Diana is deified in a fawning look back Television: The princess' friend Richard Attenborough presents a portrait that's too perfect to be true.

August 31, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

You wonder after seeing "Diana" if maybe producer Richard Attenborough wasn't confusing the late Princess of Wales with Gandhi, the legendary Indian leader, about whom Attenborough made an Oscar-winning film in 1982.

Nah, Gandhi wasn't nearly as sainted or as important a figure in "Gandhi" as Diana is in Attenborough's "Diana," a two-hour "documentary tribute" airing at 8 tonight on NBC.

Not only is Diana a saint in this telling, she is a saint who was wronged by the evil Prince Charles. What's a victim without a villain who's an easy target? It's Marilyn Monroe meets Joan of Arc, and we are given this crackpot analysis by such experts as Diana's astrologer, Diana's hairdresser, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and a bevy of pop psycho-babblists.

One of Attenborough's key sources of information on the relationship of Diana and Charles is a photographer for The Sun, and it's not this Pulitzer-Prize-winning Baltimore Sun. It's the tabloid Sun in England, known for establishing such hallmarks of great journalism as pictures of topless women accompanying the winning Wingo number each day in its pages. I'm sorry to admit I was unable to determine if this expert on the royal couple is the very photographer who did the Wingo Lady pictures.

Attenborough is a great filmmaker, as anyone who has seen "Gandhi" knows, but he is just plain gaga over Diana. He became a friend after Charles asked him to coach his young wife on public speaking. Attenborough admits excluding anything that might reflect negatively on Diana. As he says of the film: "It does not deal with the scandal. It does not deal with her private life in terms of the young men, various young men, who she had affections for, and some she had relationships with in her own admittance."

While Attenborough also claims it's a balanced picture that includes her shortcomings, as tough as "Diana" ever gets is the revelation that an 8-year-old Diana sometimes would sneak into her nanny's room and then take her nanny's clothes and hide them on the roof of the mansion.

This is not the stuff of which documentaries are made, and NBC shouldn't try to imply that the show meets a documentary standard in truth-telling and historical accuracy.

Representative of the kinds of truths that "Diana" mainly traffics in is the story of her makeup artist's keen desire to get the blue-eyed princess to switch to brown eye shadow, only to have Diana sneak off and redo the blue.

And then comes the analysis. A friend of Diana says she knows the very moment when Diana's eating disorders started. It was when Charles put his arm around his young bride's waist and said, "You're a little bit chubby, aren't you?" The woman claims Diana went from a 29-inch to a 23-inch waist in six months.

And that's followed by huge pop-psychology generalizations, often from Attenborough himself, who serves as what NBC is calling a "presenter." What that means is that from time to time, we see Attenborough sitting in a chair in a studio looking into the camera and saying such things as: "You knew her. You understood her. You even wanted to protect her."

Not me, I'm 0-for-3 on that one.

My favorite piece of expert analysis comes from Hillary Rodham Clinton, who says of Diana, "Her compassion survived the test of authenticity across the television screen."

Think about that one for a second. The television screen as "test of authenticity"? You mean like someone looking into the camera and saying, "I did not have sex with that woman"?

By the time we get to a psychologist at the very end who pronounces that "Diana empowered all of us," all you can say is, God save the queen and anybody who watches "Diana" tonight.

This is the kind of hagiography that makes Parson Weems look like a piker in cooking up the cherry-tree tale and peddling it as biography for George Washington. With him, all we had to suffer was the lie, not the "experts" talking about authenticity and telling us how empowered we should all be feeling by the lie.

'Diana'

When: 8-10 tonight

Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)

Pub Date: 8/31/98

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