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A ham-fisted dish with cracked walnut garnish

Times Staff Writer

The rough-cut DVD for tonight’s NBC movie “Martha, Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart” arrived encased in plastic and accompanied by the book of the same name that inspired it and, alarmingly enough, a nutcracker and two walnuts.

I looked at my editor. This could not, in the year of our Lord 2003, be a powerful-woman-as-emasculator-type reference, could it?

“I think there’s a walnut-cracking scene in the movie,” she said, and then she moved quickly away.

Both, it turns out, are true. There is indeed a walnut-cracking scene in the movie, and it is, indeed, a powerful-woman-as-emasculator-type reference, an astonishingly ham-fisted coda to a scene in which Stewart manages to buy back the rights to her name from haughty Time Warner execs, all of whom are, of course, men.

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It’s enough to make you root for Martha.

Because, of all the crimes Martha Stewart may have committed against the Securities and Exchange Commission and humanity, the least of them was that she made a bunch of media execs feel a tiny bit less manly. But the movie, like Christopher Byron’s book, has adopted a very un-Martha-like philosophy: Why use a scalpel when a sledgehammer makes a much better noise?

Which allows the filmmakers to do the impossible: make the Martha Stewart story boring.

The movie opens with Cybill Shepherd as Stewart stomping onto the set of her TV show the day her alleged insider trading will be revealed, demanding recipes and Bosc pears in a voice ordered directly from the Diva Approaching Downfall catalog.

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She assumes her position on the set like Hitler at the Berlin Games, only to drop her voice three keys and a decibel and smile sunnily the moment the cameras roll. This is supposed to capture, in an instant, Martha Stewart as Hypocrite, but it is so hilariously trite you wonder if you are channeling a really, really long “Saturday Night Live” skit, and oh, look, Cybill Shepherd is the guest host. Cybill Shepherd looking absolutely ghastly, by the way.

Say what you will about Stewart’s ethics, she always looks pulled together. Not so the actress, who looks a bit like Dorian Gray in reverse -- decaying visage betrays corruption of heart, etc. So you spend most of the movie worried that Shepherd has some fell disease or a really bad plastic surgeon.

Another actress might have overcome this with a subtle portrayal of a woman who is, if nothing else, very complicated.

But even fans of Shepherd must concede that she is, at best, a two-note actress, with a Bette Davis-like tendency to simply show up as herself only in someone else’s hairdo.

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Her two notes in this particular project are “shrill” and “demanding,” and that is hard to watch for two hours. Even if you already hated Stewart. Especially if you already hated Stewart. The juicy tang of the Stewart story was always in the contrast -- by day soft-spoken, lavender-water-doused homemaker, by night a tantrum-throwing, assistant-abusing shrew.

But screenwriter Suzette Couture (how great is it that a movie about Martha Stewart was written by a woman named Couture?) clearly assumes that the audience is so familiar with the hostess with the hand-dipped mostest that she needn’t bother showing Stewart’s considerable charms and talents, the ones that seduced millions of women into believing that there is a right and wrong way to fold pillowcases. And that it matters.

An unchecked id

So we are left watching the story of an unchecked id from Nutley, N.J., which is mildly interesting only in the stereotypes the filmmakers have conjured to make sure that we, the audience, know, from the get-go, that Martha Stewart Is Not a Nice Person.

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The child Stewart, complete with Rhoda Penmark blond braids, sabotages another girl who would have muscled in on her cake-baking enterprise. The young adult Stewart is as relentless in her perfectionism and her ambition as her old man, that classic Overbearing Father who has caused so much trouble since the time of Electra.

She marries Andy Stewart (Tim Matheson), who is supposed to be the Nice and Long-Suffering Husband, only he lets on that he’s really rich, though he’s not, and pretends he supports her dreams, even as he convinces her to marry him before she graduates and have a baby, even though she doesn’t want to. Really doesn’t want to.

But the audience is never allowed even to contemplate the possibility that Stewart’s ambitions are legitimate and that if old Andy has problems with that, well, then maybe he should find himself another dame.

We follow her rise, her ill-treatment of family and friends, her temper tantrums, her blunt and ego-driven business dealings, and then we see her fall, her husband leaving her for her assistant, her friends forsaking her, her outing as a suspected insider trader. She becomes the butt of jokes on talk radio and late-night TV, which, in these media-driven days, is right up there with crucifixion.

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And she is alone, alone, alone, rattling around her lovely redone house, crying on her own shoulder in an enormous SUV.

All of which we knew already. And who really cares, in the end, that some blond from New Jersey got richer and meaner by the minute.

The only real dramatic tension comes in the last scene, when a bereft, scandal-plagued Stewart wanders into an agricultural fair where she is mobbed by a public that clearly adores her.

This is the story that was worth telling, how a person could possess the qualities to make millions of people admire her, who could be smart enough to create a multimedia empire out of stencils and lemon curd, could still not understand, in a meaningful way, how to live her own life well. That is the epic.

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“Martha, Inc.” alas, is the made-for-TV movie.


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