bad TV, movies, narcissists, true crime

I just watched Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer…

About fifteen years ago, when Bill and I were still living in my native state of Virginia, I read a true crime book by Kathryn Casey. The title of the book was She Wanted it All: A True Story of Sex, Murder, and a Texas Millionaire. At the time that I read the book, Bill was serving a deployment in Iraq. As worried as I was about him, I was also freaked out about his ex wife, who had done some extreme things in the previous year to mess up Bill’s relationship with his daughters. In so many ways, Celeste Beard Johnson’s story reminded me of Ex, only there wasn’t a murder involved.

I reviewed Kathryn Casey’s book on Epinions.com, noting that the story of Celeste Beard Johnson reminded me a lot of my husband’s ex wife, and the drama she was visiting on us at the time. I got nightmares after reading that book. You can find my review here; when Epinions.com died, I managed to save some of my old reviews and have put them on my blog.

Last week, I noticed that a lot of people were reading my review of She Wanted It All. I am Facebook friends with Kathryn Casey, and she had posted about how Celeste’s daughters, Jennifer and Kristina, had done an interview for 20/20. I wasn’t able to watch the show because I live in Germany, and I wasn’t home when it aired, anyway. Maybe I’ll see if I can find it on YouTube or iTunes.

Anyway, when I noticed I was getting a bunch of hits on that old book review from the spring of 2007, I did some Internet sleuthing and discovered that last year, Lifetime put out a made for TV movie about Celeste’s story. The movie, Secrets of a Gold Digger Killer (2021), stars Julie Benz, whom I knew from Desperate Housewives. Julie Benz and I are about the same age, but she’s still very attractive. I liked her in other things I’ve seen her in, so I downloaded the movie and watched it yesterday.

One thing it’s important to remember, of course, is that a made for TV movie is really a movie that’s based on a true story. It also requires condensing a story so that it fits in a short timeframe. Celeste Beard’s story is a hell of a lot more complicated than the way it was portrayed in the made for TV movie. I think Julie Benz was a good choice to play Celeste, but the story is a bit watered down, as it would be. What’s kind of sad about it, though, is that Lifetime’s treatment of it is actually kind of campy. That’s too bad, because I think there are a lot of women like Celeste in the world… toxic, money grifting, narcissistic assholes who are not much better than vampires.

The official trailer for the movie… At this writing, someone has also uploaded the whole thing, so you don’t have to pay iTunes to see it.

At the beginning of the movie, Celeste (Benz) is shown flirting with an older man at an Austin, Texas country club, serving him vodka tonics. The lonely old man, Steven Beard, is a wealthy Austin area television mogul. He’s loaded with money, but since his wife died, he has no one to share his good fortune with. Celeste zeroes in on him, putting on the charm, batting her eyes, and quickly convincing him to fall in love with her and let her and her two daughters, Jennifer and Kristina, move in with him. The movie doesn’t explain this, but Jennifer and Kristina are twins, and products of Celeste’s first marriage to Craig Bratcher. She alienated the girls from their father, and they even wound up in foster care a few times, when she couldn’t foist them off on family. Bratcher eventually committed suicide, as Celeste drained her subsequent husbands of money and other resources. When she married Beard, Celeste insisted that he adopt her daughters, although in the film, it looks as if adopting them was Steven’s idea.

She would marry twice more before making Steven Beard her fourth husband. At the beginning of their relationship, Beard was very kind and generous, and he was patient and understanding when Celeste would spend his money recklessly. When he finally got fed up with her crazy spending habits, Beard brought up the “D” word. Celeste responded by threatening suicide, which led to her being admitted to a psychiatric hospital. There, she met Tracey Tarlton, who was an openly lesbian woman with anger issues and a history of depression. She and Celeste became buddies, and later, had a relationship.

Tracey Tarlton is played by Justine Warrington, who gives the character an almost comic treatment. She confesses to Celeste that she got in trouble for hitting an ex lover’s husband with her truck. When Celeste asks her if she really did that, Tracey says, with a conspiratorial giggle, “No… but I thought about it.” It was at that point that I realized how tasteless this adaptation of Beard’s story really is. Lifetime turned it into a salacious tale, seeming to miss that a man who had friends and family members who loved him was killed for Celeste’s selfish agenda.

Celeste talks Tracey into killing Steven Beard. She convinces her that he’s an abusive man who will leave her destitute and alone if they get a divorce. Tracey got it into her head that if Steven Beard was out of the way, she and Celeste could be together and live happily ever after. But after Steven died, Celeste took up with her fifth husband. That was when the real life Tracey spoke up. The movie makes it appear that the girls had talked her into confessing what really happened. Celeste had signed a prenuptial agreement that would have given her $500,000 in the case of divorce. But if Steven died, she’d get half of his fortune, as the other half would go to Steven’s daughter from his first marriage, a woman named Becky (Patricia Harras) who was older than Celeste. In real life, Celeste was 38 years younger than Steven Beard. Julie Benz is clearly older than the real life Celeste was when this was happening in the early 90s. The actors portrayed Celeste and Steven were too close in age.

One thing I noticed was the detective– Detective Rolands– who seems to pronounce the name so that it sounds like “Rawlins”, which made me think that’s a common name for cops and detectives on TV. Every time he referred to himself by name and flashed a snarky look at Celeste, I was reminded of cheesy 70s and 80s era cop shows.

I didn’t think the acting in this movie was particularly good, either. I remember thinking Julie Benz was so beautiful when she was on Desperate Housewives. I thought she was a good actress, too. In this film, she was all gushy and unconvincing. I came away with the idea that she did this movie strictly for the money. It’s not that I really expected a whole lot better from Lifetime TV. Most of the newest movies I’ve seen made by them are pretty terrible on every level, from the quality of acting, to the veracity of the stories presented, to the way certain things are presented, like crime investigations. They bear little resemblance to the truth and aren’t plausible. Some of it probably has to do with the budget and needing attractive people to star. I’m also sure some people like vapid, shallow, forgettable movies rather than detailed stories.

There was a time when they made movies that were of decent quality, but the ones I’ve seen recently have been disappointing. I saw one they made with Judd Nelson in it. I like Judd Nelson as an actor– I grew up in the 80s, after all. But that movie, Girl in the Basement (2021), which was loosely based on the Josef Fritzl story, was also very campy, salacious, and poorly acted. And both of these movies, made for Lifetime TV, barely scratched the surface of the complexity of the stories. In better hands, this could have been a very compelling movie. I would hope it would have been handled with more respect, too. Lifetime treats it almost like it should be a funny story. There’s nothing funny about what Celeste Beard did to Steven Beard, his daughter, or her daughters, who– thankfully– are much better people than she is.

When I reviewed Kathryn Casey’s book, She Wanted it All, my husband was very estranged from his daughters. As time passed, one of his daughters reconnected and has shown us that, like Jennifer and Kristina Beard, she’s a much better caliber of person than her mother is. Sadly, like Jennifer and Kristina, my husband’s daughters were basically turned into servants, serving their mother’s narcissism and need to take everything from everyone close to her. But when I first read about Celeste Beard, I literally had nightmares, because she reminded me so much of Ex. This movie is laughable and silly… just as Ex has become to me… even if she’s still not a laughing matter to her poor daughter, who still takes her seriously, because she’s still her mother, even if she is a lying, narcissistic twit.

I feel like this true crime story should have been treated with a lot more seriousness and respect. If you are truly interested in this story, I would definitely recommend taking the time to read Kathryn Casey’s book. It’s very comprehensive and well-written, and you’ll get the real story, rather than this appalling bullshit that attempts to turn a tragedy into a comedy show. It’s really not funny, and shouldn’t have been turned into a campy Lifetime TV story.

Celeste Beard is currently serving a life sentence, although she will be eligible for parole in 2042. Tracey Tarleton was released from prison in 2011 and has completed her parole. She lives in San Antonio, Texas.

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