Tv Movie Looks At The Two Lives Of Patty Duke

November 11, 1990|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

There is something irresistible about "Call Me Anna," the video biography of Patty Duke, which airs at 9 tonight on WJZ-TV (Channel 13).

It is not that the made-for-TV movie is a great production. Though the film does offer three fine performances by the actresses playing Duke (including Duke herself), it is a fairly uneven ride that dips dangerously close to trash-o-rama a couple of times.

What makes "Call Me Anna" irresistible is its subject matter and the public or shared media history that television has created for us over the last 40 years.

Because of television, Patty Duke's life has been part of our lives. Some of us who have never met the actress think of her as if she was a friend or neighbor or someone we grew up with, because we watched her grow up on television.

This film plugs into that blurring of private and public, which television has been the center of in the last 40 years. It travels to that interior realm of shared memory where teen-agers Patty and Cathy Lane -- from ABC's "The Patty Duke Show" -- are as real as friends and relatives from our actual everyday lives.

Furthermore, like Carrie Fisher's "Postcards from the Edge," "Call Me Anna" takes us backstage in the media lives that we so connected with and does some serious deconstructing of the media "reality" that was being presented on stage. All of which makes for a fascinating and emotional television trip -- a trip that has as much to do with the lives of those sitting in front of the television as anything happening on screen.

Not that there isn't a bunch of stuff happening on screen with "Call Me Anna."

The film opens with Duke, played as an adolescent by Ari Meyers, as a contestant on a TV game show called "The $64,000 Challenge." Duke is being fed the answers by the producers and becoming one of television's first "phenoms" in the process.

She knows that what she is doing is wrong, but her manager, John Ross (Howard Hesseman), tells her it is all right. As he puts it, "The public is being entertained." And what could be wrong with that?

The unusual relationship involving Ross, his wife Ethel (Deborah May), Duke and Duke's mother, Francis (Millie Perkins), is quickly established -- with the creepier aspects of the relationship between Ross and Patty foreshadowed.

John and Ethel Ross are more than managers: Patty lives with them. Ethel is verbally abusive to the young girl. John, after a few highballs (as they were called in those days), looks at Patty in a way that's unsettling. Patty's mother is initially portrayed as a hopelessly weak and troubled woman, who allows the managers to take Patty out her life, even though Patty wants to stay with her mother.

As a manager, Ross does advance the actress' career, though. After the quiz show, he gets her a part in "The Miracle Worker" on Broadway. She's a hit both there and in the movie, with her film portrayal of Helen Keller earning an Academy Award for best supporting actress.

As a guardian, it's a different story. The night of her triumph as the youngest person to win an Oscar, Ross comes into Patty's room at the hotel and tries to rape her. It is a scene that's hard to forget.

The entire film is frontstage-backstage. We see Patty acting in TV's "The Patty Duke Show" (which ran from 1963 to '66 on ABC) in one scene, and it connects with the pictures in our own memories. In the next scene, we see her taking uppers and downers provided by Ross so she could stand in front of the cameras and portray that proper teen-ager in a plaid skirt and white blouse buttoned all the way up.

"Call Me Anna's" depiction of two suicide attempts and the amount of time it spends on Duke's very public affair with Desi Arnaz Jr. is where the film veers toward trash-o-rama, despite a strong performance by Jenny Robertson as the teen-age Patty.

But it regains its footing in the final third of the film, with the actress playing herself as an adult. The strong ending is partially the result of strong writing. The homestretch features a nicely scripted psychological detective game with Dr. Harold Arlen, a psychiatrist (played by Karl Malden) trying to help the adult Patty Duke. There is also Duke's tremendous acting performance as a woman struggling to maintain control of her life while in tremendous psychological pain.

The ending is one of triumph for Duke. With the help of Arlen she finds out what she needs to know about herself to live with some control.

We learn something too. In watching Duke's real, behind-the-scenes life play out on the screen, we are forced to measure it against the sugar-coated, idealized version of it served up to us by fan magazines and television. "Call Me Anna" tells us a lot about Patty Duke's life. But it has even more to teach us about our own in the age of television.

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