Sunday, March 31, 2013

TV: The Death of the TV Movie

Donato:  That ring and that watch were hot stuff.  Hector kept them in a safe and they were stolen by his boyfriend Larry Gaines. 

Jessie Lee Stubbs:   Hector was gay?

Donato:   He was gay, yes, and, Larry Gaines, he was anything.  Hector was sore at Larry because Larry quit him.  Hector knew he could bring the cops down on Larry by using the nurse.

The above is from a scene between Farrah Fawcett (Jessie Lee Stubbs) and Steve Artiaga (Donato) in Criminal Behavior (written by Wendell Mayes, directed by Michael Miller) a 1992 TV movie.  In the 80s and 90s, network television re-discovered that they could get strong ratings with TV movies starring women.


ABC didn't create TV movies but they did air ABC's Movie of the Week from 1969 to 1976.  Sometimes these films were pilots for TV shows (Lee Majors' The Six Million Dollar Man, for example).  Sometimes they were remakes (Tuesday Weld starred with Joan Hackett and Sam Waterson in Reflections of Murder, a November 24, 2974 Movie of the Week that was a remake of Diabolique).  Sometimes they were based on other material (F. Scott Fitzgerald in Hollywood was a 1976 Movie of the Week starring Tuesday Weld, Jason Miller and a then emerging James Woods).

Tuesday Weld, in fact, can be considered one of the original strong actresses doing TV movie work.  In 1978's A Question of Guilt, she plays a mother accused of murdering her children.  In 1980, she did ABC's Mother and Daughter: The Loving Wars. In 1981, she starred in a remake of Madame X playing the Lana Turner role.  In 1982, she starred with Tommy Lee Jones in HBO's remake of The Rainmaker. 1983 found her starring in CBS' Hallmark Hall of Fame production of Winter of Our Discontent in an Emmy nominated performance.  1984 found her teamed with Keith Carradine and Peter Coyote for Scorned and Swindled (CBS) and, in 1986, she finished off her TV movie cycle with two tele-films, Circle of Violence: A Family Drama (where she physically abuses her mother; River Phoenix is among her co-stars) and, with Ellen Burstyn, she starred in Something in Common (which also featured Eli Wallach).

During this period, many actresses took so-so roles in splashy premises that were a form of stunt casting resulting in attention if not applause.  See Shirley Jones play a gambling addict in 1975's Winner Take All!  See Sally Struthers survive spousal abuse at the hands of Dennis Weaver in 1977's Intimate Strangers!  See Eve Plumb play a prostitute in 1976's Dawn: Portrait of a Teenage Runaway!  However, except for Elizabeth Montgomery, few of the TV stars were really up for creating full blown characters.

Montgomery was a natural whether playing Belle Starr or Lizzie Borden, whether doing something heavy like Amos (abuse in a nursing home -- Kirk Douglas also starred in the TV movie) or something lighter like Mrs. Sundance.  But she was the exception in the 70s.   For the most part, it was left to film actresses Tuesday Weld and Lee Remick to do the strongest work in the TV movies of that time period.

If the genre itself had a layer of cheese over it, that stemmed from too many generic performances and too many superficial victim roles.  There's not a problem with playing a victim, per se.  Michelle Pfieffer rightly called out rewrites on the film Wolf that tried to turn her character into 'career gal' because the writers didn't know what to do with her -- not knowing what to do with her was the character.  And playing a character like that with awareness can be a strong statement.

But the TV movies fell into the trap of being nothing but statements.  Well, exploitation hidden under the guise of 'we are making a strong statement.'  So you weren't supposed to be critical of the TV actress playing the mother hitting the child, you were supposed to be thrilled that abuse was being tackled.  (We're not referring to Cheryl Ladd who starred in the TV movie When She Was Bad.  Cheryl was actually very moving in that film.)  All these 'social issues' TV movies were supposed to be applauded for intent.  Apparently because if you didn't applaud at the start for the intent, no one would ever applaud when the end credits rolled and you realized just how bad a production that movie was.

The demise of the TV movies was hidden in part by some major successes in the TV mini-series genre.  A movie usually lasted one night (some lasted two and were billed as "movies" and not a "mini-series").  A mini-series lasted two or more nights.  There were the prestige ones like Roots and The Winds of War there were the entertaining ones like Scruples and Hollywood Wives.  The networks preferred a semi-successful mini-series to a successful TV movie.

Thornbirds, for example, was huge (second only to Roots as the highest rated mini-series) and the network could and did spend months promoting this mini-series that would take up multiple nights in the schedule.  By contrast, 1975's Trilogy of Terror was but one Movie of the Week ABC had to try to drum up enthusiasm for while also promoting the other TV movies that would be airing.

So more attention was paid to the mini-series format and the TV movies got weaker and weaker.  Is there really a point, for example, to The Best Little Girl in the World other than seeing how much weight Jennifer Jason Leigh could lose?  We're not panning her performance -- she's one of the greatest actresses working today -- but we are panning the TV movie and the same goes for Something About Amelia which may have been about incest but really doesn't work as a movie.  The scripts are threadbare in those and other 'social issue' movies of that time.  Noble cause may look good on a resume but it usually translates on screen to self-celebration.

In the 80s,  Ann-Margret, Farrah Fawcett and others would bring new life and new layers to the genre.  With 1983's Who Will Love My Children? and 1984's The Burning Bed, the two women set a new standard for performances and for quality of material.   They didn't settle for 'good cause,' they wanted characterization and they wanted story.  They fought for it and those are two of the finest TV movies of that decade.

Ann-Margret would follow up Who Will Love My Children?, with 1984's A Streetcar Named Desire.  Though she would continue to give strong performances in 8 more TV movies and 2 mini-series, only 1998's Life of the Party was worthy of her.

That goes to the level of the material out there.  By the 90s, TV movies were something of a joke.  "You're so Markie Post in every single Lifetime movie," Will tells Grace in the second episode of Will and Grace.  Substitute Michelle Lee, Nancy McKeon and Merdith Baxter and you have summed up many a bad TV film starring many an actress giving the exact same performance she gave in everything else she ever did.

Ann-Margaret's available choices may also have suffered from the fact that the type of TV movie she favored -- quality versions of those types of TV movies -- usually had leads already snapped up by Lindsay Wagner who tackled strong topics and delivered incredible performances (see especially Evil In Clear River).  Equally true, TV movies were going for young actresses as well.  The battle there was basically between one-note performer Melissa Gilbert versus the very talented Valerie Bertinelli (see especially Rockabye).  (They were both following in the footsteps of Mare Winningham who starred in 7 TV movies or mini-series from 1979 to 1981 alone -- the best being Freedom, The Women's Room and Off The Minnesota Strip.)

Farrah Fawcett was fierce in hunting down strong material (and in fighting on the set to keep it strong and to make it stronger) which is how she and Colleen Dewhurst created such magic in 1986's Between Two Women, the same year Farrah delivered an amazing performance as the lead in Nazi Hunter: The Beate Klarsfeld Story.  She'd finish out the eighties with Poor Little Rich Girl: The Barbara Hutton Story (1987) and 1989's Double Exposure: The Story of Margaret Bourke-White and Small Sacrifices.

As she finished up the 80s, she noticed the roles were getting more victimized while the scripts became more superficial.  That's why she went with Criminal Behavior.  As she explained to Harvey Solomon (Los Angeles Times),  "That's why this character was so interesting, why she was allowed to do the things she did.  She moves the story along--she wasn't victimized, she wasn't beaten up or beaten down."

In the film, she's an attorney with a low opinion of the police due to her family's experiences ("My family tree is recorded on police blotters") and due to her job.  A. Martinez plays police officer Pike Grenada.

Jessie Lee Stubbs:   If you'd let my client out, maybe he'd just come right to her.  There'd be Larry Gaines, right at her door.  I don't get the way that you guys think.

Pike laughs.

Jessie Lee Stubbs:   What is so funny?

Pike:  You are.

Jessie Lee Stubbs:  No, I'm not.

She wanted strong characters but found weak characters who suffered for the bulk of the movie and then the writers justified the suffering by allowing the women to turn into Charles Bronson and the movie into a revenge fantasy.

So she went with roles like The Substitute Wife that she hoped had larger truths.

That was 1994.  After TV movies especially changed.  In 1992, Amy Fisher shot the wife of her lover.  That year and the following year saw four TV movies about the shooting and affair.  The rush to get the tawdry topic to the small screen led to Drew Barrymore's The Amy Fisher Story airing opposite Alyssa Milano's Casualties of Love: The Long Island Lolita Story (January 3, 1993).   With the source material and the rush, there was little doubt that both would be little more than Trash TV (fortunately Barrymore and Milano have given stronger performances in many worthy projects).

And that's what really destroyed the TV movie.  Cheap and tacky, cheap and tacky.

1990's A Killing In A Small Town starring Barbara Hershey, 1986's Nobody's Child starring Marlo Thomas, TV movies like that were no more.

The Substitute Wife is a good TV movie.  It's also, surprisingly, a Lifetime TV movie.  The TV movie largely exists today due to Lifetime and no one's done more to destroy the TV movie then the Lifetime.  Vengeance fantasies dominate with more time being spent on get-even twists than on characterizations.  Not every TV movie needs to be life or death.

They do need to capture the viewer's attention.  Lifetime's succeeded, for example, with the TV movie The Client List which was entertaining.  The Cartier Affair, starring Joan Collins, was a caper TV film but it was also a satisfying TV movie.

Lifetime movies became a joke in the same way that people snicker when they watch Jennifer Lopez in Enough (not a TV movie, though it feels like one): They don't resemble life.  They can slap "based on a true story" at the front of every one of those TV movies, but there's nothing lifelike about it, nothing relatable, nothing truly frightening.  But as big a joke as Lifetime can be, the bigger joke is HBO which seems to think their centrist-left applauding, right-wing demonizing films provide entertainment or art.  We're back to the period of nobility only these days noble is being a corporatist whose hue and cry is "My Democratic Party, right or wrong!"  In other words, somebody grab the grater, another layer of cheese has formed.

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