Crackpot dialogue, inept acting doom NBC's 'A Woman Named Jackie'


October 11, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Are you ready for the most bizarre, cartoonish Marilyn Monroe you ever saw telling John F. Kennedy how "penetrating" she finds him and calling his wife, Jacqueline, a "bitch"?

Are you ready to see Jackie angrily waving another woman's black silk panties in President Kennedy's face while he's on the phone trying to defuse a school desegregation crisis in the South?

Are you ready for another gratuitous, graphic re-creation -- this one featuring a close-up of blood spurting from the throat -- of Kennedy's assassination in Dallas?

Are you ready, in other words, for the history lesson from hell that NBC calls "A Woman Named Jackie," its six-hour miniseries adapted from the best-selling book of the same name by C. David Heymann?

Starting Sunday night at 9 on WMAR-TV (Channel 2), it's NBC's way of counterprogramming the baseball playoffs on CBS. And it will probably work.

But that success won't be due to the acting. Irish actress Roma Downey, who handles the title role, is extremely limited in ability, but she's in virtually every frame for six (count 'em, six) hours; there's no way to mask her weaknesses here.

The co-stars -- Stephen Collins as JFK, Joss Ackland as Aristotle Onassis and William Devane as John Bouvier III, Jackie's father -- have more talent but do even less with it. In Ackland's case, it may not be totally his fault. As written, Onassis is a hopeless role. The Greek shipping tycoon, who was Jackie's second husband, is restyled as part Zorba the Greek and part Sam Keen, pop philosopher.

"Tragedy, comedy; comedy, tragedy -- after a while one no longer tries to make the distinction," Onassis says to her. "It's all life -- life to be lived, Jacqueline. Don't bury the pain, Jackie, experience it." He says this using the same accent as Cousin Balki on "Perfect Strangers."

By this point, some viewers will be the ones feeling pain -- the pain of listening to such crackpot dialogue, which the authors invented. It's melodrama gone over the edge into laughability.

But others will enjoy seeing a famous life recast to fit mainstream bromides and make us feel better about our own less-fairy-tale-like lives. For all the glamour and all the Camelot, in the end, NBC's Jackie learns money can't buy happiness and that holding her granddaughter is what it's really all about.

That's the message of this miniseries. And in the celebration of such messages are solid ratings often found.

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