It's easy to know when Mary Tyler Moore is on her game as a actress. Any time you're watching Moore and you can forget about her as Laura Petrie or Mary Richards for even a moment, she's got it right.
Moore gets it very right in "Stolen Babies," a made-for-cable movie at 9 tonight on Lifetime. She gets it so right, in fact, her performance dwarfs everything else and more or less makes chop suey out of the dramatic arc of the movie. The end result is a failed movie, but a performance worth going out of your way to see.
"Stolen Babies" is yet another docudrama. This one, the producers tell us, is only "inspired by real events." In the lexicon of docudrama, "inspired by" means the film is even less factual than one "based on" real events.
The inspiration for "Stolen Babies" is the case of Georgia Tann, who ran a highly unethical adoption home in Tennessee during the 1930s and '40s. The misery she created by illegally giving children up for adoption and then destroying records of their birth parents was the subject of stories on "60 Minutes" and elsewhere.
Moore plays Tann and does so much with the character that you can't take your eyes off her when she's on-screen and you can't stop wondering what kind of evil she's up to when she's off-screen. It's a case of the villain's stealing the show from the heroine.
Lea Thompson -- as Annie Beales, heroine and crusading social worker -- doesn't give up the game to Moore without a fight. A talented actress, Thompson works to make Beales, who ultimately brings Tann down, the center of viewer interest.
But, in the end, the script and Moore's performance do her in. The script leaves Beales generally speechless in her scenes of confrontation with Tann. The villain, meanwhile, gets line after line that showcases her Iago-like intelligence.
Left standing there toe-to-toe with Moore, there's little Thompson can do with her character but try to look alternately intimidated and determined. They don't award Emmys for that.
Moore probably will win an Emmy or an Ace Award for her performance in "Stolen Babies." The final scene, which is meant to take the focus away from Tann and put it back on Beales and the child-victims, is an effective one. It might even make you cry. But it's Tann you'll be thinking about as the final credits roll -- wishing you knew more about her, wondering what made her tick, replaying her speeches in your mind for clues to her inner life.
It's a triumph for Moore. But less Moore would have made a more successful film.