Ken Tucker explains how a visit to your post office will teach you more about philosopher Ayn Rand than the Showtime flick about her

By Ken Tucker
Updated June 01, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

A postage stamp is better history than a TV movie

Ayn Rand: TV movie or postage stamp?

Who’d have thought, at the end of the century, the author of ”The Fountainhead” and the fountainhead of Objectivism — the philosophy of unfettered capitalism and selfishness as a virtue — would be reduced to such a question, such a choice?

Let me explain. Showtime recently premiered a TV movie called ”The Passion of Ayn Rand,” starring an actress perfect for portraying so brainy and decisive a modern philosopher: the great Helen Mirren. (You know, ”Prime Suspect”’s hardboiled Inspector Jane Tennison.) Too bad there’s so much passion and so little intelligence in the movie’s script. Chain-smoking with white gloves on, Mirren-as-Rand is obliged to utter lines like, ”I am a radical for capitalism and this is my flag” — whereupon she draws a dollar sign. Hey, for all I know, Rand really said this — what I’m SURE of, though, is that in the context of this tedious teleflick, the line is laughable. Because ”The Passion of Ayn Rand” turns its subject’s life into a love story — Ayn’s passion for one of her young disciples, Nathaniel Brandon, played by Eric Stoltz with a dewy stubbornness that suggests he was just following the script’s orders.

Far more Objectivist is the new 33-cent stamp just issued by the post office. It’s an Art Deco portrait of Rand, the left side of her face partially hidden behind a jutting skyscraper — just the sort of thrusting edifice that might have been designed by the architect-hero of ”The Fountainhead,” Howard Roark. In a small square of gummed paper, more is revealed of Rand’s personality — its bold force, its slightly outdated but still intriguing persistence — than can be seen in the more than two hours of Showtime’s ”Passion.” At one point in ”The Fountainhead,” Roark says with typical Randian floridness, ”The world is perishing from an orgy of self-sacrificing.” ”The Passion of Ayn Rand,” I’m afraid, sacrifices its subject on the alter of melodrama.