Harriman story takes the low road Television: Once again, a docudrama goes for ratings rather than enlightenment.

October 12, 1998|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Do you know what Pamela Harriman was thinking as she stepped into the swimming pool of the Ritz in Paris seconds before she died of a heart attack?

She was thinking cosmic thoughts about the women's movement: "How difficult it was for a woman of my generation to find any measure of independence."

How do we know this? Because the made-for-cable Lifetime docudrama, "Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story," tells us it is so. And we all know how much we can trust exploitative, sensationalistic, cheesy, low-rent, slimeball, cable TV movies that try to repackage biography and politics for the purposes of entertainment to tell us what went on inside the head of someone who is dead.

And what a convenient thought it is, since so much of the two-hour film that preceded the final swim was spent trying to justify all the men Harriman slept with and/or married before her "dear friend," President Bill Clinton, made her ambassador to France.

Oh, how I loathe irresponsible docudrama! I truly believe television docudramas like this are one of the reasons we are so confused as a nation about our history, values, leaders and choice of role models. Television has the power -- perhaps the greatest power -- to sanction a person or event as important in our culture. But, instead of respecting that power and using it responsibly to help shape our national character, the industry celebrates that which can be exploited into higher ratings -- history and any sense of an accurate shared memory be damned.

In this case, they didn't even get the cheap entertainment part right. Ann-Margret plays Harriman -- an Englishwoman who was married to Winston Churchill's son, Randolph -- with one of the strangest English accents I have ever heard on television. Worse, she keeps slipping in and out of it.

In terms of script, the producers couldn't even decide on a basic unit of structure. They set it up to be Harriman in her final days as ambassador telling her story to her biographer. But that wouldn't be spicy enough, so they use a pair of famous sisters -- Babe and Betsey Cushing, wives of CBS founder Bill Paley and Jock Whitney, one-time ambassador to England, respectively -- to dish. Babe does most of the dishing with Betsey defending.

"She slept with my husband during the war. Of course, I detest her," Babe says.

"Everyone slept with everyone during the war, my dear," Betsey counters.

And then we flash back to Pamela Churchill meeting a young Averill Harriman at a swank party during a night of Nazi bombs falling on London. As others scurry to the bomb shelter with their bottles of champagne, she and Harriman -- who are both married to other persons at the time -- have sex. Much later in life, she marries Harriman, a one-time governor of New York, after Broadway producer Leland Heyward dies and leaves her without the fortune she was expecting.

The Harriman marriage worked out better for her. When Harriman died, he left her with $140 million. The Harriman children, by the way, filed lawsuits against her alleging that she drained $30 million in capital out of trust funds set up for the Harriman children and grandchildren. The alleged embezzlement is fudged in the film.

But, forget moral ambiguity, Lifetime, the self-proclaimed women's network, declares her a role model and heroine. To support that assertion it has videotape of the real President Clinton saying that very thing at her funeral.

And we all know how much we can trust President Clinton and sleazy made-for-cable television movies to guide us in matters of role modeling and morality.

On Lifetime

What: "Life of the Party: The Pamela Harriman Story."

When: 9 to 11 tonight

Where: Lifetime

Pub Date: 10/12/98

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