Julie Andrews and Ann-Margret are absolutely knock-'em-dead great in "Our Sons," the ABC movie airing at 9 tonight on WJZ-TV ( Channel 13).
The title suggests a story about the children of the characters these two actresses play. One of the young men is dying of AIDS; the other is his lover. And this aspect of the film gets full and sensitive play.
But the tale of the two mothers is the one that is told with considerable brilliance by screenwriter William Hanley ("Something About Amelia") and director John Erman ("The Last Best Year").
Ann-Margret plays Luanne Barnes, who wears a bad Dolly Parton wig, lives in an Arkansas trailer park and works as a waitress in a roadhouse. She also believes that homosexuality is a crime against God, man and nature. It is her son, Donald (Zeljko Ivanek), who is dying of AIDS. She disowned him 11 years ago.
Andrews plays Audrey Grant, a widowed and wealthy business executive in San Diego. On the surface, she appears to be the enlightened parent. When her son, James (Hugh Grant), asks for her help in contacting his lover's mother, she reluctantly agrees and sets off for Arkansas.
It is the scenes these two women have together that give "Our Sons" its tension and its charm, its humor and focus, its one-liners and its wisdom. Audrey is a rich woman who's too tightly wrapped, and Luanne is a poor woman who's, well, too tightly clothed. Ann-Margret's portrayal of this kiss-my-grits waitress could easily have degenerated into a stereotype, but it doesn't. The film is way too smart for that. Like HBO's "Tidy Endings" two years ago, this is an AIDS movie that shows us how AIDS belongs, unhappily, to all of us.
All that is dramatized here in the lives of four characters, each of whom is alternately exasperating and insightful, ill-tempered and vulnerable -- someone you want to hug one minute and punch out the next.
One reason these characters are so involving is that they talk like real people -- not made-for-TV characters discussing a social issue. When Audrey says her son once had an intimate relationship with a woman, Luanne shakes her head and says, "I can't figure out why a kid would jump the fence after a taste of something normal." At another point, Luanne tells Audrey that AIDS is divine retribution for homosexuality: "It's God's way, you know, this thing they get."
Unfortunately, we know people who think and talk just that way.
It is impossible to write about an AIDS film and not compare it to the landmark "An Early Frost." "Our Sons" is not in the same league with that film, but it's only one cut below. And it serves the same cultural function that "An Early Frost" and other made-for-TV movies that take on the big nightmare topics -- cancer, AIDS, the bomb -- do: They show us people bravely dealing with the worst.
Such films have cynically been termed disease-of-the-week. And the bad ones do exploit fears about matters we can't control. But the good ones are inspirational, showing us people living with intelligence, courage and dignity. They are like the bittersweet tunes we whistle to ourselves at 3 a.m. to stave off the cold sweats of mortality. In short, they help give us the strength to go on. That makes such TV movies pretty important stuff.
Flawless? No. The film is saccharine in its belief the social-class boundaries can be overcome, if only we have good hearts. In real life, the gulf between these two women would be deeper and meaner by miles than this film starts to admit.
Still, "Our Sons" is a terrific movie that will make you smile through the tears. At one point, in Donald's hospital room, James asks his dying lover, "Is there anything you want?"
"Yes," Donald replies, "I want to live to be 85."