TV REVIEW : Oscar Winners Rescue Lightweight 'Waltz'


"The West Side Waltz," airing tonight under the new "CBS Playhouse '90s" banner, is unblushingly contrived, with a scant plot and barely discernible dramatic tension.

But if believability wafts away on gossamer wings, the performers amuse. Headed by Shirley MacLaine and two other Oscar winners--Liza Minnelli and Kathy Bates--plus Jennifer Grey, Robert Pastorelli and a comic gaggle of veteran character actors, these pros may be covering old ground, but they're fun to watch.

Written and directed by Ernest Thompson ("On Golden Pond"), and based on his 1981 stage vehicle for Katharine Hepburn, this lightweight tale is about a crotchety, aging woman with crippling arthritis, a passion for Strauss waltzes and a fiercely independent spirit.

Progressing reluctantly from cane to wheelchair, Margaret Mary Elderdice (MacLaine), a widow of comfortable means, resists the well-intentioned offers of help from Cara (Minnelli), an emotionally needy, middle-aged single woman who plays the violin.

An offbeat, young would-be actress from Brooklyn (Grey) answers Margaret Mary's advertisement for a live-in companion and becomes the catalyst that opens up both older women to each other and to the life around them.

Bates, as a homeless woman named Mr. Goo, helps too, because this is a New York where everyone is cute and wise, from bag ladies and building supers with ill-fitting toupees to misfit loners, mechanics and actress-hopefuls with thick Brooklyn accents.

Not much emotion is invested in the tiny ups and downs that play like loosely connected scenes--everyone's pain is easily assuaged and MacLaine looks so terrific that even Margaret Mary's infirmity registers lightly. Rose-colored glasses are a prerequisite.

* "The West Side Waltz" airs at 9 tonight on CBS (Channel 2).

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