HBO's `Walls 2' has much to tell

Review: Stunning performances from great actresses make the drama something to talk about. `Walls' has a lot to tell

March 04, 2000|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The first half-hour of HBO's "If These Walls Could Talk 2" is the best half-hour of television I have seen this year.

Taken as a whole, the three-part anthology about lesbian relationships in three different decades is almost enough to redeem the entire medium from the mountain of crud that aired during the recently ended February "sweeps" ratings period.

HBO knows how good "Walls" is. Tomorrow night, it's moving "The Sopranos," television's most critically acclaimed series, up an hour to give "Walls" the prime 9 p.m. spot.

If you have HBO, don't miss it. If you don't have HBO, make nice with someone who does and ask them to tape it.

What a cast: Vanessa Redgrave, Sharon Stone, Ellen DeGeneres, Michelle Williams ("Dawson's Creek") and Chloe Sevigny (Oscar-nominee for "Boys Don't Cry"). Behind the cameras: Jane Anderson ("The Baby Dance"), Martha Coolidge ("The Dorothy Dandridge Story") and Anne Heche ("Wag the Dog").

Using the structure of "If These Walls Could Talk," a 1996 film about three woman facing unwanted pregnancies in three different eras, the trio of stories in "Walls 2" takes place in the same house. The first half-hour, which was written and directed by Anderson, is set in 1961. It looks at an older lesbian couple of 50 years, Edith (Redgrave) and Abby (Marian Seldes).

Not a moment is wasted in "1961." It opens in a movie theater with Abby and Edith watching "The Children's Hour," a film about what happens to two teachers after a schoolgirl accuses them of lesbianism. Abby and Edith are retired teachers.

They are moved by the film, but must try to hide their emotions.

For instance, they quickly let go of each other's hands when they hear mocking laughter from a nearby group of teen-agers. The teens are reacting to what's taking place on screen between characters played by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine.

After the film, as Abby and Edith pass the teens on the street and then walk beneath a huge advertisement on the side of the theater showing an idealized heterosexual couple, Anderson manages to make you understand how threatened these two gentle women could feel in their world.

And it is done in less than 15 seconds.

But each little threat is only prelude to what happens when Abby dies following a freak fall in their back yard. Step by step, we watch Edith painfully lose her place in the world that she and Abby created.

First, Edith is not allowed to see Abby as she lies dying in the hospital because Edith "isn't family." Then Edith must watch in mounting horror as distant relatives arrive to divvy up Abby's possessions.

Redgrave's performance is stunning, as Edith's entire being seems to shudder with each increment of loss. When we find her silently weeping on the bed that she and Abby shared -- while Abby's relatives trample her memories in other rooms -- it is almost too much to bear. I wondered where the trilogy could possible go from there.

Sevigny steals show

But Coolidge smoothly manages to shift gears into the piece titled "1972," which features Williams as a college student who falls in love with a "butch" working-class woman (Sevigny) on a motorcycle.

The piece is set up to feature Williams, but it is Sevigny who steals the show with her nuanced performance. Coolidge lets the couple explore a sexual relationship, but none of it seems gratuitous as the piece goes on to offer a number of fresh and focused insights on feminism, gender and social class differences in the women's movement of the 1970s.

You won't find this mix of sociology and passion anywhere else on television.

Star power

The marquee attraction for some is sure to be Stone and DeGeneres as a couple trying to have a child in the final segment, "2000." Written and directed by Heche, DeGeneres' real-life partner, it is the lightest and most like traditional television of the three. But that doesn't mean it is lightweight or sitcom-y.

Stone is more than enough to recommend it. She simply lights up the screen when she appears with an appeal and presence that are impossible to resist. I guess that's why she's such a big movie star, huh?

In the end, the best thing about "Walls 2" is its carefully crafted movement through the three segments from death to love to birth. "Walls" offers viewers a rich emotional journey that ends not just in wisdom but also affirmation and joy.

Weekend TV

What: "If These Walls Could Talk 2"

When: 9 to 10: 40 tomorrow night

Where: HBO

In brief: Great performances by some great actresses

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