'Queen of Mean' blurs fact, fiction

September 23, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Queen of Mean," the story of Leona Helmsley, tries to cut it both ways -- the way lower rent docudramas always do.

CBS, which airs the program tonight at 9 (Channel 11), would have us believe that most of the terrible things we have heard about the Manhattan real estate and hotel maven are true.

Yes, there's a scene in tonight's film where she makes her male assistant kneel and wipe dirt off her shoes. Yes, there's a scene where she says, "Only the little people pay taxes." Yes, there's a scene where she cunningly tricks hotel and real estate magnate Harry Helmsley into dumping his dutiful Quaker wife to marry her and then laughs wickedly about it with a friend.

But according to CBS, there is a deeper, secret truth that makes Leona Helmsley's actions understandable, maybe even sympathetic: Leona felt rejected by her mother in favor of her sisters -- like "Cinderella" -- and that's what made her so tough and so mean. The scene dramatizing that rejection both opens and closes the film lest anyone miss the point. This is to keep the lawyers with talk of "malicious intent" off their backs.

Is the Cinderella business true?

Who knows? This is docudrama -- the maddening mix of fact and fiction -- where producers go out of their way to blur the two for entertainment reasons. The film is based on a book by a New York Post reporter -- who never talked to Helmsley.

Suzanne Pleshette plays the title role; her characterization begins and ends with the observation that Helmsley wore too much lipstick. That is about all most viewers are likely to remember about Pleshette's Helmsley.

Lloyd Bridges plays Harry Helmsley with even less imagination. There is some character development, though: Before meeting Leona, he wore nerdy glasses; later he wore less nerdy glasses.

Are there dramatic highs and lows? Sure, if you consider a scene with Leona moving into position for oral sex with a former husband a dramatic high or low.

Is there emotion?

Yes, the former husband is played by Bruce Weitz, formerly of "Hill Street Blues." It leaves you feeling kind of sad that he can't find better or more honest work.

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