A compassionate view of a rape victim

March 13, 1992|By Susan Stewart | Susan Stewart,Knight-Ridder News Service

"Taking Back My Life: The Nancy Ziegenmeyer Story" is more than a good rape movie; it's a good relationship movie. "Ziegenmeyer" handles its peripheral story so well, that story almost overwhelms the issue on which the movie is based.

This is the real-life story of Nancy Ziegenmeyer, a blue-collar, Iowa woman who, inspired by a newspaper editorial, talked about being raped to the Des Moines Register. She got famous; the Register won a Pulitzer. Journalism, heroism, women's rights: pat stuff.

Fortunately, "Ziegenmeyer" -- which airs Sunday at 9 on CBS (WBAL-TV, Channel 11 in Baltimore) -- takes its time about getting to the point and concentrates on the murkier areas of relationships and character instead. By the time the heroine is attacked, she's too familiar, and too problematic, to be just another anonymous victim.

She's not terribly likable, either. Patricia Wettig's Ziegenmeyer is one tough cocktail waitress. She loves her kids, but she hates her mother-in-law (Ellen Burstyn, as a thin-lipped monster), and she seems barely neutral toward her mousy husband (Stephen Lang). Early on, Ziegenmeyer runs away with a truck driver. When she comes home, there's a reconciliation, more or less.

She: "I realized that I love you more than I hate your mother."

He: "Think you could keep your shorts on for more than five minutes?"

Not a marriage made in heaven.

The rape itself seems almost inevitable, just one more trauma for this struggling family. Filmed from Ziegenmeyer's point of view, it's gripping without being graphic, as is Ziegenmeyer's medical exam in a nearby emergency room.

The usual guilt, shame and anger follow, made convincing by the performances of Ms. Wettig, Ms. Burstyn and Mr. Lang.

Then there are the issue scenes.

Joanna Cassidy, playing newspaper editor Geneva Overholser, strides around a conference room, towering over a gang of cringing male co-workers, and Holds Forth: "When we can talk as openly about rape as we can our hemlines, we'll be able to lift this burden of shame."

These spelling-out-the-issue scenes are always so predictable, and ring so false, they ought to be eliminated from TV movies, the way the compulsory figures were eliminated from Olympics ice skating. Sermons aside, "Ziegenmeyer" shines when it is merely human. After Ziegenmeyer becomes a public figure, being chauffeured to TV stations in limousines, her husband, supportive up to now, gets cranky.

"Sounds like you're happy you got raped," he grouses.

Naturally, she accuses him of not being supportive. He disagrees: "When you were sleeping around, you were giving it away. When you were raped it was taken, and I know the difference." This is a great speech, and Mr. Lang is, if anything, more convincing than the very accomplished Ms. Wettig. They deserve each other, and, together, they make the movie.

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