Ratings war will bring a glut of high-powered programming tonight


May 12, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn, Walter Matthau and Rod Steiger star in made-for-TV tellings of the sexual escapades of the wealthy, hard times on heartland farms, a woman's battle with Alzheimer's disease and a mysterious murder during a summer holiday in Italy.

The really neat thing about all these films -- the thing that shows how much the television networks truly care about us -- is that all that talent and storytelling power go head to head at 9 tonight.

The VCR has liberated us to a degree from the tyranny of network programmers, but you'll need several VCRs to be truly liberated tonight.

It's one of the last great ratings gasps of this television season, and the broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS -- are throwing any cost-effective sense they have out the window in an orgy of counterprogramming.

Cable is another story of even more wonderfully diverse choices.

At 9 tonight, for example, the Disney channel offers "Judy, Frank and Dean," Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin from a 1962 CBS broadcast. There's some of the silliness of the Rat Pack and all its "a-ring-a-ding-ding" business. But there's also a feeling of the energy and sense of possibility that many experienced in the days of JFK and the New Frontier. It's all there in the songs and the singers.

Showtime's 9 o'clock entry is the debut of new anthology series, "Kurt Vonnegut's Monkey House," with the author introducing adaptations from three short stories in his 1968 "Welcome to the Monkey House" collection.

Here's a guide to the major choices on broadcast television tonight:

'An Inconvenient Woman'

Rebecca De Mornay has Hollywood's inside track on playing the prostitute with the heart of gold. Not since Shirley MacLaine was in her prime have we seen one actress give so many convincing faces to the woman who can't say no to a man who will pay the price.

De Mornay is at it again in "An Inconvenient Woman," which airs at 9 tonight and tomorrow on WJZ-TV (Channel 13). As Flo March, De Mornay is the inconvenient woman of the title in the made-for-TV movie based on the novel by Dominick Dunne.

Ms. March is inconvenient mainly to Pauline Mendelson, played by Jill Eikenberry, who's made to look 15 years older with the most horrendous hairdo since Mamie Eisenhower. Pauline is the renowned society matron of Hollywood. Her stiff manner, false charm and rigid thinness may remind you of some of the folks who hung around the Reagans. All similarity is intentional. This is one of those miniseries that acts as if it's skewering the rich while taking great pleasure in celebrating their wealth.

The reason Flo March is inconvenient to Pauline Mendelson is that she's sleeping with Jules Mendelson, Pauline's husband, who's played by Jason Robards.

There's a murder here that seems to involve Jules and maybe a gangster and maybe a coverup. There's also a glimpse of gay prostitutes and drag queens, as we are encouraged to believe that no matter how rich the upper crust, there's some flakiness in their lives, too.

The worst thing about the miniseries is its ever-switching point of view. Almost everyone in it gets a chance to do voiceovers to narrate the action from his or her perspective. It's an interesting notion. But suspense stories and mysteries are not democracies. All it makes for here is confusion and a very slow pace bordering on tedium. But, then, with four hours and two nights to fill, this is a movie with no intention of trying to earn the descriptions "taut with suspense" or "riveting."

This miniseries is mainly a holdover from the 1980s, when the more excess there was on the screen the better, when TV drama was characters swilling champagne and admiring jewels on themselves and the big trauma was finding good help. Think "Dynasty."

There's no one in this film to love or admire or even sympathize with. "An Inconvenient Woman -- which features De Mornay doing a striptease a la Marilyn Monroe as one of its high points -- is in many ways for gawkers only.

'Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love' There's a slice of heaven in Ellen Burstyn's performance in "Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love" at 9 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11).

Burstyn is Mrs. Lambert, a woman in her early 70s who is showing the first signs of Alzheimer's disease. Burstyn is also transcendent, on camera for almost 90 percent of the film, missing no chance for nuance, wringing not just several notes out of character, but a whole symphony. She plays an ordinary woman experiencing extraordinary fears. She communicates again and again through just a grimace or gesture the terrifying ++ sensation of losing control over your life.

Those moments will remind some viewers of Burstyn's talent an grace in "Alice Doesn't Live Her Anymore." But more importantly, it will remind many viewers of the moments in their own lives when there was nothing between themselves and the wall but their own courage and will.

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