Madame X (1981, Robert Ellis Miller)

Madame X never has good pacing. The movie starts with Tuesday Weld on trial, in old age makeup. She refuses to identify herself, hence the title, and won’t even assist her lawyer, Martina Deignan, in her own defense. Weld’s completely passive in the scene. Robert Hooks’s prosecuting attorney closing arguments dominate the scene, setting a problematic tone for the next hundred or so minutes.

Weld is the “star” of Madame X, and while she’s the subject of the movie, writer Edward Anhalt and director Miller never let her be its protagonist. Not for long anyway; not in the second half, when it matters. Instead, the supporting cast runs the movie. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What’s worse is how good Weld is during most of the latter type. After a too long setup, Madame X turns into a series of vignettes with different guest stars. Weld doesn’t get much to do in these scenes, except be a little bit more of a fallen woman. Without material or even the movie’s attention, she’s great. While the script might not trying to build a character, Weld’s working on it.

And then in the narratively defective third act, when Anhalt’s script does give Weld some agency again, Madame X backtracks some of the work she’s done and gives her a shallow melodramatic finish. Madame X never wants to be anything but affecting melodrama; it’s one tragedy after another. And it’s not about them not adding up into anything, it’s about that anything not getting the time it needs.

The script has a real problem emphasizing the right character. Ellis’s direction doesn’t help. Some of the problems might just be the nature of TV movies, like defense attorney Deignan not getting enough time. When it seems like she might get some development, the third act surprise takes it away from her. That third act surprise disappoints too. There’s just no time for it–Madame X needed at least another ten minutes, maybe twenty.

So, while Weld’s the lead and she’s good at the beginning, problematic in the middle, great in the second half, persevering at the finish, Madame X is about the supporting cast. Weld might be in the foreground, but all the focus is on the background. Sometimes literally. Woody Omens’s photography is competent and effective; the content’s sometimes a mess but Omens shoots it fine. Madame X travels the world, but was probably all shot around L.A.; Omens hides it as well as he can.

Anyway. The supporting cast. Best is Jeremy Brett. He’s second-billed, which initially suggests he’s going to have a substantial presence. He doesn’t. But he’s great when he’s in the film. Then maybe Len Cariou. But the script fails him. So maybe Eleanor Parker. Script fails her too, but in different ways than Cariou. Parker’s one-note in her scenes with Weld. She’s a good mean matriarch but in her scenes with other people, she’s got a lot more texture. It’s the script. Anhalt’s script does no one any favors during dramatic sequences. Well, maybe Brett.

Then there’s Jerry Stiller. He’s not good, but he’s fine.

Granville Van Dusen is too slight. Even when he tries, he’s too slight. The script’s not good to him either. Robin Strand, billed like he’s going to have a real part, has a couple scenes. He’s not good. He’s likable, sort of, but he’s not good. The script even goes out of its way to make him sort of likable, which it rarely does for anyone.

Until the third act, Madame X seems like it’s going to be able to coast on Weld’s performance. It gets long once Weld gets demoted in agency–it’s long at the start because Van Dusen’s so boring and the script won’t get moving–but it gets real long once Weld stops leading it. Her performance develops to the point Madame X’s questionable attempts at soap opera melodrama don’t matter as much as what Weld’s going to do with them. Will it add up?

No. It won’t.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Robert Ellis Miller; teleplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the play by Alexandre Bisson and the screenplay by Jean Holloway; director of photography, Woody Omens; edited by Skip Lusk; music by Angela Morley; produced by Paula Levenback and Wendy Riche; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.

Starring Tuesday Weld (Holly Richardson), Granville Van Dusen (Clay Richardson), Eleanor Parker (Katherine Richardson), Len Cariou (John Abbott), Jeremy Brett (Dr. Terrence Keith), Robin Strand (Willy Dwyer), Jerry Stiller (Burt Orland), Martina Deignan (Elizabeth Reeves), and Robert Hooks (Dist. Atty. Roerich).


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