a powerful message about the environment of drugs and exhibitionist sex that attracted, briefly enriched and ultimately destroyed Applegate, as gossip about her careening life shocked and titillated the folks back home.
It's impossible to know even from this fine film exactly when and where she went wrong, why she shot herself and who is to blame. She never fully emerges from her silhouette, remaining in death as she was in life, enigmatic and very, very sad.