When Ann Rule wrote The Stranger Beside Me about her coworker Ted Bundy, she understood that fact was stranger than fiction. “Not even a television script could make it believable that a crime writer could sign a contract to write a book about a killer and then have the suspect turn out to be her close friend,” she wrote. “It wouldn’t wash.” Ironically, The Stranger Beside Me was later adapted as a made-for-TV movie in 2003.
The phrase “based on a true story” is as old as Hollywood itself. Tales of real-life underdogs, war heroes, and struggling musicians have long graced the silver screen. Even though the true crime genre feels like a recent obsession, old gangster biopics like Dillinger and classic documentaries such as The Thin Blue Line and Brother’s Keeper prove otherwise. Murder’s appeal is timeless. However, in today’s world, the popularity of documentaries shifts the way we obtain our true crime fix.
A face-to-face interview with a victim places the audience in their shoes. Watching a murderer calmly recount their crimes forces the viewer to confront humanity’s evils. True crime stories told in a nonfiction format ground the events in a way drama formats never could. Real people go through horrible things and their stories remind us to stay vigilant against the unexpected. When you see Jake Gyllenhaal running around San Francisco in search for the Zodiac Killer in David Fincher’s Zodiac, it’s thrilling, but not relatable. Carefully crafted film sets, perfectly styled hair, and recognizable movie stars remind you that what you’re watching is fake. The Zodiac Killer doesn’t sit down for a talking-head-style confessional.
In HBO’s 2017 documentary Mommy Dead and Dearest, director Erin Lee Carr speaks directly to the young woman charged with matricide. Gypsy Rose Blanchard grew up abused by a mother plagued with Munchausen syndrome by proxy. This condition leads an individual to feign or cause illness in those under their care in order to gain attention or sympathy from others. Gypsy’s mother, Dee Dee Blanchard, claimed that her daughter was sick from the age of three months old and, throughout her life, she went to extreme lengths to convince doctors and the public alike that Gypsy suffered from epilepsy, muscular dystrophy, Leukemia, and intellectual disability.
In reality, the young girl was perfectly healthy. From age seven, Dee Dee forced Gypsy into a wheelchair, tricked doctors into inserting a feeding tube into the girl’s abdomen, and had her daughter’s salivary glands removed. After 24 years under her mother’s control, Gypsy finally hit a breaking point and called upon her secret online boyfriend to murder Dee Dee. With unbelievable revelations and shocking testimonials regarding the events of the case, Mommy Dead and Dearest leaves audiences wide-eyed and breathless.
The documentary’s impressive access hands us a direct glimpse into this dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship. Featuring raw interviews with family members, neighbors, doctors, and Gypsy herself, Mommy Dead and Dearest is a remarkable retelling that hands its story over to the victims.
Mommy Dead and Dearest rivals any dramatic thriller in terms of unexpected twists and turns. With a heavy dose of sex, drugs, and murder, HBO couldn’t dream for a better story, and of course, Lifetime couldn’t resist producing their own gruesome version. Love You to Death, which premiered in January on the cable channel, is outlandish, over the top, and takes the premise of a mother with Munchausen by proxy and strips it of all its complexities.
Now, there’s also The Act, Hulu’s own fictionalized version of Gypsy Rose and Dee Dee Blanchard’s story. The eight-part miniseries depicts the lives of the Blanchard women as daughter slowly breaks away from her mother’s control. Each episode is suspenseful and compelling, but with an equally intriguing and completely real documentary available to tell the story of Dee Dee’s murder, what do viewer’s gain from a re-imagined version of the events?
While the HBO film spends time with Dee Dee’s immediate family, audiences never get to hear from the mother herself. Quite frankly, they never will. Because of her death, Dee Dee only exists through those that remember her. The Act attempts to show a version of what life with Dee Dee Blanchard could have looked like. How did she manipulate doctors to perform surgery on a healthy girl? Why didn’t Gypsy Rose stand up for herself? How could anyone believe Dee Dee’s lies? These are the questions The Act tries to address by creating an interpretation of events. Most of this interpretation, however, is pure speculation and cannot come close to the absolute truth. A miniseries can be entertaining but they usually lack the substance that a nonfiction film can supply.
Documentaries provide the truth. They exist to tell a story made up of facts, first-hand accounts, and archival footage. If you’re fascinated by the murder of Dee Dee Blanchard, there’s no better resource to turn to than Mommy Dead and Dearest. At the end of the day, if a documentary exists, it will always provide viewers with the most authentic interpretation of events.