Sunday, April 14, 2024

Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons on Love & Death: One of the Most Bizarre and Brutal True Crime Stories of All Time

The highly anticipated TV mini-series, Love & Death hits Neon this week, starring Elizabeth Olsen and Jesse Plemons. It tells the tale of Candy Montgomery and one of the most shocking true crime murders in history. In an NZ exclusive, we chatted to Elizabeth and Jesse, as well as other cast members about this story, which has been brought to life in Love & Death by the teams behind Big Little Lies and The Undoing (i.e. some of the best shows on the telly!)

It was the summer of 1980 – a beautiful, sunny June – in the quiet little town of Wylie, Texas, when something unbelievably shocking rocked the community, particularly the church-going group of friends whom it impacted.

Betty Gore, a 30-year-old mother of two, was found brutally murdered on the evening of June 13 by her neighbours. She was found on the floor of her home, having been struck by an axe 41 times. Her five-year-old wasn’t home, but her one-year-old daughter was still upstairs in crib, crying.

At first, investigators wondered if the killing was a copycat murder, inspired by an iconic horror film featuring an axe-wielding Jack Nicholson, which had released in cinemas just three weeks earlier.

“It looked like a scene from a horror film,” former Collin County sheriff’s deputy Steve Deffibaugh recently recalled of the crime scene. “It was a Friday the 13th. Our thought was that we had a copycat of the movie The Shining.”

But before long, it was discovered that Betty’s brutal death was carried out by her best friend, Candy Montgomery. Candy claimed that she acted in self-defense. See, Candy had been having an affair with Betty’s husband, and apparently Betty found out and confronted her – with deadly consequences.

In the ensuing high-profile trial, Candy testified that Betty had swung at her with an axe, and she had managed to wrestle the weapon from her and killed her in self defense. She also said that at one stage Betty had “shushed” her, which triggered memories of her abusive mother. “I didn’t think,” she said on the stand. “I raised it and I hit her, and I hit her and I hit her and I hit her.”

Candy then had a shower to rinse the blood off her, and then left to continue on about her day, leaving Betty’s infant daughter awake and crying in her crib. She attended Bible school with her children – and Betty’s five-year-old daughter, then went on for lunch with friends.

On October 30, the jury turned a not-guilty verdict in for the case. Candy was free to go.

With a murder this brutal, a back-story so intense, the fact a woman was the killer AND that she walked free, it’s hardly surprising that the story of Candy Montgomery and Betty Gore has become the stuff of true crime legends.

There’s been several TV series on the case (including the Jessica Biel fronted Candy by Disney), but this month, a new, highly anticipated HBO mini-series looks at the crime in a whole new manner.

At the helm of the show, Love & Death, is David E Kelley (of Big Little Lies fame) and stars Elizabeth Olsen as Candy, Jesse Plemons as Allan Gore, Lily Rabe as Betty Gore, Patrick Fugit (Almost Famous) as Pat Montgomery and Krysten Ritter as Candy’s friend Sherry Cleckler.

And, the show is good. It has an incredible cast, it’s beautifully shot and manages to tell this hideous story with heart, rather than salaciously or even grotesquely comically as some other attempts have.

This week we talked to some of the stars of the show – which is already getting Emmy buzz – about the show, and the case itself. Neither of its two lead stars, Elizabeth and Jesse, had heard of the murders before the scripts came their way.

And, when he gave the case a Google, Jesse (who you will remember from his Oscar win in The Power of the Dog, filmed here in NZ) says he was shocked by the verdict.

“When I first read the article, I was totally flabbergasted as to how she could have could have gotten off,” he says. “but then what I find interesting about this story and these people is the more you investigate it, the less clear it is. My opinion changed several times throughout the course of shooting.”

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene, Wind River) says she had equally complicated feelings about it. “It’s [the judicial system] is flawed, but it’s the best we’ve figured out so far!” she says. “I do think, based on the system, it was the decision that made sense.”

She says one thing Candy was definitely calculated about was the affair she sought out with Betty’s husband. Elizabeth says the affair did fill a hole in Candy’s life – but also, it was just something she fantasised about and really wanted to happen, at any cost.

Elizabeth Olsen as Candy Montgomery

“I think that Candy, when she sets her mind to do something, she is unrelenting,” tells Elizabeth. “Based on research of who she was, she really loved romance novels and I do think that she just really wanted to have an affair. Even if there was going to be pushback, even with like a very long courting  process, she still is going to figure out how to have an affair. I think it was something that she fantasized about.”

Elizabeth says that exploring who Candy was, as best as she could piece together, was challenging – particularly given her disturbing behaviour before, during and after the murder of her dear friend. But, ultimately she loved the way David E. Kelley wrote this character. Like many of the characters he so richly creates, Candy – and all the female characters – were full of questions, with many of them reaching a point in their lives when they found themselves asking, ‘is this all there is?’

“I think that’s what’s interesting about this story almost as a whole,” says Elizabeth. “It’s this idea of, ‘if I can just have this,’ or ‘if I can just if I can just get to this place where I have a bigger house’, or ‘if I can get this better job or this bigger pay check, then I’ll be happy’. I think Candy was just constantly trying to figure out what would fulfil her.”

Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones, Breaking Bad) says it’s David E Kelley’s reading of that situation that makes this show – and indeed his other work – so compelling.

“There’s just something in his magic sauce,” she says. “I think that David Kelley is one of the best writers and most prolific writers that we’ll ever see. There’s something about him, like, he’s one of the few men that write women so authentically and so beautifully and they all have a story. They’re all… what you said, you’re right. They’re all asking questions, and they all have something going on and agency and they’re fully realised.”

Elizabeth Olsen as Candy, and Krysten Ritter as Sherry

One of the most complex characters to explore – with so little information available – was Betty Gore herself. Betty is the true victim in this story, in more than one sense. In her own murder story, she often becomes just a footnote herself, while the headlines for decades have been about Candy. And even more troubling, during the trial, much was made (particularly by her husband, Allan) or her mental state before the murder. Betty had two daughters – a five-year-old and a baby, plus she and Allan were apparently trying for another, without much success).

I put to Lily Rabe (Shrinking, Fractured), who plays Betty, what it was like trying to honour this woman who died so horrifically and whether it was perhaps down to how postpartum mental health was viewed and treated at the time, that it wasn’t openly discussed, but then used against her in such a vicious way.

“God that’s a wonderful question,” she says. “We don’t get to hear Betty’s – I hesitate to even say side, because that feels like a diminishing term! But we don’t have Betty’s point of view or voice to learn from. But I think what we’ve done in the show, and what was so important to me in the playing of the part was, without diagnosing her with anything, I do feel that there is something that happened for her postpartum and had she had the resources or the support that she might have had today, I do believe her trajectory could have been different. And I don’t mean in terms of the crime, I just mean in terms of her peace and her happiness in her life.

Lily Rabe as Betty, with Jesse Plemons as her husband, Allan.

“I think there’s a kind of quicksand around her that she is sinking in. I think she is trying to connect and trying to advocate for herself and trying to connect with the man that I really do believe she loves. But she is incredibly lonely, and it’s not because of who she’s married to. It’s because of a lack of support outside of that. Because, yes, like you said, she’s she is a victim in more ways than one, but I also think she is someone who was striving so hard not to be. She really fought for her life. Her resilience and her strength and the way that she fights for her life – and we do have record of that. I think it speaks so much to her to her incredible strength.”

Love & Death is available on Neon now.

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