Mother-Daughter Tales Minus Ricki, Sally and Sleaze

All women become like their mother. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his.

--Oscar Wilde

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Television is nothing if not a big, eclectic gumbo.

"The Story of Mothers & Daughters" is tonight's ABC documentary that sets a high standard for warmth and sensitivity. It's a lovely, unabashedly sentimental hour that brims with insights, emotion and honest tears, a film of many voices--some laughing, some sad, some poignant, none shrieking.

Not that viewers of daytime talk shows will much care, for they already know what's what about family values. Week after week on this barren moonscape, they see mothers accuse their 14-year-old daughters of dressing like hookers and 14-year-old daughters accuse their mothers of dressing like hookers.

Or in the case of "Ricki Lake" last week, it was a pubescent mother angry at her own mother for wanting her not to move out of the house with her 3-month-old daughter.

With a topic of kids seeking "emancipation" from parents, the show ran occasional factoids noting celebrities who fled home in their teens and later made good, almost as if encouraging early separation. So you could see why 14-year-old Donielle was ticked off at her mother and sought freedom. "She want me to do the dishes when she say do the dishes. She tries to tell me how to raise my daughter. I know how to raise a child. I baby-sitted before."

It was Ricki, up to her earlobes in her own facile, self-righteous factoids, who had to set the child-mother straight. "I think you have to thank your lucky stars that you have a mother who is willing to stand by you and help you take care of that child. Shame on you!"

Applause thundered through the studio. A member of the audience rose to tell Ricki: "Her mother should have popped her in the mouth."

On now to kindler, gentler "Sally Jessy Raphael," whose topic recently was "Your affair's tearing our family apart." Her young voice cracking, Frances, 15, painfully recalled the night when, at age 5, she discovered her mother in bed with her father's best friend. The mother watched and listened passively backstage, visible to viewers on a split screen.

Seated beside her father, Frances began to weep.

Wearing her usual motherly compassion and tenderness, that shameless phony Sally asked an assistant to hand Frances a tissue to dab away the tears. Sally wondered why Frances wanted to see her mother now after a separation of three years. "To tell her how much she hurt me, and she didn't care about me," answered Frances. "I know she probably won't never change, but I want her to try."

Out bounded the mother on cue, seating herself beside Frances, who was now flanked by both divorced parents. "You're nothing but a whore!" the father shouted across his daughter. "You're a liar!" the mother fired back.

Deeply offended, the refined Sally just had to speak. "It is not right for this child or any child to hear language like this," she admonished the parents. Of course, if young Frances had not been booked on the show to tell her story on behalf of pumping up ratings, she would not have been present to hear the foul-speak that so upset poor, angst-ridden Sally.

Back on planet Earth, meanwhile, try not to miss the gallery of lives and emotions in "The Story of Mothers & Daughters" from Gary Weimberg, Catherine Ryan and Judith Leonard, a rare instance of a major network airing a documentary made by independent filmmakers.

More than a mere film, though, "The Story of Mothers & Daughters" may be a marketing phenomenon in the making, with the TV program arriving in conjunction with the publication of a related book of photographs, a cookbook and various other product tie-ins. In addition, a longer version of the documentary is headed for theatrical release, and the producers hope they have a "The Story of Mothers & Daughters" TV series in their future.

Here's one yea vote.

Television is at its best when tapping the viewer's own experience in evoking thoughts related to what's on the screen. It's curious what pops into your head during this hour, from such movies about mother-daughter relations as "Secrets & Lies" and "The Joy Luck Club" to the terrible loss of Loretta Thomas Davis, whose 17-year-old daughter, Corrie Williams, a high school senior in Compton, was killed in January by a gunman while on a crowded bus in Watts, only hours before the death of Ennis Cosby.

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Perhaps there are photos of Loretta and Corrie like those in the remarkable album of mother-daughter candid shots that open this program.

More than 50 women are featured during the hour, lots of them talking heads dramatically lit against black backgrounds. You get much more than mere sound bites, though. The range of feelings expressed and their depth are what give the film its vibrancy and credibility, all of them structured in chapters that represent the full cycle of life from "Birth" to "Death and Renewal."

Some of the relationships here are close, others distant. There are lights of lives, but also festering open sores, with some of the subjects speaking with stunning candor, but never shrilly or bombastically, in contrast to the noisy explosions on daytime TV.

One woman discloses that she was the product of date rape. Another says she fears having children "because I see parts of my mother in me. I have seen some of the pain I have caused my mother, and I have felt some of the pain she has caused me. And I don't want that repeated."

A mother says her 20ish daughter intensely dislikes her. The daughter: "She starts crying. I hate it when she cries. I don't want to deal with it."

A 27-year-old Chinese American says she has hugged her mother just five times in her life because the older woman's cultural upbringing dictates against displays of affection. "So I take her to portrait studios and put my arms around her. That way she won't get embarrassed. To be intimate for the camera is an excuse to get close."

Especially tender is a vignette about Corbett, a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair, and her adopted 3-year-old daughter who has cerebral palsy and who is also in a wheelchair. And in another section, adorable little ballerina Munchkins explain "why I love my mommy." Equally sweet are the mother-daughter restaurateurs who work together, fight together, then make up.

Most of all, this film is about passages and continuity, one life bleeding into another across generations, for the worse or for the better. Says one woman: "As I get older, I become more like my mother. I hope I become more like my mother." Meanwhile, a daughter who has lost her mother to lung cancer recalls "her last smile." And then, the ultimate connection. "My child," a young woman says, "will know my mother just by knowing me."

The program ends, the lump in your throat remains. Where are Sally's tissues when you really need them?

* "The Story of Mothers & Daughters" airs at 8 tonight on ABC (Channel 7). The network has rated it TV-PG (may not be suitable for young children).

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