On May 15, 2009, Farrah Fawcett—the Corpus Christi—born Catholic schoolgirl turned University of Texas sorority sister turned internationally celebrated sex symbol turned bonafide Hollywood train wreck—finally achieved that which had eluded her for more than three decades: She found purpose and transcendence on-screen.

Farrah’s Story, a two-hour account of the actress’s ongoing fight against metastatic anal cancer, was a late addition to NBC’s May sweeps schedule. Filmed and produced by her longtime friend Alana Stewart, it sounded, at least on paper, deeply confused: On the one hand, Fawcett was railing against the tabloids for invading her privacy and making her cancer battle public; on the other, she was allowing Stewart to record every last detail of that battle for commercial purposes. But Farrah’s Story featured not even a hint of the narcissism that so often infected her creative work over the years. Instead, Stewart put forth an agonizingly detailed portrait of Fawcett’s affliction, from her doctor’s appointments and her chemotherapy injections to the harrowing follow-up CT scans that would reveal if her experimental treatments had been successful. She laid herself bare, emotionally and physically (in one scene, she bravely removes a wig to reveal that the legendary “Farrah hair” has been eradicated by chemo). The result was a genuine public service—at once an anatomy of a disease and a call to arms against it—as well as a moving coda to a career that was tragically cut short on June 25, when Fawcett succumbed.

And yet, surely I wasn’t the only one watching television that night who noticed a painful irony: It had taken 62 years and a terminal diagnosis for her to wrest control of her public persona. Indeed, until Farrah’s Story it was impossible not to see her as a kind of victim, as the pliable, eager-to-please plaything of the Hollywood celebrity machine. Look back to her earliest television appearances, in commercials for brands like Noxzema and Ultra Brite. The come-hither smile, the honey-tinged hair, and the soft-spoken voice that maintained a hint of a proper Southern lady’s drawl all combined to create a quintessentially American male fantasy: the girl next door with a sharply erotic edge. Her star-making role as Jill Munroe on the first season of Charlie’s Angels (1976) turned that pliability into a kind of stock-in-trade; she would do anything for a man, provided he showed her a modest measure of gratitude. As one of three female private investigators working for the mysterious Charlie, Fawcett was subjected to one humiliating scenario after another. In the first sixteen episodes alone, she was required to join a female roller derby team, infiltrate a pornographic film empire, and go undercover as a prostitute. She showed a gift for putting a lighthearted spin on the most misogynistic of dialogue (“I have a feeling one of us is going to get to play call girl,” she says brightly). But there was no avoiding the vaguely sickening subtext of the series, which was all about women exploiting their bodies in order to satisfy an insatiable and absent father figure.

Perhaps lessons learned earliest also die hardest. For the next quarter century, Fawcett seemed incapable of divorcing her sexuality from her work. She reportedly earned less from Charlie’s Angels than from sales of her famous wall poster—an instantly iconic one-sheet of the actress, seated in a red bathing suit, that did for masturbation what Saturday Night Fever did for disco. Even after she left the show, she allowed herself to be defined from a uniquely male perspective. I know many regard her work in the TV movie The Burning Bed (1984), about an abused housewife who sets her house aflame with her husband still inside, and the feature film Extremities (1986), about a woman who seeks vengeance upon her would-be rapist, as proof that she was capable of taking on unglamorous parts in feminist-minded efforts. My own view is that she had merely traded one brand of Hollywood objectification for another. She was stuck playing women whose lives revolved around the violence perpetrated upon them by men in movies that functioned as makeshift public service announcements. She did herself no favors either by so often resorting to the same wide-eyed expression of bedraggled dismay.

At some point, she became a true tabloid figure—famous primarily for being famous, but also for her tortured romantic relationships with fellow celebs Lee Majors (to whom she was married from 1973 to 1982) and Ryan O’Neal (with whom she had a son, Redmond, in 1985). By the time of her surreal 1997 appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman, a few months following her fiftieth birthday, whatever promise she might have had as a serious performer had dwindled to nothing. Most people still remember that Fawcett couldn’t seem to maintain her train of thought for more than three seconds at a time. Less remembered is what she was doing on the Late Show in the first place: promoting one of those “Fabulous at 50” nude photo spreads in Playboy as well as an accompanying pay-per-view special, the last resort of the desperate Hollywood starlet. She redeemed herself, albeit briefly, later that year in Robert Duvall’s brilliant drama The Apostle, playing the estranged wife of a violent preacher; she needed only a few scenes to craft a genuinely original character, a woman who, after a lifetime spent in the company of a slick operator, has learned the art of slipping out of his grasp. But the ensuing years were far from kind. She was perhaps a bit too convincing as a Dallas housewife who suffers a nervous breakdown at NorthPark mall in Robert Altman’s Dr. T and the Women (2000). In 2005 she hit rock bottom with Chasing Farrah, a TV Land reality show in which she repeatedly asserted that she found reality shows obnoxious and unconvincing. The problem with the show, however, had less to do with its star’s distaste for the form than the fact that Fawcett’s supposedly dramatic life turned out to be a complete snooze.

That’s probably why Farrah’s Story felt so potent, despite all the tragedy attached to it. She was no longer doing what her publicists and agents told her she needed to do to sustain her career; instead, she was speaking directly from the gut. There are moments in the documentary when she came across as intransigent and reckless, such as when she insisted upon flying from Germany to Los Angeles against the advice of her doctors. There are others that are almost too much to bear, particularly when the incarcerated Redmond was allowed a brief leave from prison to visit Fawcett, who was heavily medicated and barely registered his presence. Still others suggest that she really was a bit of a fruit loop (was that a giant self-portrait she was painting in an early scene?). But throughout she emerged as complicated, difficult, determined, and, above all, recognizably human.

A wish, then, that Fawcett—who just before she died reportedly accepted O’Neal’s proposal of marriage—found some measure of peace in her final hours. And a prayer that she will be remembered less for her seductive curves and flouncy hair than for this extraordinary final-act triumph.