'Buffalo Girls' shows West had a few good women

April 29, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

How bad can any miniseries be with Anjelica Huston and/or Melanie Griffith in just about every frame, plus a pinch of wildman Jack Palance thrown in for grit and grins?

Not bad at all. In fact, CBS' "Buffalo Girls," a four-hour miniseries that begins at 9 tomorrow night on WJZ (Channel 13), is generally a pretty swell piece of work by executive producer Suzanne de Passe, of "Lonesome Dove" fame.

Don't get me wrong. Although it's de Passe again bringing a Larry McMurtry book to television, this is not "Lonesome Dove." For all the archetype and hero business going on, "Buffalo Girls" never soars to the level of myth that epic miniseries did.

But as prime-time entertainment, a sort of 19th-century frontier soap opera that you don't have to feel embarrassed about watching, "Buffalo Girls" delivers enough of the goods for you to go out of your way to see it tomorrow and Monday. And "Buffalo Girls" is a rich-enough text that it's open to multiple readings.

Mainly, it's the fictionalized story of Martha Jane Canary, a k a Calamity Jane (Huston). She's a bullwhip-cracking mule skinner, Indian scout for General Custer and the mostly unrequited lover of Wild Bill Hickok (Sam Elliott).

I say "mostly unrequited," because she and Wild Bill do spend one night together before his death, which results in Calamity giving birth to a daughter named Jane. Much of the story is told in the form of voice-over -- Calamity's voice reading letters she wrote to her daughter trying to explain her lifestyle during the closing days of the American frontier.

"Dear Jane, In those days, the silver had run out, the buffalo were gone and the railroads were a' comin' and everything was about to change. . . . But the adventures were not over yet," Calamity's voice says at the start of tonight's installment.

"In those days, Jane, there were only two ways for a woman to survive out West -- wife-in' and whorin' . . . As I weren't cut out for either, I had to find my own way of survivin'. So, I lived like a man and sometimes even passed myself off as a one. It got kinda sticky at times, but I knew a kinda freedom few women ever knew."

The best part of "Buffalo Girls" is not in the adventures, which are not nearly as great as driving all that livestock to Montanny in "Lonesome Dove." The best part of Calamity's freedom, and the best part of the miniseries itself, is in the unusual friendships her lifestyle allowed her to enjoy.

One relationship was with a couple of grizzled and half-crazed mountain men, Bartle Bone (Palance) and Jim Ragg (Tracey Walter). Another is with a frontier madam, Dora DuFran (Griffith), and Teddy Blue, DuFran's cowboy lover (played wonderfully by the Irish actor Gabriel Byrne).

Calamity also becomes a friend of Annie Oakley (played with spit and spirit by singer Reba McEntire) and forms a deep attachment to a wise old Indian named No Ears (Floyd Red Crown Westerman). Calamity's deepest relationship, though, is with her dog, Cody. In fact, the entire miniseries could easily be billed as " . . . the story of a fiesty gal and her spunky dog on the American frontier."

There is, of course, the relationship that Calamity has with her daughter. But until the last hour of Monday night, that relationship consists primarily on paper. In the style of soap opera and melodrama, Calamity gives her baby away to an Englishman and his wife and only later comes to understand that her great hero quest is not traversing the frontier but rather is journeying to find her daughter.

That journey takes her to England as part of Buffalo Bill Cody's (Peter Coyote) Wild West Show. At first, she's appalled by Buffalo Bill's crass packaging of the frontier, but eventually she becomes resigned to it.

"Bill Cody's right," she writes to Jane, "the big adventure's over. We might as well make a show of it and sell it to dukes and earls."

In statements like that, Calamity's voice sounds a lot like the voice of another famous character commenting on the closing of the frontier, Huck Finn's. It's one of the best things about "Buffalo Girls."

And while it might seem strange that the voice of a woman sounds like that of a boy, it's actually not odd in the context of Calamity's character. Traditional notions of gender are challenged in this miniseries, and that's one of the aspects of "Buffalo Girls" that opens it to multiple readings and interpretations.

The miniseries is going to be a banquet for some scholarly, feminist critics -- from the female expectations that Calamity challenges and shatters to the traditionally male roles that she assumes and masters. This is, after all, one woman telling the history of the American West to another woman (her daughter).

And there is also a lesbian reading of this tale. Huston plays Calamity tres butch at times, resulting in some of the miniseries' best moments.

The finest moment of the four hours comes at the end of tonight's Part 1 with Dora and Calamity alone in a hotel room late at night. Dora is saddened by her troubled love affair with Teddy, and Calamity is missing her daughter something awful. They are in a mutual melancholy funk.

Dora tearfully remembers the first time the handsome Teddy asked her to dance. Ruefully, Calamity holds out her hand and repeats the words of Teddy's invitation to Dora. Smiling through the tears, the two begin to dance alone in the night to the falsely upbeat strains of "Buffalo Girl," as the world they knew and loved unravels in the night outside their window.

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