SUNDAY NIGHT'S ABC movie wears its good intentions, its big stars and a host of other characteristics on its sleeve, yet somehow it still manages to find its way through all the clutter to pack a powerful punch.
"Our Sons," which will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) Sunday at 9 p.m., marks the TV debut of Julie Andrews, but she has a part that she can virtually do in her sleep. The star is Ann-Margret, who once again uses a TV film to show her extraordinary range as an actress.
Andrews plays Audrey Grant, a high-class, high-salaried, high-powered executive in San Diego whose high life is interrupted one day when her son, James, tells her that his lover, Donald, has AIDS.
Audrey has already acknowledged and, on some level, dealt with the fact that her son is gay, but the presence of this deadly virus, which has brought Donald to the brink of death, hits hard.
Indeed, it begins to make her realize -- as James charges -- that she really hasn't accepted her son's sexual orientation, that she has rarely seen and doesn't know Donald, that she can't share James' grief the way she would if a daughter-in-law were dying.
But, she can still look good in comparison to Donald's mother, who is back home in his native Arkansas and refuses to have anything to do with her son. Indeed, they haven't spoken in 11 years, since she kicked him out because of his homosexuality.
Audrey volunteers to go to Arkansas to tell Donald's mother of her son's impending death and see if she wants to come out to California to see him. Luanne Barnes, Ann-Margret's role, is a bewigged small-town waitress who lives in a trailer park. The clash of cultures is overly evident when Audrey's limousine pulls up in front of Luanne's unit.
Luanne doesn't want to have anything to do with her son because he is "one of them." Audrey is appropriately appalled at such classless behavior and quickly departs. You know that's not going to be the end of their relationship.
No, Luanne eventually relents and goes to California as these two women begin to forge an odd alliance. What eventually comes out --as you knew it would right from the start -- is that Luanne's crass vulgarity really gives voice to the same kind of feelings that Audrey hides beneath a facade of upper-crust dignity.
"Our Sons" was directed by the talented John Erman, who has handled some of Ann-Margret's best TV work, including "Who Will Love My Children?" and "A Streetcar Named Desire." But at times it seems like a stage play, a bit too elegantly crafted for the more naturalistic medium of television, a bit too precious, too clever, too theatrical.
Aiding and abetting this feeling is the rather studied pretense in the performance of Hugh Grant as James. Much better is the immensely talented Zeljko Ivanek as Donald, giving a reading that allows his character's bright charm and quick wit to shine through the darkness that is clearly descending all too quickly.
Then there are the somewhat too-obvious metaphors dangling about, such as the constant references to smoking. As Luanne lights up in Donald's hospital room, she accuses her son of bringing this disease on himself. Obviously the audience is supposed to ask if Luanne had lung cancer, would you deny her sympathy because she smoked? It's an important point, but it should have been either directly stated or made with more subtlety.
What raises "Our Sons" above all its built-in limitations are two stellar performances by its leading ladies. Certainly it's no stretch for Andrews to play a classy, rich executive, but when the scenes call for emotional honesty, she delivers with a believable tone, without resorting to any sort of pyrotechnics.
And Ann-Margret plays Luanne as if she's known this woman all her life. It is a performance of such superb consistency that you are hard-pressed to remember that this is the glamorous Ann-Margret beneath those blond wigs. Her climactic speech to her dying son is a work of art.
At bottom, too, "Our Sons" succeeds because, though its message might have been better delivered, it is still delivered with a power that comes from its importance. And, while it is a message that has particular relevance to the issues of homosexuality and AIDS, it transcends that arena to say something about honesty and acceptance in all relationships.
"Our Sons" tells us that we all construct enough barriers between one another; that there is no reason to wait for death to help tear them down.
"Our Sons" *** Two women, one a high-paid Southern California executive, the other a small-town waitress from Arkansas, delve into their emotions as their sons, who are lovers, face the reality of AIDS.
CAST: Julie Andrews, Ann-Margret
TIME: Sunday at 9 p.m.
CHANNEL: ABC Channel 13 (WJZ)