THE CRITICAL VIEW : 30 of the Best From an Uneven Collection


Prejudice is hard to kick.

In some circles, for example, television movie remains a term of derision. It’s the industry’s equivalent of a racial slur.

Siskel and Ebert, TV’s syndicated movie critics, are among the worst offenders, their ultimate putdown being “It reminded me of a TV movie”--as if anything made for the small screen were necessarily inferior.

Thumbs down to that.

Although most movies made for television are as bad as most movies made for theatrical release (which is pretty bad), a review of the last 25 years finds many that were outstanding.


The best TV movies are generally equal to the cream of theatrical releases. It’s how they’re presented--on a small screen, almost always fragmented by commercials--and how they’re watched--at home, where kids yell and phones ring--that makes them seem inferior to their threatrical counterparts. They’re not.

Here is one man’s “Top 30” list.

What constitutes a TV movie? The pocket definition here is a self-contained, one-part production that is not a play. That may be too narrow for some tastes, too broad for others.

A few movies make the list chiefly because of their historical significance or because they’re considered landmarks. The rest are here based solely on quality.

It should be noted that only one pure comedy is included. That’s because TV movies are rarely comedies, and those that are comedies are rarely funny.

What is most striking about the list is the predominance of movies about issues--sometimes controversial ones--an area where supposedly timid TV has a big lead over theatrical movies, if only because issues are very promotable and TV is very promotion minded. Typically in a TV movie, the issue ends up devouring the dramatic elements of the entire story, but that was not the case with the issue movies listed here.

When it comes to years, 1974 and 1984 (each with five movies making the list) stand out.

The movies, chronologically:

“Brian’s Song” (1970). Although vastly overrated as drama, this account of the friendship between Chicago Bears teammates Gayle Sayers, played by Billy Dee Williams, and dying Brian Piccolo, played by James Caan, was very moving and marked the TV-movie genre’s first giant step toward legitimacy.

“That Certain Summer” (1972). This fine movie was noteworthy for its masculine depiction of gay lovers, played by Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook, one of whom had to explain his homosexuality to his young son. The real stars were director Lamont Johnson and writers Richard Levinson and William Link. There was no real display of affection between Sheen and Holbrook, however; 1972 was too early for that.

“The Marcus-Nelson Murders” (1973). Undoubtedly the best movie pilot for a series ever made, this first-rate thriller, based on a real case, introduced America to a cop named Kojak, conferred stardom on Telly Savalas and won deserved Emmys for writer Abby Mann and director Joseph Sargent. Although it had its moments, “Kojak” the series never lived up to its pilot.

“The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman” (1974). The history of slavery was vividly relived through the memories of a fictional 110-year-old woman beautifully played by Cicely Tyson in a story adapted for TV by Tracy Keenan Wynn and directed by John Korty. The climactic scene, when Miss Jane defiantly drank from a “whites-only” water fountain, was one of TV’s most memorable moments in one of TV’s most memorable movies.

“A Case of Rape” (1974). Elizabeth Montgomery played the rape victim in a ground breaking story that, although dramatically flawed, was far and away TV’s most sensitive and honest portrayal of rape and its impact to date.

“The Execution of Private Slovik” (1974). This reunion of actor Martin Sheen, director Lamont Johnson and writers Richard Levinson and William Link from “That Certain Summer” produced an achingly grim and meaningful version of William Bradford Huie’s book about the only American soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. Sheen excelled as Eddie Slovik (who faced a firing squad in 1945), getting fine support from Mariclare Costello and Ned Beatty. The chilling climax was one of the most powerful execution scenes ever filmed.

“F. Scott Fitzgerald and ‘The Last of the Belles’ ” (1974). Richard Chamberlain, Blythe Danner, David Huffman and Susan Sarandon starred in a haunting account that captured the ambiguity and melancholia of Scott and his wife, Zelda.

“The Law” (1974). TV viewers got their first big dose of Judd Hirsch here as an unglamorous public defender in a tough and compelling film, directed by John Badham, which exposed the ugly underbelly of the criminal justice system.

“The Migrants” (1974). A stretching Ron Howard showed that he had range beyond situation comedy and Cloris Leachman was brilliant in this searing adaptation of a Tennessee Williams story about the plight of migrant farm workers. In subject matter, there’s been nothing to equal it since.

“Hustling” (1975). Gail Sheehy’s book about the grimy world of prostitution lost some steam in the transition to television. But this controversial movie, centering on Jill Clayburgh as a hooker and Lee Remick as a Sheehy-like reporter, was well executed and was bold for its time.

“Love Among the Ruins” (1975). A dream collaboration--with Katharine Hepburn as an aging actress and Laurence Olivier as a barrister who was her lover of years ago--yielded sweet results in an utterly charming romantic comedy that earned Emmys for its two stars, director George Cukor and writer James Costigan.

“Queen of the Stardust Ballroom” (1975). Maureen Stapleton and Charles Durning were impeccable in a lovely romance about a grandmother and a mailman who met at one of those old-fashioned ballrooms that once were visited by big bands. Sam O’Steen was the director for this lilting, dancing story that was poetic, sweet and emotional without being maudlin.

“Farewell to Manzanar” (1976). Beautifully acted and filmed, this was one of TV’s little-noticed treasures, a simply devastating account of a real-life Japanese-American family’s internment in the United States during World War II. In the capable hands of director John Korty, a family’s plight became a haunting metaphor for an American tragedy. “Farewell to Manzanar” should be returned to TV again and again.

“Eleanor and Franklin: The White House Years” (1977). It’s hard to imagine a more scintillating screen biography than this James Costigan-written movie--unless it was “Eleanor and Franklin,” the previous year’s two-part account that drew heavily on Joseph P. Lash’s acclaimed book while carrying the Roosevelts through Franklin’s death. Both Emmy-winning productions were directed by Daniel Petrie and featured superior work by Edward Herrmann as Franklin and a soaring performance by Jane Alexander as Eleanor.

“Minstrel Man” (1977). Directed by William A. Graham and written by Esther and Richard Shapiro, this intense, often-angry, socially conscious story about black minstrels at the turn of the century was as movingly rendered as it was obscure. Although getting scant attention, it at least gave Glynn Turman a rare role worthy of his talent.

“A Question of Love” (1978). Honest portrayals of homosexual relationships have not come easily to television, but this heart-felt story based on an actual case was surely an exception. Gena Rowlands was outstanding as a lesbian involved in a custody fight with her former husband, and Jane Alexander effectively played her supportive companion.

“Friendly Fire” (1979). The real-life fight of rural Kansans Peg and Gene Mullins to determine the reason for their son’s death in Vietnam was fashioned into a devastating, acutely honest drama by director David Greene and scriptwriter Fay Kanin. Less about Vietnam than about government rigidity and insensitivity, Emmy-winning “Friendly Fire” proved Carol Burnett’s worth as a dramatic actress, but it was Ned Beatty who shone brightest as the quietly suffering Gene.

“Amber Waves” (1980). Set in the Midwest, this poignant, simply told story by Ken Trevey was both a celebration of courage and honesty and an unforgettable lesson in basic Americana. The performances, especially by Mare Winningham and the very underrated Dennis Weaver, were superb.

“Who Am I This Time?” (1982). Susan Sarandon and Christopher Walken played members of a small-town theater group who became sweethearts in this offbeat delight directed by Jonathan Demme. Sarandon was appealing as always. But it was Walken’s character--a terror in front of the footlights but tongue-tied and painfully shy off stage--who gave the story its unusual edge.

“Special Bulletin” (1983). The central issue was nuclear terrorism and the related issue media performance in an inventive political drama that was shot on videotape by director Edward Zwick and so resembled an actual newscast that NBC insisted on running periodic disclaimers to guard against viewers believing that it was real. The compelling style of writers Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz (who would later collaborate on creating “thirtysomething”) was matched by substance, making “Special Bulletin” the season’s most profound nuclear-disaster movie, even though the controversial “The Day After” had a higher profile.

“A Christmas Carol” (1984). Here was a fuller and more fascinating telling of the Charles Dickens classic than even the famous 1951 feature with Alistair Simm. With Clive Donner directing, George C. Scott became the most interesting and believable Scrooge yet.

“The Dollmaker” (1984). Jane Fonda may be right in rating her work in this Emmy-winning movie her finest ever. She gave a bravura performance as a rural Kentucky woman adrift in Detroit during World War II. Equally impressive were Levon Helm as her hillbilly husband and the entire Daniel Petrie-directed production, which turned tragedy into a celebration of the human spirit.

“An Englishman Abroad” (1984). Expertly mounted by John Schlesinger, Alan Bennett’s mostly truthful account of actress Coral Browne’s 1958 chance meeting with famed British defector Guy Burgess in Moscow was thoroughly charming, absolutely fascinating and just a little bit sad. Browne played her feisty self and Alan Bates was stellar as the cynical, slovenly, frayed Philby, who convinced the touring actress to order him a proper suit of clothes from his old tailor upon her return to London.

“Sakharov” (1984). Pay cable makes the list with HBO’s absorbing account of the pre- glasnost trials of Soviet dissident couple Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner, with Jack Gold’s bold direction and David Rintels’ fine script given added resonance by powerful performances from Jason Robards and Glenda Jackson in the lead roles.

“Something About Amelia” (1984). Ted Danson, Glenn Close and Roxana Zal were thoroughly convincing as a middle-class family in havoc over the father’s longterm molestation of his daughter. A sensitive, intelligent treatment of a subject that had been taboo on TV, William Hanley’s family horror story was at once enraging and moving. More than anything, however, it was a consciousness raiser, showing the main perpetrators of incest to be not wild-eyed maniacs, but members of so-called normal society.

“An Early Frost” (1984). Here was another bold breakthrough for TV, an eloquent account of the upheaval in a family that learns simultaneously that a son is not only gay, but also has AIDS. Aidan Quinn as the stricken young man and Ben Gazzara as his jolted father were especially memorable in this John Erman-directed story that demonstrated that those with AIDS are not its only victims.

“Love Is Never Silent” (1985). Nor was this Emmy-winning movie, even though much of it dealt with the world of the deaf. Superlative performances by Mare Winningham as a woman emotionally trapped by her deaf parents, and hearing-impaired Phyllis Frelich and Ed Waterstreet as the parents, brought out the best in Darlene Craviotto’s script and Joseph Sargent’s direction.

“Promise” (1986). The brilliant James Woods was never better--and that says a lot--than as a schizophrenic who becomes a burden to his brother, nicely played by James Garner, in this exquisitely tender story about latent love and devotion. In a sense, Woods’ extraordinary performance, as a man not emotionally fit to live among regular society, was even more challenging than Dustin Hoffman’s not-disimilar role in “Rain Man.” Also meriting cudos were Glenn Jordan’s direction, Richard Friedenberg’s script and Piper Laurie’s work in a small supporting role.

“Seize the Day” (1986). An under-publicized rendition of Saul Bellow’s novel became a tour de force for Robin Williams as the desperate, emotionally drowning, self-victimizing Tommy Wilhelm. Joseph Wiseman and Jerry Stiller gave excellent supporting performances in this gem of a story, directed by Fielder Cook.

“LBJ: The Early Years” (1987). Three decades of someone as readily identifiable as Lyndon Johnson are easy to caricature and difficult to portray with nuance. Yet Randy Quaid’s performance here was as towering as LBJ himself, bigger than life, yet human enough to be intensely real.