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History in the Remaking

Bruce Newman is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Among the interesting questions raised by “George Wallace,” a four-hour TV movie that begins next Sunday on TNT and concludes two nights later, is whether it is possible to slander a now-repentant segregationist. Not literally slander, of course. Slander in the important sense of the word.

That is not the only question, either. With a unanimity that is as impressive as it is rare among filmmakers, the movie’s star, Gary Sinise; director, John Frankenheimer; executive producer, Mark Carliner; and writer, Marshall Frady, agree there is one scene--and it takes almost the entire four hours of the film to get there--that made this dark chapter in American history worth resurrecting.

It is a scene in which Wallace, now a crippled penitent, comes to the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., where Martin Luther King Jr. had preached, to seek forgiveness for the race-baiting of more than a decade. The black congregants seem to forgive him, and so the question arises, after 3 hours and 50 minutes: Why can’t this film?

“I want to leave it open whether or not he should be forgiven for everything he did,” Frankenheimer says. “Just because you ask for forgiveness doesn’t mean you get it.”

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“Black people have largely forgiven him,” says Wallace’s son George Jr. from his office in Alabama. “He asked for forgiveness, and those he put in harm’s way have forgiven him. Our family and the black community in Alabama have moved forward together. I have trouble understanding why the bighearted liberals can’t do it.”

Wallace says his father, whose 79th birthday falls on the day between Parts 1 and 2 of the movie, has watched the last half of it.

“I think he’s saddened by what he’s seen so far,” the younger Wallace says. “The filmmakers had an agenda, and they’ve manifested it in this movie.”

“There was no agenda here but to present the truth,” counters producer Carliner. “When history deals you such a strong hand, you’re a fool not to play it.”

That may be the only thing upon which the filmmakers and the family can finally agree. Wallace’s still-formidable phalanx of supporters and apologists got a look at an early version of the film’s script and let roll a crimson tide of outrage and accusation. Fob James Jr., the state’s incumbent governor, went so far as to issue a press release denouncing the screenwriter as “a revolting, damnable liar.” Declaring the filmmakers “not fit to trod on Alabama soil,” James disinvited them from a location shoot that had been scheduled to last five days.

As a result, Frankenheimer ended up having to re-create in Los Angeles such infamous landmarks as the “schoolhouse doorway” at the University of Alabama, where Wallace stood to enforce his pledge of “segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” While shooting that pivotal scene, Sinise actually had to stand at the entrance of L.A.'s Museum of Science and Industry, looking vaguely as if he were trying to hold back a rising tide of 9-year-olds with diorama dreams.

None of that seemed to matter much to Frankenheimer, who made no attempt to disguise his delight at being back in the political fray, trading headlines with the broken Heart of Dixie himself. Just two days before filming began on the schoolhouse door scene, the New York Times carried a story in which Wallace had characterized the script based on his life as “falsehoods and lies,” thereby assuring the film’s status as “controversial.”

That was a label that many--though distinctly not all--of the film’s creators eagerly embraced.

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“With a movie like this you’ve got to get off the entertainment pages and onto the front page,” Frankenheimer said. “As far as I’m concerned, let them keep talking.”

Controversy was seen as a marketing tool that would raise the public’s awareness of a name many Americans under the age of 30 associate with a black comedian.

For biographer Frady, however, being called a liar by a fellow Southerner was an experience not entirely redeemed by the opportunity to help goose the ratings.

“My feeling was that this was not necessarily a circumstance to celebrate,” Frady said.

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Frady wrote most of the movie’s script from an earlier version written by Paul Monash, who had in turn adapted Frady’s own 1968 book “Wallace.” Frady had moved to Montgomery for nine months while researching the book and worked his way deep enough into Wallace’s inner circle that at one point he was invited to be “the Pierre Salinger of the Wallace administration,” a prospect too horrible for Frady to contemplate.

“By God, it was not all that different from drifting past the singing of the sirens!” Frady exclaims, drawing out sy-reens in his Georgia drawl.

When the Atlantic excerpted a section of the book devoted to Wallace’s first wife, Lurleen, who was herself elected governor of Alabama in 1967, Frady says, “I deemed it, at that point, properly politic to remove myself before that piece came out. That was late ’67, and I have not seen him since, have not talked with him since.”

The movie, however, follows Wallace until his public renunciation of segregation in 1974, two years after the assassination attempt by Arthur Bremer that left him paralyzed. One of the scenes to which Wallace’s supporters objected had him trying to throw himself off the porch of his political patriarch, former Gov. “Big Jim” Folsom, after Folsom had refused to see him.

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The end of that scene--which was shot but later cut--depicted what the Wallace camp characterized as a fictionalized suicide attempt. The filmmakers said it was a drop of only three or four feet, hardly enough to kill him--but that may have been splitting hairs because Wallace never went to Folsom’s house seeking forgiveness at all. In fact, an earlier scene in which Folsom comes to the governor’s mansion and attempts to abrade Wallace’s conscience after the bombing of a black church by shrieking, “George, me and you was populists together!” never happened either.

Sticklers might also object to a scene in which a black prison trustee named Archie (played by Clarence Williams III), who serves as the governor’s attendant, stands behind Wallace in the kitchen one night wielding an ice pick, while the governor rambles on wistfully about an “old colored handyman” he used to both love and oppress as a boy. It seems unfair to reveal the outcome of this luridly suspenseful moment, except to say that the Wallace family howled with outrage that it never happened, and the movie makers howled right back that of course it never happened, It’s a metaphor.

“What you want to do is find a way to illustrate the rage and frustration felt by the people who were most affected by him at that time,” Carliner explains. “And yet the only blacks who had personal contact with him were on the domestic staff. So how do you illustrate black rage?”

“We wanted Archie to be more than just a ‘Yessuh, nosuh’ figure,” Frady says. “We did not want this to be ‘Driving Mr. Wallace.’ ”

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The Wallace family has also expressed what Frady terms its “blowfish umbrage” at the resemblance between the loyal-but-murderous Archie--a state prison trustee--and Wallace’s actual longtime aide and friend, a black parolee named Eddie Holcey. The film deals with this in a disclaimer during the closing credits, noting that Archie was “created for dramatic purposes to reflect a viewpoint.” And while it is not specifically mentioned, all the members of Wallace’s political entourage depicted in the film, with the exception of his brother and an advisor named Billy Watson, are similarly contrived.

“Marshall has the conscience of a true journalist,” Carliner says. “So part of him is still becoming comfortable with the necessary license one has to take. He believes the scenes are truthful in the important sense of the word.”

“One begins to get a bit queasy with distinctions between facts and truth,” Frady acknowledges. “In principle, there is still something of an uneasiness about the [dramatic] form.” He mentions William Styron’s “Confessions of Nat Turner,” a historical novel about the bloody rampage of a slave in Virginia.

“That book is a meditation on history, and to a degree, that’s what this is,” Frady says. “I’ve always thought dramatizations can be more meaningful and truer than stenographic transcriptions. One senses in these when they’re wrong and vandalistically irresponsible in terms of history, and one senses when they’re right.

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“Owing to the serendipitous tumble of people that collected around this project, it finally arrives out of as fundamental a trueness--a trueness circumstantially, historically, symbolically--as the form in its fullest realizations has likely ever achieved.”

Oh.

For his part, Frankenheimer received the complaints coming from Alabama with characteristic bombast, striding around the set in a bush hat barking out orders, his style still sinewy 35 years after the release of “The Manchurian Candidate” and “Birdman of Alcatraz.” Frankenheimer, coming off a string of three straight Emmys as best director of a TV movie, said he was making a film about forgiveness, though he seemed to have little of it for either Wallace or his defenders.

“What we’re doing is the story of a racist,” Frankenheimer says while matching Sinise’s pose against an array of black-and-white news photos of Wallace in the schoolhouse doorway, chin out, poised on the threshold of history. “He was a modern-day Faust, the Richard III of this century. What he did was horrendous. You cannot excuse it.

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“In the ‘60s, I was actively opposed to anything that Wallace had to do with. I worked very closely with Bobby Kennedy, and Wallace was an anathema.”

Frankenheimer was waiting for Kennedy outside the Ambassador Hotel the night he was assassinated in 1968. The director had not been back to the hotel until the “George Wallace” production office was set up there.

“I’m doing a drama, and I feel that the scenes that I’m doing are symbolic of what happened,” he says. “I don’t have a transcript of what Wallace said in his bedroom, and I don’t want it. I don’t recall the New York Times going to interview Shakespeare to find out if Henry V really gave the St. Crispin’s Day speech. Or to interview Shaw about whether St. Joan really said all those things.”

The director went to Alabama to meet Wallace before starting the film but came away disappointed by what was left of the formerly fire-breathing grand dragon of the segregationist movement.

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“He’s really out of it now, almost totally deaf,” Frankenheimer says. “They have to write everything you say out for him. Then he mumbles something, and somebody translates it. What you do get are those burning eyes.”

If Wallace’s fires have remained banked inside a frozen stare since he left office for the final time a decade ago, Frankenheimer, at 66, attacked the film’s 45-day shooting schedule as if he were still conflating one of his groundbreaking “Playhouse 90" productions during TV’s Golden Age.

“This is not a guy who’s phoning it in,” Carliner said one night at the Selma (Avenue, not Alabama) Baptist Church in Hollywood as he watched Frankenheimer pacing and snapping his fingers nervously before shooting the climactic scene.

The night before, Frankenheimer had re-created the bedlam that had taken place the first time Wallace spoke at Harvard, and at 5:30 in the morning he was still whipping a rabble of extras into such a frenzy that the unit photographer ended up in the hospital after someone hit him in the nose.

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“John created a riot,” Carliner says. “It was right on the line between entertainment and something he couldn’t stop.”

That was also the trajectory of Wallace’s three presidential bids, a bit of sulfurous regional theater that grew into 10 million votes in the 1968 Democratic primary, what Frady calls “the grim joker in the deck of the whole democratic proposition.”

Sinise was determined to make Wallace’s appeal as understandable as his lower qualities.

“He was somehow entertaining,” Sinise says, laughing. “He won a lot of people over, even people who were pissed at him. And he never let the rabble-rousing and the heckling get to him. He fed on it.”

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There was little about the role that was to Sinise’s taste, however. He had already done a political biography (HBO’s “Truman”) and played a man confined to a wheelchair (Lt. Dan in “Forrest Gump”). Nor was he dying to do a movie on basic cable after having successfully made the jump to big-budget features with “Apollo 13" and “Ransom.”

That Wallace would be remembered vividly by those old enough to have seen him in action, and not at all by just about everyone else, did little to change Sinise’s mind as he turned the part down twice, and then a third time.

“And then I met John,” the actor says of Frankenheimer, who drove to Sinise’s house to screen a documentary on Wallace for him. “He’s very passionate about his work, very persuasive, and I just loved that he was so into me doing it.”

But a question still loomed over the project:

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“What’s the point of doing it if it’s just going to be another picture of a Dixie grotesque?” Frady says. “Gary wanted to bring out more definitively what Wallace had once wanted to be, in the beginning.”

Those amplifications caused the picture to swell from three hours to four but brought with them the attendant benefit of a great many scenes between Sinise and Mare Winningham, who plays Lurleen Wallace the most sympathetic of segregationists.

“Those racists came in all shapes and sizes, didn’t they?” Winningham says from her home in Northern California. “Gary found that relationship a focal point of his character. Even in the romantic scenes, he discounts her all along the way. Gary is able to show this man’s ruthless ambition while making those the warmest scenes in the movie.”

Sinise’s rendering of Wallace lacks the gaudy shape shifting of, say, Anthony Hopkins as Nixon.

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“There is not the most striking resemblance between them physically at first glance,” Frady says. “But through some strange sorcery--the mannerisms, the tone of voice, his carriage--it was absolutely hallucinatory how Gary evoked Wallace’s physical being.”

The transformation takes place with enough subtlety, Winningham says, that “you don’t distinguish him from his character--in the end, you forget you’re watching him.”

Sinise finally agreed to do the movie because of its climactic scene, in which Wallace goes to King’s former church and begs the black congregation for forgiveness. “That’s a great movie moment,” Sinise says. Even better than that, it actually happened.

“I do believe he changed, which is what makes a movie about his life worthwhile to me,” he says. “We spend a lot of time considering how bad things are racially in this country, but it’s good to look back and say, ‘Look at this apartheid society we had 35 years ago.’

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“I think the Wallace people are going a little crazy over certain things--movie things--that we’ve done. But ultimately, we want people to come away from the movie with a sense that progress has been made. We still have a long way to go. But I think there’s hope.

“And the ability to change, and admit our wrongs, and try to make amends--which Wallace did--is a very positive message, I think.”

*

* “George Wallace” airs in two parts, next Sunday and Aug. 26, on TNT cable.

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