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The American Experience Amelia Earhart

There must have been something about Amelia, but the season premiere of the reliable "American Experience" series never quite punctures the heart of her mercurial essence. The portrait it paints of the nation's most famous female flyer removes some of the gloss from the legend, and if Earhart herself never completely emerges, a Depression-era Madonna certainly does.

There must have been something about Amelia, but the season premiere of the reliable “American Experience” series never quite punctures the heart of her mercurial essence. The portrait it paints of the nation’s most famous female flyer removes some of the gloss from the legend, and if Earhart herself never completely emerges, a Depression-era Madonna certainly does.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once wrote that there are no second acts to the lives of American writers; the observation also applies to the nation’s two most famous aviators.

The legend of Amelia Earhart was a one-act phenomenon. The fame that carried Lady Lindy was built less on her accomplishments than her brilliant manipulation of the media and, in the end, her disappearance over the Pacific as she attempted to circumnavigate the globe. If nothing else, her death, at 39, spared her from becoming the embarrassment that Lindy — Charles A. — lived long enough to turn into. Earhart satisfied the public’s craving for a hero, but fate made sure she didn’t overstay her welcome.

Earhart was certainly a complex character, with fierce ambitions and the will — and wile — to achieve them, yet the footage of her shows her to be cool and uncharismatic. From childhood on, she refused to accept the limitations foisted on women of her time; she was desperate for a dramatic, important life, one that would literally take wing.

She loved flying, but, fellow aviatrixes recall, never worked hard enough to be truly great at it; her overnight fame came as a passenger — the first woman to be flown across the Atlantic — not as a pilot. Indeed, the whole event was a publicity stunt, cooked up by publisher-promoter G.P. Putnam so he could reap the benefits of the book that would naturally follow.

From that flight on, Earhart and Putnam made a masterful team, and eventually they married. She wanted celebrity, and he, a kind of Barnum with culture, knew how to insure she got it. Theirs was a relationship based more on symbiosis than love.

“Earhart” is strongest in its depiction of the Earhart-Putnam relationship. Gore Vidal, whose father was once in a short-lived commercial venture with Earhart, likens them to an actress and her manager, then goes on to compare her, aptly, to a rock star. Indeed, the always canny Vidal offers the docu’s best commentary.

In many ways, Earhart’s thirst for the limelight led to her eventual failure. She prepared poorly for her final flight and refused to accept the advice of those who told her she was over-extended and unfocused. Like Icarus, her hubris took her too close to the sun, and the result was just as predictable — and just as mythic.

The American Experience Amelia Earhart

(Wed. (27), 9-10 p.m., PBS)

  • Production: Producer, director, writer, Nancy Porter; co-producer, Jane Feinberg.
  • Crew: Editor, Jeanne Jordan; composer, Michael Bacon.
  • Cast: Narrator: Kathy Bates.
  • Music By: