TV Reviews : 'Starving Class' a Better Play Than Film

Playwright Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class," a tragicomedy about a family self-destructing on a tumbledown farm, won critical praise on stage, but it sure doesn't work as a movie.

Produced for the big screen, the production instead is getting its unveiling on Showtime. It's not surprising that a cable network picked it up because the movie does star two estimable actors: James Woods and Kathy Bates.

Woods plays a drunken father who has let his decaying farm go to hell. It's a role made for him. Cursing, boozing and banging around his bleak, rural farm in a battered old pink Cadillac, Woods' farmer is rotted to the bone.

The principal characters--including Bates' noisy, careworn mom, who dreams of selling the farm and going to Paris, and two teen-age children (Kristin Fiorella and Henry Thomas)--are numbed, wretched and trapped.

On stage these characters mirror a family of ghosts that might be sprouts off a Eugene O'Neill family tree. But, as a movie, the thematic resonance is unfelt, including the great sin of selling off family land to commercial poachers.

The result turns grueling. Metaphorically, Shepard was writing about a "starving class" hungry for moral and physical sustenance. Here, they're just snarly, messy farmers.

G. Michael McClary's direction misses Shepard's rhythms and Bruce Beresford's screenplay fails to highlight the playwright's tone and idioms. Scenes in a rowdy country saloon (featuring Lou Gossett Jr. in a throwaway part) resemble outtakes from a biker movie.

Of course, anyone attempting to make a movie out of a Shepard play has to be a touch daft to begin with. Shepard, who wrote this 1976 play as the first of a Western "family trilogy" (followed by his Pulitzer Prize-winning "Buried Child" and then "True West"), essentially resists transference to the screen.

* "Curse of the Starving Class" airs at 10 tonight on Showtime and repeats Feb. 17.

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