By 1987 Lisa Bonet had been a household name for years, in the character of Denise Huxtable, the sardonic, elegant teen daughter in “The Cosby Show.” It surprised nobody when she broke into film that year, starring opposite Mickey Rourke in the hauntingly sexy horror-noir “Angel Heart.” She was then nineteen.
Given its explicit sexual and satanic themes, Bonet had concerns about the public’s reaction to the film, and she took them to her boss, Bill Cosby, who played her father, Cliff Huxtable, in the family-friendly hit show. He was “very supportive, and remained so,” she said in 1987, even when she warned him about “Angel Heart’s” initial X rating. According to Bonet, Cosby “didn’t take it seriously,” adding that he deliberately took his children to see “Last Tango In Paris” because he considered it an important film.
“The Cosby halo has slipped,” she said.
This story is striking now, and not only in light of the dozens of allegations of sexual assault against Cosby — more than 50 women, at the time of writing, have come forward with frighteningly similar stories of meeting Cosby in private and waking up many hours later, disoriented, drugged, their clothes disordered or missing, and/or their bodies physically violated. For those who came of age in the 1980s these allegations were nearly incredible at first; “America’s Dad”— the creator of that preachiest of sitcoms, universally celebrated for easing racial tensions with his portrait of a lovable, perfectly ordinary upper-middle-class black American family — the beloved pitchman for Jello Pudding Pops — a sexual predator?!
Cliff Huxtable would never in a million years have taken his kids to see “Last Tango,” an art-porn featuring the anal rape of a woman played by the late Maria Schneider, then nineteen. In 2004 Schneider told the Guardian that the film had ruined her life, and that she considered the director, Bernardo Bertolucci, “‘a gangster and a pimp’ who’d taught her a harsh lesson: ‘Never take your clothes off for a middle-aged man who claims that it’s art.’”
And another thing: “Last Tango” came out in 1972, at which point Cosby had three children, ages 7, 6 and 3; we can assume, I guess, that he arranged or attended a private screening with them at some point after its release. Which — I don’t know. Even in 1987, Cosby’s kids were 22, 21, 18, 14 and 11. So… little as I like to judge anybody else’s parenting strategies, I can’t help noting that that is just a very weird-sounding family evening, especially for a professional moralizer whose stock-in-trade was “family values.” And yet the “Last Tango” remark was reported spang in the middle of the newspaper, without an eyebrow raised.
But. Cliff Huxtable is not a real person; however much we may love him, he is like a Potemkin representation, or even more, like the scoop of mashed potatoes that food stylists often use to represent ice cream during photo shoots. Looks so fantastic! Looks better than the real thing, in fact. So superficially perfect. So completely inedible.
It bears reflecting constantly on the comfortably bulletproof fictions behind which the powerful may be hiding terrible things. They are surrounding us on all sides. “America’s Dad” was so named because of the goofy but ultimately wise and steadfast Huxtable, the ideal fictional man providing the moral cover for the real, necessarily less excellent one. Because our love for the ideal can and will be exploited by the unscrupulous, if they possibly can. As the trial begins Monday morning, I imagine we will be hearing a lot about the Huxtable side of Cosby, the decades of “moral leadership” and the millions in charitable donations (those millions at least are real, unlike certain other charitable donations I could name). But how much will remain of Huxtable in a few weeks’ time is an open question.
[Bonet interview: Portman, Jamie. The Vancouver Sun; Vancouver, B.C. 27 Feb 1987: H2.]
This article was originally published on Death and Taxes.