Jennifer Levin was victimized twice--once when Robert Chambers killed her and again when her reputation was dirtied during his trial.
"I've tried to clear a little of the mud off her," said John Herzfeld, co-writer (with Irv Roud) and director of "The Preppie Murder," the ABC movie airing at 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.
That he does in this vexing, powerful and heartbreaking--yet strangely enigmatic--docudrama, as television continues to feed America's lust for sensational crime stories.
Crime is the dark shadow spreading across TV. The small screen is now the nation's rap sheet, offering tragedy as entertainment via tabloid programs and lurid dramas that mindlessly regurgitate or distort front-page stories. You want to yell "Freeze!" and if they don't, blow them all away.
Not only is "The Preppie Murder" different from most TV crime stories, however, it's also told with far more skill and care and has the added advantage of excellent performances and a haunting musical score.
Levin was a pretty, spirited 18-year-old from a well-to-do family who was excited about attending college in the fall. Prep school graduate Chambers was a handsome ladies' man, drug-user and thief who stole money and credit cards from the apartments of the young women with whom he slept.
Both were part of the East Side Manhattan singles scene, frequented a trendy bar named Dorrian's Red Hand and briefly became lovers. On the night of Aug. 26, 1986, they entered Central Park together, but only Chambers came out. Levin's battered, strangled body was discovered in the morning.
The next day, after initially denying involvement, the 6-foot-5 Chambers confessed to killing the diminutive Levin, claiming he reacted instinctively when she hurt him during "rough sex."
His "rough sex" defense was--and remains--a hard sell. Fearing a hung jury, however, prosecutor Linda Fairstein allowed Chambers to plead guilty to the lesser charge of manslaughter after the trial. He was sentenced to a prison term of five to 15 years.
Although "The Preppie Murder" has the lives of Levin (Lara Flynn Boyle) and Chambers (William Baldwin) merging in the moneyed set's fast lane of booze, drugs and one-night stands, Levin's life style is clearly the more conventional of the two in this scenario. However, drugs and dishonesty do not a killer make, and there is nothing in Chambers' behavior toward Levin or anyone else, as depicted here, that prepares you for his violent slaying of Levin. On the contrary, he is almost eerily calm and slow to anger.
The observations of detective Mike Sheehan (Danny Aiello), who helped break the case, underpin much of Herzfeld's account, which blasts the smear tactics of Chambers' lawyer, Jack Litman (William Devane). It was Litman who frustrated Fairstein (Joanna Kerns) and defended his client by attempting to put the dead victim on trial. Litman's contention that Levin had a "kinky and aggressive sex diary"--a charge trumpeted by the tabloid press--was unproved and rejected by the judge. But the stigma lingered.
Not spared by Herzfeld either are the gangs of predatory media who performed more like muggers than journalists in their coverage of the killing and trial. They're shown here engulfing and picking at Levin's family like vultures at a carcass. The animalistic behavior of many reporters covering the Zsa Zsa Gabor traffic-stop case is reason enough to believe that the movie's portrayal of the media in the Levin-Chambers case is on target.
Ironically, it is one of the tabloid press--reporter Rafael Abramovitz of the syndicated "A Current Affair"--who is celebrated here for obtaining a shocking videotape of Chambers that was made when Chambers was out on bail before his trial. Aired on "A Current Affair" after he was sentenced, it showed Chambers cavorting with scantily clad girls and twisting off the head of a doll in his hand, saying, "Oops, I think I killed it."
In a vivid expression of the way TV often overlaps itself, "The Preppie Murder" ends by re-creating the Chambers videotape--a docudrama simulating a tabloid showing a videotape of reality.
Once Chambers confesses, "The Preppie Murder" flattens. His trial is too truncated to convey the full screeching impact of Litman's tactics and the back-room legal maneuvers that appeared to soften the outcome in Chambers' favor. Nor can Herzfeld provide even a glimmer of insight into the actions of Chambers, who never ceases being a puzzle.
"That's because he is," Herzfeld said. "No one knows him. This kid is a mystery." By not solving the mystery, "The Preppie Murder" falls short.
On another level, "The Preppie Murder" is much more successful. What it does best is offer Levin and her suffering family as a tragic, aching metaphor for all crime victims. The family's excruciating pain--compared with Chambers' vacant, unfazed expression--just tears you apart.
"What I was attempting to do was illuminate something that infuriates me personally," Herzfeld said. "Litman used Jennifer, and that's wrong. Victims have no rights when they die." In this case, a victim was smeared as a sex-lusting tart after she died.
Herzfeld relayed a story told him by Sheehan. It seems Sheehan was in a bar during the time of the trial when he was approached by a police captain he knew. "Poor kid," the captain said about Chambers. "I've got three sons myself." When Sheehan asked why his sympathies weren't with Levin, the captain replied knowingly: "Oh, you know what happened there."
"The Preppie Murder" carries a disclaimer saying that "dramatic license" was taken in the "creation of certain scenes." However, Herzfeld maintains that everything in the movie happened as depicted except for a composite scene showing the opposing lawyers arguing over whether Litman should be allowed to read Levin's diary.
Others--including Sheehan and Linda Wolfe, author of the just-published "Wasted: The Preppie Murder"--are debating the facts of the case. A San Francisco talk show was their stage Thursday, and surely other shows will be just as receptive, as crime marches on.
To his credit, meanwhile, Herzfeld does not inject cheap titillation by depicting the killing of Levin by Chambers. "That's because no one knows what happened," he said.
Or why it happened, unfortunately.