TV REVIEW : 'Bill W.' and AA Make the Rounds

Times Television Critic

A rare major actor who works in both television and theatrical movies, James Woods is almost as prolific as he is proficient.

Here he is this time tearing up the small screen as Bill Wilson, co-founder (with Dr. Bob Smith) of Alcoholics Anonymous, in the ABC movie "My Name Is Bill W." at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.

Explosive and unpredictable, Woods is utterly convincing in this drunk's-eye-view of the world from the bottoms up, a coughing, choking, sputtering, red-eyed wreck of a man who is able to rebound from the gutter only after he begins openly commiserating with fellow alcoholics. Hence, AA.

And JoBeth Williams is sterling as Bill's suffering wife, Lois, who was instrumental in starting Al-Anon, the support group for families of habitual drinkers.

Both, however, are sabotaged by butchered editing and a final 20 minutes so bungled that recommending this movie, produced and directed by Daniel Petrie, becomes a close call.

The story is told in flashback, with Bill emerging from service in World War I as a dynamic young entrepreneur with big ambition and talent, but an even bigger problem--drinking. He rides high on the stock market, only to go down in the 1929 crash. As an out-of-control lush who had made his wife miserable, however, he had been descending for years.

William G. Borchert's script doesn't push Bill too fast. Wheezing and self-deluding, Bill slides toward rock bottom ever so gradually so that you can feel him dying inside. Even after he acknowledges his problem, the ugly, self-destructive boozer in him fades just as slowly. Rationally and calmly he analyzes his alcoholism and the guilt feelings it produces, then adds: "But in spite of all that, what I want right now more than anything else is another drink."

The irony of Bill Wilson's story is that his ultimate sobriety becomes a wedge that continues to distance him from Lois, for only in spiritual collaboration with another alcoholic (played by James Garner, Woods' co-star in "The Promise") does Bill attain renewal and the impetus to form AA.

The good marks end here.

Later, there's a price to be paid on the cutting room floor for Bill's unrushed early evolution. Unlike most TV movies, which have to be padded to fill oversized time slots, "My Name Is Bill W." has the look of a deformed three-hour story that's been clumsily amputated at the knees to make it fit into two hours of air time. The narrative is so unsmooth and awkwardly episodic in parts that you'd think it was edited with the jagged edge of a broken whiskey bottle. And the final portion is so stumpy--with crucial parts of the story seemingly hacked off arbitrarily--that nothing seems to make sense.

Bill recovers, but the movie about him ends up crippled and debilitated.

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