Already the subject of two books, Jessica Savitch now returns to TV posthumously in back-to-back programs on Lifetime.
"Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story" stars a peroxided Sela Ward ("Sisters") in a movie based on Gwenda Blair's book about the troubled NBC correspondent-anchorwoman who died in a 1983 auto accident after a stormy life and career on television.
Then comes "Intimate Portrait: Jessica Savitch," a Grinning Dog Pictures documentary that in part offers the perspective of Alanna Nash, author of a second book on Savitch.
One book and one program too many.
Savitch's career in TV news flamed briefly. She was a 35-year-old has-been professionally--undermined by self-destructive behavior and a network that asked her to be what she wasn't--when she and a friend died after the car he was driving overturned into the Delaware Canal in New Hope, Pa.
Written by Linda Bergman and directed by Peter Werner, "Almost Golden" follows the fast track of Savitch's career. Convincingly played by Ward, she's the brash, aggressive cub reporter at WHOU-TV in Houston, later the toast of Philadelphia and the ultimate celebrity anchor/journalist at KYW-TV after heeding advice to "look and talk like a movie star."
Then comes the call from NBC News, letting Savitch achieve her goal of making network by age 30.
That Savitch appeared largely responsible for her own miseries does not make her life less tragic. The print and TV biographies tell us that she was obsessively career-driven, becoming the archetypal insecure, manipulative, demanding, tantrum-throwing prima donna who wasn't very nice even when she was nice. She was crippled by cocaine, two brief, disastrous marriages and a lengthy, volatile involvement with TV journalist Ron Kershaw (Ron Silver), who reportedly beat her up.
Although the documentary is a somewhat fuller, softer account, the movie presents Savitch as mostly unsympathetic, yet another TV personality with a star complex. The emphasis on that aspect of the story minimizes what should be the movie's overriding theme--that the business of TV news too often is illusion.
Savitch was part of that illusion, both as a local news star--where looks and personality were her fortune--and at NBC News, which hired her for those qualities, then immediately assigned her to cover the U.S. Senate, a beat for which she was totally unqualified. It was unfair both to her and to NBC viewers.
Yet even after labeling her a "$380,000-a-year incompetent reporter," NBC News executives awarded her a prestigious podium assignment at the 1980 Republican Convention, hoping simultaneously to expand her visibility and capitalize on her popularity.
The subtext here is how easily the public and others can be manipulated, for on the eve of her humiliating demotion to minor anchoring obscurity, Newsweek was calling Savitch "NBC's Golden Girl," and a survey would later rank her among the nation's most trusted TV news figures. Trusted because the camera loved her.
Even that quality could not withstand her cocaine addiction. "Almost Golden" builds to her crack-up on the air--which the documentary shows--as a glassy-eyed, thick-tongued, stammering Savitch is unable to finish anchoring even a 47-second news break.
As someone who broke female anchor barriers in local news, Savitch is recalled in some circles as being a campaigner for gender equality in newscasting. But she advanced for all the wrong reasons.
* "Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story" airs at 8 tonight on Lifetime, followed at 10 p.m. by "Intimate Portrait: Jessica Savitch."