When you meet Ida Rollin, as depicted by Maureen Stapleton, you wonder how anyone under any circumstances could help this woman commit suicide.
The job undertaken by "Last Wish" is to make you understand how not just anyone, but her own daughter, could do just that. The strength of the movie is that as it makes you understand that decision, it does not try to persuade you that it was right.
"Last Wish," a superbly acted and directed ABC movie that will be on Channel 13 (WJZ) Sunday night at 9 o'clock, is based on the book by Betty Rollin, the former television reporter whose battle with breast cancer was dramatized in the TV film "First, You Cry," also from her book by that name.
In that film, she was played by Mary Tyler Moore. In this one, it's Patty Duke. In the book "Last Wish," Rollin revealed for the first time that her mother committed suicide. On her death certificate, the ovarian cancer that was laying waste to her body was listed as the cause.
Duke plays Rollin as a woman completely successful in all phases of her life. Professionally, it's been one step after another up the ladder since graduating from Sarah Lawrence. Personally, after one failed marriage, she's now in a blissful second with a kind and gentle mathematics professor, played by Towson State graduate Dwight Schultz.
But the star of the show is Stapleton. Under Jeff Bleckner's direction, she makes you know and love Ida in the first 30 seconds after you meet her, just after she finishes her senior citizens folk dancing class at the local community center in New York, where she thrives in its Jewish community.
She comes off as so much more than the cliche of an active older woman. Ida is in love with life, all the more so because she's pulling out of the valley she entered follow ing the death of her husband two years before. She's even started to date again.
Stapleton's Ida never seems like a 74-year-old woman trying to pretend that she's still a youngster, but rather as someone pleased to be exactly where and who she is. And part of her pleasure comes from having such a successful daughter.
But along with these broad brushes of exuberance, "Last Wish" paints in some details that might be considered less flattering. Ida is overly concerned with appearance, with everything looking just right, with everyone acting properly. Betty's success did not just happen, it was carefully planned, right down to the last dance class and music lesson.
Cancer, of course, was not part of the plan. Ida is a woman who eats no meat, no butter, no fats. She doesn't smoke, drinks rarely. She made her husband do the same.
"But he died of a heart attack," it's pointed out.
"Yes, but he died healthy," she replies.
And this woman gets cancer, a malignancy that had spread beyond her ovaries by the time surgeons got to it. It's not hard to make you feel sad when you hear that news, and "Last Wish" does just that without seeming maudlin or exploitative.
As with a lot of cancer patients, Ida and her daughter question if the attempted cure -- chemotherapy -- is worse than the disease. It leaves her a physical wreck, with no hair, constant nausea, unable to eat or drink, barely able to move. Again, Stapleton's work is stunningly good.
This would make sense to Ida -- and Betty, for that matter -- if she were going to come out healthy on the other end. But with the cancer continuing to spread, and the prognosis grim, they can't understand why such misery should be continued just because some cold doctor sees it as his job.
The alternative, however, is to do nothing and let a painful death ensue as nature takes its course. Ida proposes suicide, and Betty, a bit too quickly, agrees to help her figure out how to do it.
So you do understand. It all makes sense. But "Last Wish" is no polemic for assisted suicide. For even as you understand, you wonder.
When Ida is so sick that suicide seems to be the proper alternative, she can't keep down the pills that would kill her. When she is well enough to commit the act, she seems so alive that suicide does not seem right.
Furthermore, it might be that this is a case of a woman who is used to being in charge once again trying to maintain control. Or maybe it's just another attempt to keep up appearances, to make death nice and neat and clean, not drawn out and painful and ugly. And those do not seem to be proper justifications for suicide.
The sanctity of human life is deeply ingrained in most of the world's cultures. To violate that requires, quite literally, a decision that is the moral equivalent of war.
"Last Wish" does not imply that these people made this decision lightly, but even as it demonstrates their gravity, it makes you wonder if their decision was right.
That's an appropriate stance. The world does not have enough people like the Ida Rollin in this movie. We can't afford to lose any of the time we get with them.