Actresses 'Waltz' with amazing grace TV preview: Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli and Jennifer Grey will charm your socks off in the made-for-TV "The West Side Waltz." And if that's not enough star power for you, Kathy Bates shows up, too.

November 23, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

There is no Katharine Hepburn movie this year, so viewers who insist on charm, music, lights and laughter in their holiday movies will have to make do with "The West Side Waltz," which airs at 9 tonight on WJZ (Channel 13).

Some sacrifice.

Based on Ernest Thompson's stage play, "The West Side Waltz" is loaded with talent. There's a star in each of the three main roles -- Shirley MacLaine, Liza Minnelli and Jennifer Grey.

As if that weren't an abundance of riches, one of Hollywood's finest actresses, Kathy Bates, plays a supporting role. All four deliver knockout performances in this wise and touching film from the author of "On Golden Pond." Don't miss a frame.

MacLaine, Minnelli and Grey have all lit up the big screen as dancers in such films as "Sweet Charity," "Cabaret" and "Dirty Dancing," respectively. Their sense of grace and presence as actresses creates a discourse of body language in "The West Side Waltz" so intense and eloquent that it almost seems as if a television screen will never be able to hold it.

They play three generations of single women who come together in the imposing, upper West Side apartment of Margaret Mary Elderdice (MacLaine) -- an aging, former music teacher who plays afternoon duets with her neighbor in the building, Cara Varnum (Minnelli).

It is "Guarding Tess" redux as Ms. Elderdice directs and commands the prudish but submissive Ms. Varnum on how to play the violin and live one's life, while Ms. Varnum mostly seems to get on Ms. Elderdice's nerves with her helpfulness, her obsequiousness, her huge need for company and friendship.

Robin Ouiseau (Grey), a Brooklyn divorcee who's watched too ** many soap operas and has come to Manhattan to be an actress, enters Ms. Elderdice's world when she answers an ad for a companion/housekeeper, which the older woman had posted. When all three actresses are together for scenes in Ms. Elderdice's apartment, it's a viewing feast -- three generations of women moving, talking and connecting in matters large and small over Strauss, one-liners and long, slow looks.

And, then, there's the music -- bits of Strauss, Bach and Tchaikovsky played over and against all those conversations of the heart -- not to mention the stunning views of Central Park and the Manhattan skyline.

Down on the ground, in the street outside the building where the three women live, is Bates as a homeless woman, who has her own style, her own outlook and her own little salute that she gives to certain passersby. The salute will break your heart.

There's a subplot in "The West Side Waltz" about a tenant's union and the landlord of Ms. Elderdice's building trying to force out the mainly single, older women who live in rent-controlled apartments.

As Ms. Elderdice fights a crippling arthritis, and Ms. Ouiseau takes pot shots at stardom, Ms. Varnum takes up the cause of the tenants -- people who, like her, would mainly like just to be left alone.

Even though the ages of the women vary from the 30ish Ms. Ouiseau to the 60ish Ms. Elderdice, "The West Side Waltz" is really a story about flowers blooming -- sometimes for the first time, some in a distinctly second bloom.

If you feel you must watch "The Beatles Anthology" tonight -- after coming this far down the long and winding road of ABC's faux-Beatle-mania hypefest -- go ahead. But make sure you or someone you can trust sets the VCR for this film on CBS.

It's unfortunate that women in Hollywood are generally not allowed to act in feature films after a certain age -- unfortunate for both them and filmgoers.

But it's truly a blessing, for which television viewers ought to give several kinds of thanks, to see the likes of MacLaine, Minnelli, Grey and Bates in as fine a piece of filmmaking as "The West Side Waltz."

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