Even without its big stars, televised drama's 3rd act is as riveting as first 2

October 14, 1991|By Walter Goodman | Walter Goodman,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Act 3 promised to be anti-climactic, yet yesterday's Judiciary Committee hearing probably did not disappoint followers of the engrossing miniseries about sex, race and power. It began Friday morning with the stunning "Ordeal of Anita Hill" and returned even more powerfully Friday evening and all day Saturday with "The Martydom of Clarence Thomas."

The stars were off. In their place were performers at the witness table who, in violation of the rules of courtroom drama, could not be expected to supply a climactic, definitive revelation of who was telling the truth and who was lying. But it was a surprisingly good try.

Saturday, the Democratic senators were like players without scripts, doing a directionless, apologetic cross-examination of Judge Thomas that would have put any television prosecutor out of work. They were easily upstaged by the Republicans, especially Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, whose performance was by turns ferocious and sanctimonious.

A television memory is short, and with the assistance of Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming and Judge Thomas himself, the image of the demure young law professor became one of a dupe or a plotter or an outright liar.

The judge, meanwhile, sat firmly before the nation, projecting a steady image of indignation at an injustice that he declared over and over had ruined his life. The show had been transformed into the confirmation hearing of Anita F. Hill.

On "This Week With David Brinkely" yesterday, Mr. Hatch repeated his accusations against Ms. Hill. Pressed by Barbara ,, Walters and Sam Donaldson, he produced no smoking gun. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., another guest, defended Ms. Hill on the basis of equally few facts.

So the scene was set for what audiences know is supposed to be the explosive finale, a moment of truth.

First, four acquaintances of Ms. Hill said she had told them years ago of unwanted sexual overtures by Judge Thomas. They recalled that she was depressed and troubled. Only the most conspiratorially inclined viewer could have doubted their testimony, and all emphasized they had not been consorting with anti-Thomas groups.

But then, just as the audience may have been reconsidering the notion of Ms. Hill picked up Saturday, numerous character witnesses for Judge Thomas, mostly women who had worked with him, spoke feelingly on his behalf.

Today might find the stars back before the cameras.

Act 4.

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