Leave well enough alone Preview: Oprah Winfrey's 'David and Lisa' isn't as good as the original.

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

With "Beloved" sinking at the box office, dare we raise the possibility that maybe Oprah Winfrey isn't the greatest and wisest guide to popular culture that any nation could want? That maybe the press has been a little too gushy about her since she waltzed into our world of print and wowed us with how many books she could sell through her TV book club?

I ask because tomorrow night, ABC is counting on Winfrey's blessing to deliver a huge audience on the first big Sunday of November sweeps for "Oprah Winfrey Presents David and Lisa." And I have to tell you, Winfrey is selling damaged goods. You would be much better off surfing to another network for your prime-time viewing.

"David and Lisa," without any celebrity presenter's name in its title, was a lovely, gentle, little 1962 art film about love between two institutionalized teens. Set on the East Coast and filmed in black and white, it was dark in look and tone. That's part of what made the love between these two such a marvelous act of affirmation and the film itself worthy of the word "art."

Winfrey's Harpo Productions moved the story to the West Coast so they could get some bright, happy colors on the screen -- the kind network executives like in their prime-time movies in 1998. They got the color, but they lost the art.

As a service to those who feel they need Winfrey's guidance when deciding which sweeps movie or special to watch during these nights of counterprogramming madness, I think it only fair to include her spiel. The program opens with Winfrey in a seat in an empty theater -- television's way of saying, "This is a critic -- pay attention to what she says."

" 'David and Lisa' is a timeless love story. It's a story I wanted to tell to a whole new generation," Winfrey says. "Like David, sometimes we can get consumed by fears and anxieties. So we play it safe. But when you really love somebody, you can take that risk. You're transformed. You're no longer the same person.

"In this movie, David begins to open up with the help of a compassionate doctor played by Sidney Poitier. He skillfully and gently leads him to a place where he can begin to feel and trust again. 'David and Lisa' shows us that love gives us the power to live."

Lukas Haas plays David, and Brittany Murphy plays Lisa. Neither performance is memorable. David's emotional illness is manifest his horror of anyone touching him. Lisa suffers from disassociative disorder and speaks only rhymes.

L "Hello, kiddo. Look at me. What do you see?" she asks David.

"I see a girl," he says. "I see a pearl of a girl."

Neither actor has the depth to make those lines take wing and fly straight into your soul, the way such words did in the original with Keir Dullea and Janet Margolin. Poitier does bring a &L gentleness to the film, but it is not nearly enough to save the day.

In the end, Winfrey's role as presenter is a lot more interesting than the remade "David and Lisa," and I am not sure what to make of it. On the one hand, you could argue that her cultural authority is a good thing, a progressive development. You could see Winfrey as a new kind of Alistair Cooke for these multicultural times -- a youthful-looking black woman speaking the language of today on commercial TV instead of an old, white guy with an English accent on PBS.

But, on the other, I fear our need for a pop-culture guru could also be evidence of a general dumbing-down on our part -- in other words, that we require some TV-anointed guide to help us decide what network movie to watch.

Drama

What: "Oprah Winfrey Presents David and Lisa"

When: 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. tomorrow

DTC Where: ABC (WMAR, Channel 2)

Pub Date: 10/31/98

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