April 15, 1994 at 04:00 AM EDT

Honor Thy Father and Mother: the True Story of The Menendez Murders

TV Show
Current Status
In Season
Jill Clayburgh, David Beron, James Farentino, Billy Warlock
We gave it a D+

Losers with money-that’s the worst kind,” says Jill Clayburgh as Kitty Menendez in Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders. She’s talking about the men in her life- her wealthy husband, Jose, played by James Farentino, and her playboy sons, Lyle (Baywatch’s Billy Warlock) and Erik (David Beron). In this docudrama, Kitty is portrayed as a bitter, emotionally abused pill-popper who despises her family. It is suggested that she knew that, as both brothers have alleged, Jose had been sexually abusing Lyle and Erik since they were children. And why didn’t she do anything to stop this? ”No one ever helped me in my life,” mutters this listless Kitty from the family sofa, aimlessly channel-surfing while zonked on wine.

Honor Thy Father and Mother pretends to objectivity-a Fox press release asserts that ”the television audience” will be ”evaluating the conflicting evidence and forming their own opinions of guilt or innocence”-but it actually ends up mounting a series of excuses for why Lyle, 21, and Erik, 18, shotgunned Jose and Kitty to death on Aug. 20, 1989. According to Honor, Dad was a monster who, Lyle says, ”stuck tacks into my butt” and who screamed at Erik for not knowing who former attorney general John Mitchell was. Mom merited contempt for her grim neglect. If you think Jose and Kitty got what they deserved, Honor Thy Father and Mother is your kind of TV movie.

This production-winner in the disgusting race to see who could dramatize the Menendez case first, handily beating out CBS’ four-hour May miniseries-is based on public records, trial transcripts, and a book: Blood Brothers, by John Johnson and Ronald L. Soble, both reporters for the Los Angeles Times at the time of the murders. Given that everyone in Honor comes off as either venal or pathetic, Johnson and Soble must be relieved to see that they are presented as neither crusading journalists nor exploitive jackals-just stick figures with spiral notebooks and worried frowns. But then, no one else in Honor Thy Father and Mother gets much in the way of characterization. Michael J. Murray’s screenplay and Paul Schneider’s direction reduce even Lyle’s colorful defense attorney, Leslie Abramson, to a prim stickler, played by Susan Blakely. If you can’t summon up the vivid personality of the outrageously combative Abramson, you don’t deserve to make a Menendez movie.

The filmmakers seem not to have realized that one major reason the real- life Menendez brothers were fascinating to watch as their cases played out on Court TV is precisely the reason Honor Thy Father and Mother is a dull TV movie: Over weeks and weeks of frequently gruesome testimony, Lyle and Erik most often came across as unfeeling brats-androids with Rolexes. Whether this was because their years of alleged abuse had left them numb to most ordinary emotions or because they really were the deceitful jerks the prosecution tried to present them as being, the brothers’ stoniness makes them engrossing as psychopathology case studies but useless as protagonists in a TV drama.

Even so, Warlock and Beron acquit themselves well-Warlock in particular is good at suggesting Lyle’s hapless ambition to be as canny a businessman as his father was. Farentino isn’t asked to do much more than bellow and rant, while Clayburgh’s Kitty is just tired and tipsy.

It’s a measure of Honor Thy Father and Mother’s wayward goofiness that the climax occurs not during the murders or in the courtroom, but when Kitty, in a fit of temper, yanks off Lyle’s legendary hairpiece. His yowl of pain and humiliation as he fingers his exposed scalp provides the only truly raw emotion in two hours. D+

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