'Heidi Chronicles' finally becomes a film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A half-dozen years ago, when the Heidi of the hour wasn't a madam but a Wendy Wasserstein play, "The Heidi Chronicles" captured the angst of a generation.

The tale of a 40ish urbanite struggling to balance her personal longings with her commitment to the women's movement, it was one of the relatively few dramas written by a woman to achieve mainstream success.

Now "The Heidi Chronicles" is being made into a TV movie by the TNT cable channel. The project, which wrapped earlier this month, is scheduled to air in late 1995.

The story spans 20 years, from the 1970s up to the 1990s, and features Jamie Lee Curtis as the titular art historian. Tom Hulce plays Heidi Holland's best pal, Peter, and Peter Friedman reprises his Broadway role as her intermittent love interest, Scoop. The cast also includes Kim Cattrall, Sharon Lawrence ("NYPD Blue"), Roma Maffia ("Chicago Hope") and Shari Belafonte.

Ms. Wasserstein's 1988 work spent 18 months on Broadway and won the 1989 Tony and the Pulitzer Prize. "This is the most celebrated play by a woman of this generation of writers," executive producer Michael Brandman says of the drama. "It's a trailblazer."

The play also irritated feminists, in part for calling into question the movement's advances. Critics argued that the scenario suggested that professionals such as Heidi couldn't possibly be happy and tacitly implied that a mate and child were necessary )) to a woman's fulfillment.

But those involved with bringing the work to the small screen see it differently. "I don't look at it as any sort of indictment of the women's movement," says Ms. Curtis, during location shooting here. "It's an indictment of its day."

That doesn't mean that we should now be shouting, "You've come a long way, baby."

"It's a promise of unity that was not realized," Ms. Curtis continues. "The advantages were supposed to allow us to have it all. I actually find it sad, poignant and true."

For Ms. Wasserstein, the ambivalence was and is the point. "Obviously, when I wrote it I felt great urgency and it was controversial," she says, speaking by phone from her New York home. "It was going back to a time when there was hopefulness."

Ms. Wasserstein initially tried to get "The Heidi Chronicles" made as a feature film rather than as a TV movie. Savoy Pictures Entertainment optioned the work and the playwright got busy on a screenplay, before, as she says, "it went to draftland and they sent it around."

When it came down to getting a green light, talks stalled. "There was always the thing about 'oh, it's a woman's movie,' " says Ms. Wasserstein. "It's so hard to get projects made that are about intelligent women."

Ms. Wasserstein also tried to go the same Public Broadcasting Service/"Great Performances" route she'd gone with her 1976 work, "Uncommon Women and Others," a work she wrote while a student at the Yale School of Drama and which was recently revived in New York.

WNET was the principal backer on that project and was to be on this one as well, but the New York PBS affiliate was unable to come up with the money.

Enter Mr. Brandman.

"I heard about it when there was an opportunity for the piece to be videotaped for 'Great Performances' and there were financing problems," he says. "I sounded Turner out unofficially and when there was interest, I contacted Wendy."

Then he won over Ms. Wasserstein. "My argument to Wendy was that a movie for television might reach a larger audience than just a taped special," Mr. Brandman says.

Mr. Brandman also presented a take on the material as something that spoke to more than the feminist pitfalls faced by Heidi and her peers. "I'm an old '60s radical and a lot of what we all feel about what we fought for in those days is contained in Heidi's disillusionment with where we actually have gotten to from where we were," he says.

"When she talks about feeling 'stranded,' that's a fairly universal perception," Mr. Brandman continues. "I don't know that it's limited only to the survivors of the women's movement."

Yet both playwright and leading actress stress that "The Heidi Chronicles" has important points to make specifically about feminism.

"Feminism was an idea that changed Heidi's life," Ms. Wasserstein says. "Similar challenges now present themselves in different ways. One can feel stranded for different reasons."

Heidi, for example, feels personally letdown by her cause.

"She feels empty," Ms. Curtis says of her character. "We had gotten this far and what did we get for it? I'm surprised how sad she is."

It is, however, an experience somewhat removed from Ms. Curtis' own. "I am five years younger than the generation of women who really did go through this," she says. "But I don't think you could take a woman who's 45 and ask her to play this part [on screen], with the bulk of the scenes at 18, 22, 34."

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