Sometimes the glaze of sentiment that Hallmark Hall of Fame drizzles across the top of its productions does some artistic good. Sunday night’s When Love Is Not Enough, starring Winona Ryder and based on the life of Lois Wilson, wife of the man who co-founded Alcoholics Anonymous, was a melodramatic period piece set in the first half of the 20th century, so full of emotion that it could barely be contained to its two hours.
Barry Pepper starred this night as Bill Wilson, the businessman who went from being a hapless, ruinous drunk to a generous sober man who learned to cope with his alcoholism in painfully slow increments. (His story has been told on TV before, and by the same writer — William B. Borchert, who also wrote the 1989 telefilm My Name Is Bill W., starring James Woods as Wilson and James Garner as “Dr. Bob” — Bob Smith, who helped in Wilson’s recovery.)
Pepper gave a terrific performance on Sunday night as Bill W., giving viewers the full measure of a man doomed by his addiction to be cruel, neglectful, and pitiful before be became brave and self-sacrificing. When Love Is Not Enough, however, was Lois’ story, and Ryder played her with wide eyes of both innocence and terror. Ryder made it clear the extent to which Lois had no idea how dreadful her husband’s condition was and how, in those pre-AA days, how isolated and confused a woman married to such a man had to be.
The chief artistic problem with When Love Is Not Enough was that it spent so much time with the easy to dramatize stuff — that is, Bill’s wild drunken days. Ryder was reduced to spending at least half the TV-movie acting appalled. It was only in the final half-hour, when Ryder was allowed to show Lois as a three-dimensional woman, as capable of bitter anger at Bill mistreatment of her as she was of noble sacrifice, that we got some sense of Lois.
While I knew that Bill W. had written what became known as “The Big Book” — in When Love Is Not Enough, it’s Lois who recites its core 12 steps in voice-over narration — I wasn’t aware that she started Al-Anon, for family members and friends of alcoholics. Lois’ own pioneering work was crammed into the end of this movie. The striking thing is, however, is that it seems no matter how this story is told and re-told, it retains its power.
Did you watch When Love Is Not Enough? What did you think?