John Gielgud, Ellen Burstyn, Walter Matthau and Rod Steiger star in made-for-TV tellings of the sexual escapades of the wealthy, hard times on heartland farms, a woman's battle with Alzheimer's disease and a mysterious murder during a summer holiday in Italy.
The really neat thing about all these films -- the thing that shows how much the television networks truly care about us -- is that all that talent and storytelling power go head to head at 9 tonight.
The VCR has liberated us to a degree from the tyranny of network programmers, but you'll need several VCRs to be truly liberated tonight.
It's one of the last great ratings gasps of this television season, and the broadcast networks -- ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS -- are throwing any cost-effective sense they have out the window in an orgy of counterprogramming.
Cable is another story of even more wonderfully diverse choices.
At 9 tonight, for example, the Disney channel offers "Judy, Frank and Dean," Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin from a 1962 CBS broadcast. There's some of the silliness of the Rat Pack and all its "a-ring-a-ding-ding" business. But there's also a feeling of the energy and sense of possibility that many experienced in the days of JFK and the New Frontier. It's all there in the songs and the singers.
Showtime's 9 o'clock entry is the debut of new anthology series, "Kurt Vonnegut's Monkey House," with the author introducing adaptations from three short stories in his 1968 "Welcome to the Monkey House" collection.
Here's a guide to the major choices on broadcast television tonight:
'An Inconvenient Woman'
Rebecca De Mornay has Hollywood's inside track on playing the prostitute with the heart of gold. Not since Shirley MacLaine was in her prime have we seen one actress give so many convincing faces to the woman who can't say no to a man who will pay the price.
De Mornay is at it again in "An Inconvenient Woman," which airs at 9 tonight and tomorrow on WJZ-TV (Channel 13). As Flo March, De Mornay is the inconvenient woman of the title in the made-for-TV movie based on the novel by Dominick Dunne.
Ms. March is inconvenient mainly to Pauline Mendelson, played by Jill Eikenberry, who's made to look 15 years older with the most horrendous hairdo since Mamie Eisenhower. Pauline is the renowned society matron of Hollywood. Her stiff manner, false charm and rigid thinness may remind you of some of the folks who hung around the Reagans. All similarity is intentional. This is one of those miniseries that acts as if it's skewering the rich while taking great pleasure in celebrating their wealth.
The reason Flo March is inconvenient to Pauline Mendelson is that she's sleeping with Jules Mendelson, Pauline's husband, who's played by Jason Robards.
There's a murder here that seems to involve Jules and maybe a gangster and maybe a coverup. There's also a glimpse of gay prostitutes and drag queens, as we are encouraged to believe that no matter how rich the upper crust, there's some flakiness in their lives, too.
The worst thing about the miniseries is its ever-switching point of view. Almost everyone in it gets a chance to do voiceovers to narrate the action from his or her perspective. It's an interesting notion. But suspense stories and mysteries are not democracies. All it makes for here is confusion and a very slow pace bordering on tedium. But, then, with four hours and two nights to fill, this is a movie with no intention of trying to earn the descriptions "taut with suspense" or "riveting."
This miniseries is mainly a holdover from the 1980s, when the more excess there was on the screen the better, when TV drama was characters swilling champagne and admiring jewels on themselves and the big trauma was finding good help. Think "Dynasty."
There's no one in this film to love or admire or even sympathize with. "An Inconvenient Woman -- which features De Mornay doing a striptease a la Marilyn Monroe as one of its high points -- is in many ways for gawkers only.
'Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love' There's a slice of heaven in Ellen Burstyn's performance in "Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love" at 9 tonight on WBAL-TV (Channel 11).
Burstyn is Mrs. Lambert, a woman in her early 70s who is showing the first signs of Alzheimer's disease. Burstyn is also transcendent, on camera for almost 90 percent of the film, missing no chance for nuance, wringing not just several notes out of character, but a whole symphony. She plays an ordinary woman experiencing extraordinary fears. She communicates again and again through just a grimace or gesture the terrifying ++ sensation of losing control over your life.
Those moments will remind some viewers of Burstyn's talent an grace in "Alice Doesn't Live Her Anymore." But more importantly, it will remind many viewers of the moments in their own lives when there was nothing between themselves and the wall but their own courage and will.
That said, it must be noted that "Mrs. Lambert Remembers Love" is not some single shining moment of a movie. It has rough spots.
It is basically the story of a widow raising her 9-year-old grandson, who starts doing strange things -- like setting the alarm clock for 3:30 a.m. so that she can get up and make dinner.
One day, when her grandson, Jarrod (Ryan Todd), falls asleep in class, the boy's teacher, school principal and a social worker all get involved.
Their questions spook Lillian Lambert, and she takes Jarrod to visit relatives rather than risk losing custody of him. Their car trip across California in search of relatives Mrs. Lambert hasn't heard from in 25 years is most of the film.
The car trip as odyssey is smart stuff -- very smart stuff. So is the buddy aspect of the 9-year-old and the senior citizen.
But the social worker and everybody else getting crazy just because the kid fell asleep once in class is a bit farfetched. Another problem with the film is that anyone over 10 years of age and under 65 is portrayed as a money-sucking, self-centered loss to humanity.
Finally, there's the matter of Walter Matthau and his part in the film. CBS' advertising is intended to make viewers think Matthau has a leading role. There's a reason for that. Matthau -- with that oh-so-familiar, lived-in duffel bag of a face and all that easygoing talent -- is a sure-fire draw.
Matthau's role in this film is only a supporting one. He plays an undefined friend of the family whose house Jarrod stops by now and then to tell terrible jokes. His on-screen time is short. Until the last 20 minutes of the film, Matthau's role is just some scraps. But of those scraps, as they say, Matthau makes a quilt.
Is there anyone anywhere like Sir John Gielgud?
Fifty years ago, he was an extraordinary Shakespearean stage actor. He could have retired and rested on his laurels 30 or 40 years ago.
But, thanks mostly to television, he has whole new generations of audiences before him -- people who when they see Gielgud's name two or three credits below the title take it as a sign to rearrange their evening.
Rearrange your evening tonight. Gielgud is back in another jewel of a supporting role in "Summer's Lease," the new four-part Masterpiece Theatre that begins at 9 tonight on MPT (Channels 22 and 67).
Gielgud plays Haverford Downs, a father and grandfather to his daughter and her husband and their three daughters. He is a would-be raconteur whose stories always seem to sink under repeated references to his once active sexual life -- no matter whom he is talking with. His daughter despairs of him. His son-in-law detests him.
He seems -- but is not quite -- a silly old fool.
The summer's lease of the title has Downs and his daughter's family off to northern Italy where she has rented a house for part of the summer. Their landlord, Mr. Kettering, is absent but has made very strict specifications. The tenants must eat their dinners on the terrace and play only certain kinds of music.
There is a mystery here and, eventually, a murder, too. There is also lots of comedy and much feeling for the hills of Tuscany. The cinematography is consistently fresh and evocative. And always there is Gielgud.
He has a little speech at a dinner for two about what constitutes an English gentleman. It's so good it has the capacity to break the mood, literally, stop the show. But Gielgud underplays it as only he could. The result is a scene as smooth, delicious and easy to swallow as a dollop of cream. Gielgud, the speech and the first hour of "Summer's Lease" are something to cherish.
'In the Line of Duty: Manhunt in the Dakotas'
"In the Line of Duty: Manhunt in the Dakotas" is one of the most troubling docudramas of the season.
The film, which airs at 9 tonight on NBC, celebrates the life and death of a racist. That's a serious charge, and NBC will tell you that the racist is killed at the end, so he gets his just deserts. But I'm here to tell you that's not the way some folks are going to see it.
The racist is Gordon Kahl, the man from North Dakota who refused to pay his taxes, went to jail, came out and wound up killing several federal law enforcement officers at a roadblock and during the subsequent manhunt for him.
In terms of drama, Rod Steiger plays Kahl and he plays him well. The dramatic stage he plays him on is a richly textured one. The film takes the time to create the stark background of the prairie. It's all flat land, gun-metal gray sky, silos, pickup trucks, 4-by-4s, car coats, stocking caps, barnyard dogs, weather-beaten farm houses, linoleum kitchens, auctions and hard times. It is a well-crafted film.
But that doesn't mean the potential messages are not irresponsible. The film validates a dangerous and crackpot populism in its search for ratings. It runs the risk of helping make the real Kahl, who was killed in a shootout with federal authorities in 1989, a folk hero in its search for a big, dramatic ending.
Good drama, bad real-life messages. Watch this one at your own peril.