They’ve never exactly had a golden age to begin with, but made-for-TV movies are in a particularly parlous state right now. Budget-tightening networks would rather fill their airtime with half-hour sitcoms and hour-long dramas than commit substantial budgets to a two-hour film that will premiere once and maybe justify a rerun or two. And no programmer these days has a clue as to what will work as a ratings draw. The woman-in-jeopardy trend has run its course (a blessing, even if it has meant less work for the indomitable Cheryl Ladd), and over-inflated shaggy-dog stories like the 1988-89 War and Remembrance helped kill off the miniseries, to the relief of an entire nation of TV critics’ posteriors.
A couple of seasons ago, it looked as if adaptations of literary classics might give the format a goosing, what with the high ratings and critical success of NBC’s Gulliver’s Travels. But the well-deserved flop of NBC’s ludicrously callow Crime and Punishment took care of that: The network quickly pulled its version of The Tempest from this weekend’s sweeps programming, substituting for it a theatrical rerun of Get Shorty. This leaves a remake of the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window, starring Christopher Reeve in the James Stewart role, and Saint Maybe, a Hallmark Hall of Fame family drama, to duke it out on Sunday. And the night before on HBO (the TV movies’ current class act), you’ll find Winchell, a biography of newspaper columnist Walter Winchell starring Stanley Tucci.
Of the two Sunday movies, Saint Maybe was the one that got to me. This small-screen rendering of Anne Tyler’s 1991 novel about death, guilt, and redemption in a Baltimore suburb over the course of 30 years had me blubbering with satisfying heartbrokenness. Thomas McCarthy stars as Ian Bedloe, who suspects that his brother’s new wife, played by Mary-Louise Parker, is being unfaithful; his suspicions yield tragic results.
I’m not giving away the plot twists in Robert W. Lenski’s teleplay adaptation, but I will say that Ian ends up raising his brother’s three children, with the help of his aging parents, a pair of dowdy teachers played with understatement and in corduroy by Blythe Danner and Edward Herrmann. The tricky aspect to bringing Saint Maybe to television is its religious theme: Ian finds solace in a storefront place of worship, the Church of the Second Chance. Too often, television converts the conversion experience into something either silly or sinister, but here, under the direction of Michael Pressman, it’s handled with rare grace.
”It’s the will of God,” Ian says, explaining his decision to drop out of college and assume the care of his nieces and nephew. ”Who?” asks his mother, humanistic skepticism flooding her voice. But Ian sticks to his spiritual guns, and Saint Maybe turns into a parable of persistence — or, as Herrmann’s character says of education in general, ”If you have to earn it, you’ll learn it.”
The precise control of mood and pace in Saint Maybe is what’s missing in Rear Window. Reeve plays Jason Kemp, an architect left paralyzed from the neck down after a car accident shown in the film’s opening seconds. Like Stewart in the original, Reeve’s character whiles away his wheelchaired hours looking into his neighbors’ windows, and comes to suspect foul play in one apartment.
Reeve’s 1995 horseback-riding accident has left him with a limited acting vocabulary — his faint voice occasionally cannot pull off the romantic byplay between Jason and (in the Grace Kelly role) a restrained Daryl Hannah. On the other hand, Reeve’s real-life tragedy lends true fear to the scene in which the bad guy (Ritchie Coster) cuts off Jason’s air-supply tube. But the problem here isn’t Reeve’s performance so much as it is the slack, awkwardly updated, and frequently confusing teleplay by Eric Overmyer (Homicide: Life on the Street) and Larry Gross (48 HRS.). The production also could have used a supporting character with the vim and vinegar of the original’s Thelma Ritter.
Full of vim but rather dim, Winchell is adapted from a biography of the famous gossip columnist written by a former Winchell stringer, Herman Klurfeld. No surprise at all, therefore, that the biggest supporting character in this production is… Herman Klurfeld!, played with doe-eyed idealism by the always-good Paul Giamatti (Private Parts, The Truman Show). In the Scott Abbott teleplay of the book, Klurfeld writes most of Winchell’s best columns, thus helping his nearly illiterate but aggressively glad-handing boss (Tucci is at his best when he turns on his swanky nightclubbing charm) become a nationwide star, first in New York newspapers and then on radio during the pre- and post-World War II era.
The disappointment that Winchell is a very run-of-the-mill tele-biopic from the usually more adventurous HBO is deepened by the fact that it’s directed by Paul Mazursky, the man who made Manhattan vibrant and funky in features like Next Stop, Greenwich Village (1976). Mazursky has a small role as Winchell’s no-account gambling father, and the very brief scenes between him and Tucci have as much quiet emotion as any moment in Saint Maybe. Would that there were more of them. Saint Maybe: B+ Rear Window: C Winchell: C