'Inconvenient Woman' skewers upper-class lowlifes


DOMINICK DUNNE is the thinking person's Jackie Collins. H invites you along on a scandal-tinged, sex-laced romp with the lowlifes that make up our upper classes but proves to be such an insightful and witty tour guide that you don't feel at all guilty about making the trip.

He skewered New York in "People Like Us." Now it's Los Angeles in "An Inconvenient Woman," a four-hour ABC production that runs Sunday and Monday nights at 9 o'clock on Channel 13 (WJZ).

Your narrator is none other than a successful author who is in Hollywood to help turn his book into a movie. That the scenario bears more than a passing resemblance to the way Dunne actually got involved in this Babylon by the Pacific helps get you started on the guessing game of which real-life characters are represented by these fictional counterparts. That only adds to the fun.

The excellent Peter Gallagher is the author, Philip Quennell. John Pielmeier's excellent screenplay has Quennell writing the book as you watch it unfold on the screen, aided by a narrative from the inconvenient woman herself, Flo March, a beautiful would-be starlet whose work as a waitress brought her to the attention of one of the richest men in town.

That would be Jules Mendelson, played by the classy Jason Robards. Jules sets Flo up in a Beverly Hills house and starts keeping her in a style to which anyone could easily grow accustomed.

He keeps his wife, Pauline, the source of his money, at his reamansion, where Impressionists grace the wall and the president is often on the phone. Pauline is nicely played as an ice queen by Jill Eikenberry.

The murder of one of Pauline's friends, Hector Paradiso, a scion of old Los Angeles money last seen arranging a meeting with a male prostitute at the town's high-class gay bar, becomes a suicide in the newspaper and police reports, thanks to Jules' power.

Quennell is suspicious and starts asking embarrassing questions. He remains our eyes and ears by getting invitations to the right parties and gatherings, in part because he's carrying on his own romance with monied Camilla Ebury, played by Chelsea Field.

Flo is clearly supposed to be a breakout starring role for Rebecca De Mornay, whose skin is on push-the-prime-time-envelope display throughout the four hours. De Mornay's Flo has a tough, working-class demeanor that Jules' Pygmalion make-over never can quite hide. Inevitably, beneath that exterior is a scared, sweet little girl.

The weight of carrying this miniseries is placed on De Mornay's shoulders and, while she never takes off and flies with it, she never drops the load either. It's competent, solid work that is always easy on the eyes.

The plot of "An Inconvenient Woman" is not the most original or fascinating. As with so many of these stories, it's much more interesting watching these lives get all tangled up than it is seeing everything being unraveled, making Sunday's Part 1 superior to Monday's rather plodding and conventional conclusion.

What makes these four hours worth the investment are the social observations. While Dunne might not have quite the elan displayed by Tom Wolfe in "Bonfire of the Vanities," he never pulls any punches in his portrayals.

This is most evident in some of the wonderful supporting characters, such as Alex Rocco doing the same great work he did as a sleazy agent in "The Famous Teddy Z," here playing a sleazy, coke-snorting director.

Elaine Stritch is a scene-stealer as the alcoholic doyenne of this social set while Roddy McDowell feasts on the scenery as the local gossip columnist who picks over the bones of the rich and famous for his daily repast.

Roy Thinnes is appropriately stiff and pompous as Jules' attorney, Sims Lord, Joseph Bologna is a dangerous mob type trying to muscle in on this big money, and Chad Lowe is Pauline's ne'er-do-well son from an earlier marriage. Not all of these characters figure in the plot, but they fill up the background with sumptuous details that keep the canvas always full and interesting.

Observations about the decadance of the rich go back at least to the Bible. Look at Gibbons' "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," or much of Noel Coward's work. Just last week, a book-length survey on morality in America reported that drug use and sex outside of marriage were more prevalent on a per capita basis in Beverly Hills than in the south Bronx.

Even as he serves up his delicious, juicy morsels of voyeuristic pleasure, Dunne seems to be delivering a cautionary course, a message not that money is evil per se, but that just as the daily struggle for survival can brutalize the human spirit, so getting too far removed from that struggle can have a similar effect.

Maybe's he's right. Indeed, as you read today's headlines, you find yourself hoping that Dunne can get an invitation to spend some time in Palm Beach.

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