Differing Views on Raising This 'Daughter'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Inside a stately Hancock Park manor meant to evoke a Georgetown manse, the resolution of a multilayered story is being filmed. A daughter (Christine Lahti) tells her tuxedoed U.S. senator father (Stanley Anderson) that she called the president to tell him whether she will remain a nominee for surgeon general. He knows, her father says, because he heard it on the radio. What should have been a private moment has been stolen from the family.

"An American Daughter," a two-hour original movie that will air tonight on Lifetime, brims with moments that shouldn't have been, not if public life were fair, friends were truly friends--and the media weren't always looking for a hook on which to hang a news story. It's a saga so complicated, the three women critical to bringing it to television don't completely agree about its central message.

"The play is about personal and public life, and the effect of them on each other," says Wendy Wasserstein, who adapted her play for television. "I'm in my late 40s, and it's also about my generation of women who benefited from the women's movement.

"When I wrote this play, my sister had breast cancer. I was undergoing endless fertility treatments. I was running into other life issues, particularly feminine issues. There was an emotional truth to this play to me," says Wasserstein, whose first child, a daughter, was born in September. "On top of this, our politics so many times are almost in quotes. Oh, the 'liberal president is a caring, good person.' . . . I thought it would be interesting to mix it all up."

Lahti, who portrays Lyssa Dent Hughes, the privileged American daughter who is a descendant of Ulysses Grant, sees the film mainly from the feminist perspective. She's speaking during a break in filming on the set in a breakfast room that drips with old money and provides a view of a staircase worthy of "Father of the Bride." The power beads on her wrist seem at odds with her high-powered character, a hospital administrator and doctor who's been tapped for public service. She was drawn to the part, she says, because it gave her a chance to "shine some light" on feminist issues in a deeper way.

"Wendy Wasserstein has a kind of uncanny understanding and empathy for what women go through," Lahti says. "I saw the play on Broadway [in 1997], and I was really, really moved by it. It explored an issue for me that's very deep, that's very profound, and not really explored in any other place, novel or movie that I've ever seen. It's something that I think is so important. Our work as women is not done.

"The generation after us doesn't quite get it," continues Lahti, who like Wasserstein was born at the midcentury mark. "They think calling themselves a 'feminist' is embarrassing, or you know, a bad thing to be, which is completely baffling to me because of how hard we fought, how hard we continue to fight."

Show Holds Up a Mirror to Society

Sounding a bit like a television executive not wanting to scare off a potential audience of women and men, Dawn Tarnofsky-Ostroff, Lifetime's executive vice president for entertainment, responds to that remark in a telephone interview by putting it at arm's length.

"I don't know if it is a feminist issue as much as it is a woman's personal story," she says. "It has happened several times in our country. Someone has been nominated for an important position and something small in the background takes over in the political nomination process." Most importantly, Tarnofsky-Ostroff says, "An American Daughter" holds up a mirror to society to examine a relatively recent political phenomenon--the destruction of a family's privacy when it is suddenly pulled into the limelight.

In "Nannygate," which partly inspired Wasserstein to write the play, attorney general nominee Zoe Baird, along with other Clinton administration nominees, was felled in 1993 because she admitted she had not paid employee taxes for in-home child care. In "American Daughter," jury-gate erupts. A seemingly overlooked jury notice sets up Lahti's character for a vicious pummeling by the press, fueled in part by friends who wound for sport.

"One of the quibbles about this play was that it was about too many things," Wasserstein says. "But it's very rare that you have a career crisis and your health is fantastic."

So on the night that Lyssa most needs the support of her best friend--an African American Jewish feminist portrayed by Lynne Thigpen, who won a Tony for playing the part on Broadway--she shows up an emotional wreck and sopping wet, having just thrown herself into the Potomac River.

The drama is filled with complicated relationships and characters and the "many shades of gray" that Wasserstein is so good at depicting, Tarnofsky-Ostroff says. "She's one of the female playwrights of our time. Her plays always deal from a very personal woman's point of view."

Adaptation Is True to the Play

Wasserstein has adapted her work for television before, including "The Heidi Chronicles," which starred Jamie Lee Curtis and first aired on TNT in 1995. The Pulitzer Prize-winning play is about an Everywoman who deals with a tidal wave of societal changes.

"I really like writing for television," Wasserstein says. "Television, like theater, is about character. A lot of TV is about stripping off the layers of a character. You have the added thing in TV of being able to go close up on the face of the character."

The adaptation is very close to the play, but in some ways more compelling because it has been opened up, says Lahti, who played another doctor, Kathryn Austin, from 1995-99 on CBS' "Chicago Hope."

"On stage, it was limited to the living room of a Georgian house in Washington, D.C. It almost seemed like a drawing-room comedy in a way. There's something kind of artificial about it all being in that living room. Opening it up gives it breadth and maybe a little more reality," she says.

In taking her work from the stage to the small screen, Wasserstein was able to revisit themes that seemed truer the second time around. Since she had written the play, "Monica-gate" had erupted and Hillary Rodham Clinton "seemed to wear a different face each month."

She found herself watching a parade of people on TV who had endless opinions about Princess Diana or the first lady, and she couldn't help but ask herself, "How do they know about this? It's impossible. I actually have the ability to say, 'I don't know about this,' " Wasserstein says, laughing.

The film reverberates with real-life touches. In a climactic scene where Lyssa is trying to rescue her nomination, she dons a headband for a television interview, just like Hillary Clinton once did, to try to relate to the masses. The future first lady was trying to make amends for her offhand remark that she didn't want to stay home and bake cookies, while women in the teleplay condemn Lyssa for referring to her long-deceased mother as "the kind of Indiana housewife who took great pride in her icebox cakes and pimento cheese canapes."

Near the end of the film, "the women of America like Lyssa Hughes because she's publicly suffered for us," Wasserstein says, just like the president's wife did when she had to endure the public humiliation brought about by her husband's affair with Monica Lewinsky.

Another message of the play, Lahti says, is that the women are the ones who primarily sabotage Lyssa.

"That's the thing that fascinates me. The women of America do not support her. They want to bring her down, because I think there are a lot of women who don't want to upset the status quo," Lahti says. "A lot of women would prefer to be the victim, and be a second-class citizen because it's safer. It's easier. They don't have to do anything if they can blame it on a guy."

Quincy Quince, the icy Gen-X author played by Blake Lindsley, is Lyssa's primary saboteur, a character whose viewpoint closely reflects her generation's perspective in real life, Tarnofsky-Ostroff says.

"We've done a lot of research about this. A lot of baby boomers are very focused and driven about getting things in their lives, and they've done it," she says. "Then you have a character who's in her 20s, with a generational message and attitude that says, 'We want all these things and we're going to do it on our terms.' That relationship in 'American Daughter' shows two sides of the generational difference."

The older generation has been so successful at opening that door that, in some ways, it is a triumph that Quincy Quince doesn't get it, Wasserstein says, "but someday she will."

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