'Wife . . . Murderer': Lightweight acting but a heavy message

TELEVISION REVIEW

November 08, 1991|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"Wife, Mother, Murderer" is certainly one of the more intriguing made-for-TV movie titles of the year. And the events portrayed warrant the title "Wife, Mother, Murderer and Then Some."

The film, which stars Judith Light and airs at 9 Sunday night on WJZ-TV ( Channel 13), takes viewers on another trip through the fact-and-fiction never-never land of docudrama, where one can't sure what's real and what's make-believe.

Light plays Marie Hilley, a small-town Alabama woman who poisons her husband for the insurance money; tries to poison her daughter to cash in the daughter's life insurance; and burns her home and car to get that insurance money.

She also gets found out, jumps bail, marries a guy whom she takes to the cleaners, fakes her own death and reappears as her make-believe twin sister. When she finally is convicted, she even manages to talk her way out of prison.

The appeal of the film is in those supposedly true events -- the horrible acts this sweetly smiling woman commits one after another. Once you watch her poison her husband, it's hard to walk away. You want to know where it will end.

The acting is not quite so fascinating. David Dukes and David Ogden Stiers, both fine actors, unfortunately are relegated to supporting roles here. This is Light's film and she is, well, lightweight for such a demanding part. In fact, she never gets past the accent -- doing a bad "Gone With the Wind" full of "I do declares" and " 'sho 'nufs."

But it's the notion of mother-as-murderer that makes this film noteworthy -- especially in connection to other recent films about women who kill. The hit of last year's May sweeps was "Murder in a Small Town," with Barbara Hershey as a church-going suburban woman who brutally killed a neighbor lady with an ax. And Monday night, Susan Ruttan portrays a nurse who kills children in "Deadly Medicine."

There is a feminist theory that suggests such portrayals of women in popular culture may be a kind of backlash -- a result of male anxiety about real-life empowerment for women. "Wife, Mother, Murderer" was in fact written and directed by men, but feminist scholars caution that there are a lot of variables involved in such a hypothesis; the connection between woman gaining power in society and TV movies showing women out of control should be made with great care.

Be your own judge as to what's really going on in this film and others like it when the prosecuting attorney makes his little speech at the end about how too much ambition made Marie Hilley into the monster depicted here. Just entertainment? Or is it a male-created cautionary tale for women who would overreach?

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