'Face of a Stranger' profiles homelessness

Television

December 26, 1991|By Michael Hill

It's easy -- and not at all inappropriate -- to knock Hollywood types for being a bunch of stereotypical bleeding hearts who are glad to make a movie about the homeless, or go to some fancy charity ball in their benefit, but live in one of the country's most economically segregated cities to insure that they never have to gaze through the tinted windows of their Rolls Royces at the sight of someone actually living on the streets.

Hollywood is a world of images, but when you put Gena Rowlands and Tyne Daly in a movie directed by Claudia Weill, then those images have a better than even chance of connecting with reality. The payoff comes Sunday night in CBS' "Face of a Stranger," which will be on Channel 11 (WBAL) at 9.

This isn't a perfect movie, it's got its share of cliches and some odd plotting, but quite often during its inconsistent strains it strikes a chord of deep resonance.

Rowlands plays Pat Foster who has married well, dresses well, eats well and lives well. She has one daughter, a go-getter '80s type named Tina who runs an antique decorating store and seems much more connected to her businessman father than to her mother, whom she treats with a touch of paternalism.

Pat lives in a nice apartment in a Seattle high-rise that comes complete with a kindly doorman. But across the street, a homeless woman has set up housekeeping in a stairwell. Daly plays the woman, variously known as Dolly or Bo Peep.

Despite the efforts of her daughter, husband, even the doorman, to discourage her, Pat takes an interest in this woman. She brings her an umbrella. Then a pair of boots. Before you know it, Dolly is barging in on a gathering with the parents of Tina's new fiance. Let's just say she doesn't dress right for the occasion.

Somewhere along the way, Pat's husband dies suddenly and she learns the precariousness of her own financial situation which increases her sympathy for Dolly. As Pat moves out of the high-rise to a more modest apartment, as she looks for work for the first time in decades, she finds herself almost inexplicably trying to keep up with this homeless woman, which is not an easy task since she has no fixed address.

One major factor that lifts "Face of a Stranger" above the ordinary is that Dolly is not some romantic heroine of the streets, a contemporary equivalent of the noble savage.

No, this Dolly is a pain in the neck. She's demanding and selfish. She doesn't trust you and gives you little reason to trust her. This is based on a true story, a magazine article, and it is clearly in part a cautionary tale, letting you know that if you get involved with the homeless, the road you travel will have its share of potholes.

And, beyond that, "Face of a Stranger" is no happily-ever-after fairy tale. Oh, it has one major stroke of melodrama -- the new widow immediately meets an old high school boyfriend who's available and interested. The film is not afraid to leave its situations unresolved, the participants in the story older and wiser, perhaps, but equipped with no particular answers to the questions they have faced.

The movie is never able to integrate its two stories of Pat's personal life and her relationship with Dolly. At times the response of the daughter Tina to her mother's situation seems unduly shrill as if she is just there as a materialistic counterpoint, not as an actual character.

But the performances, as you might expect, are superb. Rowlands is one of our greatest living actors and she handles Pat with a natural subtlety that works scene after scene.

Daly might have the world's most unpleasant voice -- it sounds like a bad Katharine Hepburn impersonation at times -- but she is able to make Dolly a real, substantial presence. Cynthia Nixon as Tina and Harris Yulin as Pat's new boyfriend are standouts in the supporting cast.

Watching "Face of a Stranger" makes you realize how quickly we have become accustomed to the homeless in our cities. Just a few years ago, a story about a family with kids out on the streets caused shock and horror. Now, pictures of a shelter filled with children and their mothers are so commonplace as to be hardly noticed.

A few years ago, there would be an outpouring of sympathy and community grief at the death of a homeless person during a cold winter night. Now we tally up the count of dead like victims of traffic accidents during a holiday weekend.

"Face of a Stranger" reminds you that, whatever their flaws or shortcomings, each homeless person is an individual with a story to tell of a journey from a mother's womb to a shivering sidewalk. Maybe now and then we should take the time to stop and listen.

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