Frankly, my dear, you won't give a darn

November 07, 1994|By David Kronke | David Kronke,Special to The Sun

Biopics don't come much more generic than "A Burning Passion: The Margaret Mitchell Story." The only explanation for this telefilm (airing tonight at 9) is that it's NBC's pre-emptive strike to CBS' coming mini-series, "Scarlett." Anyone who can sit through this will lose complete interest in anything to do with "Gone With the Wind."

Shannen Doherty (yes, that Shannen Doherty) stars as the "beautiful and impetuous" Mitchell, a spitfire from genteel Atlanta stock who delights in scandalous behavior. We know this because every time we see her grandmother (Rue McClanahan), she's fretting over some antic of Margaret's. "Proper ladies do not work at newspapers," she sniffs at one point.

We watch Mitchell go through the motions -- early on, she meets, flirts with, kisses, falls in love with and loses a boyfriend in a whirlwind of four scenes. Of course, such things as interesting as characterization and emotional resonance get chucked out the window when you tell a story in this fashion. But, at least, the audience has been warned that this will be a thoroughly synthetic and bland exercise -- not one scene here seems honest or real.

Mitchell next meets Red Upshaw (Dale Midkiff), a bootlegger, dreamer and all-around bravado-spewing creep who calls her "the most extraordinary filly in the whole South." Who can help but melt to such a poetic turn of phrase? Mitchell quickly marries him, and just as quickly, the marriage goes sour. As her father observes, "One or the other of yuh [is] always stormin' out -- that's not the sign of a mature individual."

When it comes time for Mitchell to write her masterpiece, it happens so abruptly it's laughable. In one scene, she's toying with the idea of writing a book. Seconds later, she's handing stacks of manuscripts to a publisher.

After a commercial break, she announces, "Mr. Latham says he thinks my book is gonna become the best-selling novel in the history of publishing." The music swells, and we're off to the thrilling book-signing montage (well, as thrilling as a book-signing can be), after which her latest husband says, "Congratulations, honey, you've had quite a day," to which she replies, "We can get on with our lives now."

Huh? One afternoon signing books, and she puts the whole mess behind her? This is just one of the howlers in Bob Hamilton's screenplay, which is filled with cliches and insipid exchanges.

None of the performers is able to transcend this nonsense, and few try. Most seem to be content play-acting like society folks gussied up in old-time finery and getting their Southern accents right. Ms. Doherty, whose looks are a little too contemporary for the role in the first place, doesn't convey any interior emotional landscape. When Mitchell snaps, "If I can't be the best at a thing, then I just don't want to do it!" she comes off as a smug little brat, which is unlikely to be the desired effect.

"A Burning Passion" has neither heat nor passion. "Gone With the Wind" was the only book Mitchell ever wrote, and if she knew that because of it she'd be paid this kind of tribute, chances are she'd not have bothered.

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