'Substitute Wife' a finely crafted 'women's' film

May 23, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"The Substitute Wife," with Farrah Fawcett, is such a quiet charmer of a film that you wonder what it's doing on network TV in the '90s.

Set on the 19th-century American frontier -- Nebraska in 1869 -- there isn't a rape, hanging, gunfight or massacre in it. Hardly anyone even raises a voice. It's sort of "The African Queen" without the explosion at the end.

Fawcett is terrific as an aging prostitute, but she's clearly sharing the movie with Peter Weller and Lea Thompson, who play a homesteading husband and wife named Martin and Amy Hightower.

In fact, it's really Thompson's movie, if anyone's. When her character, Amy, learns she has less than two months to live, she starts taking steps to make sure her family and farm will not be split up after she's gone. She decides her husband and four small children need someone just like her -- a nanny, farmhand, maid, charwoman, veterinarian, cook, seamstress, candle-maker, schoolteacher and moral instructor. In short, a wife and mother.

But what Amy quickly finds out -- in a series of funny and touching scenes as she approaches various women about filling her shoes -- is that women on the frontier are outnumbered by men 10 to 1. A good woman is all but impossible to find.

What Amy finally comes up with is Pearl (Fawcett), who looks to be no bargain. She's an aging prostitute with a chip on her shoulder and enough attitude for Madonna. But Amy sees the gem that can be fashioned, not the hard rock with which she's been presented. Gradually, Amy eases Pearl into her new role.

The heart of this film is found in the hearts of these two women and the unlikely friendship -- better yet, kinship -- they form. It is an unusual theme for TV; some of their scenes together are worth framing.

Some men might find the movie far-fetched. But I don't think most women will. It's the kind of hard practicality and sense of sacrifice with which women helped pioneer the frontier.

This is a women's film in the best sense of the term.

As the third member of the triangle, Weller's role is mainly to act stubborn and stoic. His Martin Hightower believes he has a true sense of what is "godly," and not much of his wife's plan strikes him as heaven-sent. He is rigid, unimaginative, almost colorless and, in Weller's finely understated performance, a perfect foil for these two women.

"The Substitute Wife" was written by Stan Daniels, one of the writers and producers of the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show," "Taxi" and, more recently, "Roc." The executive producer, Fred Pierce, used to run ABC -- as president -- when Fawcett was one of "Charlie's Angels." Maybe it takes names as big as these to get something as small and special as "The Substitute Wife" on the screen.

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