There's nothing like a TV movie to give a great actor license to vamp; enter Judy Davis playing a sociopath, a grifter and a mother from hell, in the Lifetime movie "A Little Thing Called Murder."
Well, she's already been on TV as Nancy Reagan and Judy Garland. Here, Davis plays Sante Kimes, the real-life mother of the real-life son, Kenneth, whose crime spree in the 1990s, the Lifetime press release fairly gushes, included "audacious financial and real estate scams, slavery, grand theft and murder, leaving a trail of victims in their wake."
The pair have also left a trail of books and TV, including a 2001 CBS movie, "Like Mother, Like Son: The Strange Story of Sante and Kenny Kimes," starring Mary Tyler Moore.
"A Little Thing Called Murder" recasts much of the criminal behavior as black comedy -- "the little loan misunderstanding," "the little problem with the bank" -- but it is only able to hint at the symbiotic relationship between mother and son.
Kenny, as an adult, is played by Jonathan Jackson; lying in bed post-coital with a flight attendant Sante has procured for him, he says of his mother: "It's like she knows me better than I know myself."
From this, I suppose, you can glean the Oedipal undertones of the mother-son relationship, although on this particular subject the film seems decidedly noncommittal.
It does know that Sante was a rather prolific criminal, a sort of godmother of identity theft before we were all worried about it, brazen enough never to return a Cadillac she test-drove off the lot and to get herself imprisoned for slavery after years of abusing Mexican housekeepers.
"A Little Thing Called Murder" holds up Sante as a perverted incarnation of the American striver, who escaped a childhood of poverty (not shown) and finally nabbed a rich guy, Kenneth Kimes Sr. (Chelcie Ross).
Although he wouldn't marry her, Kenneth Sr. did ensconce her in new wealth and tagged along on her schemes, including the 1974 evening the two crashed a Washington, D.C., party given by President Ford and First Lady Betty Ford.
It's a whirlwind story, and Davis keeps pace with, if not invents, the pathology -- the victimhood, the grandiosity, the sexuality (Sante appears to have fashioned herself an Elizabeth Taylor-like beauty, wearing wigs and garish eye shadow).
The story of Sante and Kenny Kimes was blown open in 1998, when they were arrested first on an unrelated fraud charge and then were linked to the disappearance of New York socialite Irene Silverman, part of a scheme to appropriate her Manhattan brownstone; the pair were subsequently given 120-year terms in prison for the Silverman killing as well as separate life convictions in the murder in Los Angeles of David Kazdin, a business associate.
What came out was the story of a mother who, through Joan Crawford-like head games and smothering love, raised an accomplice to her own penchant for scamming nearly everyone she came in contact with.
The latest twist in their saga -- that Kenny finally broke free of the inexorable hold his mother had on him, testifying against her in the 2004 Kazdin murder trial -- is here a postscript to a story tipped toward the kind of comedy John Waters achieved in "Serial Mom," or Buck Henry with "To Die For."
But it only plays at this; the film, which does succeed at making Canada feel like Hawaii, and 2006 feel like 1980, is more tangibly wrapped in Davis' bravura performance -- wrapped in it like one of the fur coats Sante might be inclined to steal.
Some of the tricks employed by director Richard Benjamin and Teena Booth, whose teleplay is based on the book "Dead End" by Jeanne King, are reminiscent of "To Die For" -- documentary interviews with actors playing the lawyers, the prosecutors and the relatives of victims.
Sante and Kenny Kimes came from the same epoch of media-circus criminals that Henry used for his riff on the Pamela Smart case. In that one, a teacher seduced her student into killing her husband, a story Henry altered to make a black comedy about TV fame obsession.
But "A Little Thing Called Murder" evokes no wonderment more profound than the one to do with Judy Davis' career. For actresses, outsized roles like this one don't exactly grow on trees, but it's a bit empty-feeling to see Davis, so arresting in "The Ref" and in Woody Allen's "Husband and Wives," wrestling this particular character to the carpet, on this particular stage.
'A Little Thing Called Murder'
When: 9 to 11 tonight
Ratings: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)