Fact-based made-for-TV movies have pretty much always been god-awful, so you won’t be floored when I say that Call Me: The Rise and Fall of Heidi Fleiss is dreadful from the moment we hear the so-called Hollywood madam announce that her world runs on ”dollars, dicks, drugs, and deceit” — and that’s in the first five minutes. If Jamie-Lynn DiScala, who plays Fleiss, had uttered this line at her regular job, i.e., playing Meadow on ”The Sopranos,” I assume ”Sopranos” boss David Chase would have barked, ”Where the #@!* is that in the script?” As it is, that dully alliterative list stands as an all-too-precise summation of this tawdry little creation.
TV movies, it should be said, have been especially terrible lately. NBC’s ”Charlie’s Angels” biopic was, almost impossibly, a bore; how could you go wrong with an opus about the invention of jiggle TV? ABC’s clip-and-paste job on Natalie Wood was both a solemn and a cheesy look at an actress who, I respectfully assert, doesn’t really loom lustrous on the pop-cultural landscape these days. And CBS’ ”Family Sins” was a histrionic fact-fueled freak-out in which star Kirstie Alley was — well, I love the way The Hollywood Reporter put it — ”a bit of a psychopath.”
Historically, TV films, originally conceived in the ’70s as cheap programming alternatives to get people to stay home and out of the movie theaters, have tended to be either adaptations of best-selling pulp like ”Shogun” (1980) and ”The Thorn Birds” (1983) — a.k.a. ”Richard Chamberlain’s Greatest Hits” — or ripped-from-the-tabloids insta-flicks. Nowadays, with reality TV filling the gap as the all-purpose, bargain-rate fixer-upper, the networks have ceded most of this ground to cable, where your stars can be classier and the subjects more serious (Albert Finney + Winston Churchill = Emmy time, baby).
”Call Me” is the worst of both worlds. Despite the fact that it’s directed by Charles McDougall, who did the British (that is, the good) version of ”Queer as Folk,” the sexual content of ”Call Me” is both vulgar and constrained (more on that in a bit). And because it’s about a living person, ”Call Me” is obliged to follow a dreary chronology (L.A. girl gets real estate license; girl gets bored; girl starts dating horny old directors) and to include lines so banal, I’m sure they were actually uttered (”Fantasy is my business”; ”Things always went better with coke” [snnniffffff!]). ”Call Me” is the kind of project that signals its heroine’s superiority to her sisters in prostitution by having one hooker reading a fashion mag while our Heidi devours John Steinbeck. I had no trouble believing in Corbin Bernsen as a producer who can achieve orgasm only with a bedful of women plus Heidi cooing a verbal fantasy scenario about him winning awards. I could not, however, believe that Heidi’s idea of buttering up a Saudi client (and I suppose I have to note I’m not literally talking about butter) was to make small talk like ”What do you want…besides a heap of dead Jews?”
”Call Me” was once titled ”Going Down”; the name was a victim, perhaps, of the FCC’s New Prissiness campaign? And after sending out an initial batch of review tapes — which featured a brief scene of a piggy rock star placing his snout between Heidi’s bare buttocks — the USA Network hastily sent out a second, ”domestic television” version of ”Call Me,” with the offending incident excised. That sort of thing is reserved for, the press release says, ”international and DVD distribution.”
Really, the most interesting thing about ”Call Me” is that it portrays a real-life director by name — a Heidi boyfriend, Ivan Nagy, played with slobbery gusto by Robert Davi. In ”Call Me,” Nagy is depicted as an aging horndog who whips out his creaky ”Starsky and Hutch” and ”CHiPs” credits to try to score legit gigs. But look up his latter-day work and you’ll see he’s the auteur of soft-core squirts like ”Trailer Trash Teri” (1998) and ”Izzy Sleeze’s Casting Couch Cuties” (1999). For Nagy, being portrayed as a major character in ”Call Me” is good publicity. Meanwhile, to promote ”Call Me,” DiScala can be seen cavorting in nothing but her white underpants in the April issue of FHM — talk about squandering ”Sopranos” cred. If the actress doesn’t start choosing her roles more wisely, she’s liable to end up in a Nagy production. ”Rolling in the Meadow,” perhaps? ”Skin to Skin With Jamie-Lynn”?