Movie shows cheerleader case getting too much media rah-rah

April 10, 1993|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Staff Writer

Near the end of "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom," Beau Bridges' character asks a key question raised by this wicked, based-on-truth movie:

"Is it moral for me to sell my rights for something that was immoral to begin with?"

Moral, shmoral! These days, everybody sells their rights -- and perhaps their souls, too, if they have them -- in the stampede from real life to television entertainment, asserts the HBO Pictures film premiering tonight at 8.

Holly Hunter has the title role in the film directed with a satirical touch by Michael Ritchie ("The Candidate," "Diggstown"). It is the second TV version of a heavily publicized 1991 case.

Remember? The mother of a would-be high school cheerleader in Channelview, Texas, was convicted of trying to arrange the murder of a neighbor woman whose daughter was a rival for the cheerleading squad.

ABC's "Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story" (with Lesley Anne Warren) dealt with the case last November. But the new cable film pulls back from the core events to include the media mayhem that surrounded the case -- particularly the influence of TV.

Things start slowly, and Ms. Hunter's version of a Texas twang takes some getting used to. But soon, she becomes eerily like the real-life Wanda Holloway, at least as memory retrieves her from those appearances on "Donahue," "A Current Affair" and "Inside Edition."

Ms. Holloway awaits a new trial. The original verdict was thrown out when it was discovered a juror in the trial was ineligible.

"No one was killed in this thing. The story was just too soft," Ms. Holloway sniffs, complaining that the lucrative network movie deals she had imagined never came through.

"Momma, when they make the movie, can I play myself?" asks daughter Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia), as she and her mother watch themselves on tape on "Donahue."

Everybody watches themselves on TV in the movie. In fact, a key defense witness (Swoosie Kurtz) is portrayed as cooperating with lawyers because she was miffed that "no one asked me to be on TV."

In a further melding of fact and fiction, some of the characters we see among the blitzing media -- a Houston TV reporter, an "Inside Edition" researcher and this film's producer and writer, James Manos Jr. and Jane Anderson -- play themselves, each trying to weasel out the real inside story.

"Never believe what a writer tells you," Ms. Anderson says in a scene in which movie rights are discussed.

Cynicism that deep may remind viewers of the ruthless Hollywood mentality portrayed in the recent theatrical film, "The Player."

As for the case itself, the verdict seems relatively unimportant -- to characters and viewers alike.

As portrayed here, Wanda Holloway clearly sought out her disreputable brother-in-law (Mr. Bridges) and asked about finding someone to remove an obstacle to her ambitions for her )) daughter. Death was discussed, for both mother and daughter at one point, and so was a price.

But the brother-in-law became disturbed and went to law enforcement officials who, overcoming initial disbelief, rigged him with a wire to record future talks with Wanda.

But was she serious? Would she have gone through with it? Would he? Or was he more interested in his own reputation and encouraging her morbid fantasies?

Nobody really seems to care -- not the media people, the lawyers, nor even the intended victim (Elizabeth Ruscio), who keeps a careful scrapbook of news clippings. And in the film's final shot she continues to push her daughter's cheerleading practice, having learned nothing about the perils of living too vicariously through one's child.

The story grew just too rich for truth to matter, the film seems to be saying, pounding the point home as a final scroll lists the astonishing number of lawsuits currently pending in the aftermath of the case.

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