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A Look at 1991’s Best TV Movies Based on Real Events : Television: One critic’s view of the gems, curiosities and stinkers that paraded across the tube in 1991.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Movies produced for TV in 1991 were dominated more than ever by the ubiquitous docudrama. More ideas for television movies originated in the columns of newspapers than anywhere else.

Adaptations of true-life stories, most of them about crime and violence, are not necessarily life-threatening to the form, but there’s a sameness about the TV movie format--the individual-in-jeopardy yarn--that’s discouraging to creativity.

That’s one conclusion I’ve drawn after watching 70 of them during 1991--enough to blink wide-eyed at the patterns, gems, curiosities and stinkers that paraded across the tube.

In a tip of the hat to the genre, here are some ruminations on the notable achievements of the year in TV movieland (among the ones I saw, obviously):

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* Best Crime Movie Made for Television: The four-hour “And the Sea Will Tell” (CBS). Sex, envy and violence on the shores of a Pacific lagoon, with a terrific script by James Henerson (based, naturally, on a true-life story).

* Best Biographical Picture: In a year of dramas about Josephine Baker, Jimmy Baker, James Brady, Gen. George Custer, Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Onassis, Mark Twain, Jill Ireland, and Lucy Ball and Desi Arnaz, among others, it was the comparatively unfamiliar life story of a 1930s Hollywood actress, “White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd” (NBC), starring Loni Anderson, that was the biggest hoot of them all.

Best Actress: Olympia Dukakis, hands down, for superlative work in not one but three movies, all dealing with the plight of an aging, unflinching woman: “The Last Act Is a Solo” (A&E;), “Fire in the Dark” (CBS) and “Lucky Day” (ABC).

Best Actor: Jason Robards as the aging Samuel Clemens in “Mark Twain and Me” (Disney Channel).

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Most Bizarre Casting: Christopher Reeve, creepy as a demented pedophile in “Bump in the Night” (CBS).

Best Historical Drama: A tie--"Mission of the Shark” (CBS), about the sinking of the Indianapolis, a long-buried tragedy too shameful for postwar euphoria, and “Darrow” as in Clarence (PBS), a nourishing turn-of-the century slice of L.A. history.

Best Line of Dialogue: “Where is it written that you have to love your children?” From Harold Gould as a harried retiree who doesn’t even like his children, in Ronald Ribman’s felicitous story about senior citizens, “The Sunset Gang” (PBS).

Best Actress Playing a Cold-Bloodied Vixen: Lesley Ann Warren, for her tangy tart in “A Seduction in Travis County” (CBS).

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Best Performance by an Actor Throwing His Image Overboard: A tie--Tony Danza, a murderous small-time drug dealer in “Dead and Alive” (ABC), and John Stamos, a deranged killer in “Captive” (ABC).

Most Wrenching Murder Scene: The multiple assassination-type slayings in the real-life “Aftermath: A Test of Love” (CBS), in an exceptional case of violence that was dramatically justified as staged by director Glenn Jordan.

Best Production Based on a Short Story: The deliriously good “Hollow Boy” (PBS), from Hortense Calisher, directed like a prose poem by Noel Black.

Best Production Based on a Novel: “The Long Road Home” (CBS), from Ronald B. Taylor’s book, featuring a career-best performance by Tom Harmon as an Okie in the Depression-era saga.

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Best Production of a Theatrical Play: “Grapes of Wrath,” from the theatrical company Steppenwolf (PBS).

Best Acting Week for a Husband and Wife: Jessica Tandy in “The Story Lady” (NBC) and Hume Cronyn in “Christmas on Division Street” (CBS), who, appearing within a week of one another, brightened up Christmas immensely.

Most Painterly Imagery: The great, green rippling plains, field of marigolds and ferocious storm in “Sarah, Plain and Tall” (CBS), as shot by cinematographer Michael Fash.

Best Western: “Conagher” (TNT), created by Sam Elliot, Katharine Ross and Jeffrey M. Meyer.

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Best Disaster Movie: “Chernobyl: The Final Warning” (TNT), our best answer yet to what happened after the explosion, with a solid script by Ernest Kinoy.

Most Versatile Director: George Kaczender, for segueing from the down and nasty “A Seduction in Travis County” to the heart-melting “Christmas on Division Street.”

Best Tinseltown Movies: “Lucy and Desi” (CBS) and “Hyde in Hollywood” (PBS).

Strongest Feminist Movie: “A Room of One’s Own” (PBS), with Eileen Atkins playing Virginia Woolf.

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Best Unraveling of Female Bonding: “Dead Silence” (Fox), boozing coeds in a convertible run over a homeless hitchhiker and try to cover up the crime.

Most Underrated Movie: The taut, suspenseful “In Broad Daylight” (NBC), written by William Henley and directed by James Sadwith, with a riveting portrayal of a sociopath by Brian Dennehy.

Most Experimental Movie: The uncanny dramatic monologue by Edward Herrmann in the groves of Academe story “The End of the Sentence” (PBS).

Most Overused Plot Point: Abused women overcoming adversity.

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Most Debauched Performance: Peter O’Toole as a ravaged, opium-addicted aristocrat in “Dark Angel” (PBS).

Best Portrayal of a Real-Life Villainess: A tie--the sexually avaricious Helen Hunt in “Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Smart Story” (CBS), and baby killer Susan Ruttan in “Deadly Medicine” (NBC).

Quickest Adaptation of a News Event: “Murder in New Hampshire: The Pamela Smart Story” (CBS), which aired six months to the day from the time of the verdict.

Best Study of Understated Racism: “Living a Lie” (NBC), which focused on bigotry aimed at Mexican-Americans.

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Best Romance: “Robin Hood” (Fox).

Best Immigrant Drama: “Hot Summer Winds” (PBS), fragile as a haiku, about Japanese immigrants in the San Joaquin Valley in the 1930s.

Most Ambitious Foreign Locale: “Which Way Home” (TNT). Boat people odyssey shot in Thailand, New Zealand and Australia.

Best Contemporary History: “Never Forget” (TNT). A post-war Holocaust nightmare, with superb script by Joseph Sargent, and Leonard Nimoy as quietly heroic, real-life Auschwitz survivor Mel Mermestein.

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Biggest Stinkers: Danielle Steel’s “Palomino” (NBC), “Eyes of a Witness” (CBS), “The Summer My Father Grew Up” (NBC), “Lies Before Kisses” (CBS), “Dead on the Money” (TNT), and “Sleepers” (PBS).


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