Making 'Lace' for the camera Actresses invent their characters as they go along


July 18, 1993|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Television Critic

Anyone who isn't clear about the difference between network and cable TV movies ought to check out "Chantilly Lace" at 8 Sunday night on Showtime.

Six women are soaking in an outdoor hot tub, drinking wine, discussing sexual raptures and the male anatomy in great detail.

Remember the scene that was supposed to open the first episode of NBC's "Sisters" two years ago? It featured a group of women in a sauna discussing sex. Remember how it was edited out by nervous network censors before it ever aired?

Well, that scene was peanuts compared with the hot-tub scene in "Chantilly Lace."

While the six women are having the freewheeling discussion, one of their friends is upstairs having very loud sex with a guy who just delivered a pizza.

But "Chantilly Lace" isn't just about frankness, sex, and doing and saying things the networks can't or won't. The film takes important risks and, in doing that, expands made-for-TV movies beyond such tired formulas as women-in-jeopardy or disease-of-the-week.

The biggest risk is that the film is virtually all improvisation. Director Linda Yellen had the broad outline of what would happen in "Chantilly Lace," but the actresses are forced to invent their characters -- and what the characters will say -- literally before our eyes with the cameras rolling.

Some of the characters they invent are among the more realistic and compelling on television. Think of this story about seven friends who gather at a cabin for three important occasions in their lives as "The Big Chill" with the group defined by gender instead of age.

The actresses in the group are Talia Shire, Ally Sheedy, Lindsay Crouse, Martha Plimpton, Jill Eikenberry, JoBeth Williams and Helen Slater.

Shire is a nun. Sheedy is a young copywriter in the advertising business who brings her lover -- played by Plimpton -- along to the gathering of friends. Eikenberry plays Sheedy's older sister, an unhappily married teacher having an affair with the principal at her school.

Slater is an artist married to Williams' ex-husband.

Shire is terrific. Plimpton has a moody, quirky presence that's impossible to resist. Williams has the juiciest and most challenging role. For the most part, she's up to it, although a bit over the top now and then.

Actually, everybody's over the top now and then in this wildly uneven and sometimes even messy film. But then, improvisation is like that. The trade-off is that when they get it right, there's an energy and reality that makes you want to jump up and cheer.

I suspect women are going to be doing more cheering than male viewers and critics, who might find some of the tub talk and such just a tad threatening.

Three cheers for Showtime, Yellen and the actresses of "Chantilly Lace."

Jdditional playdates: Thursday at 9 p.m. and July 27 at 10 p.m.

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