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Justice 

Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill, Dorothy Dandridge and lawman Bill Tilghman

Wednesday, Aug 18 1999
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Photos by Neal Slavin & Ava V. Gerlitz
TV MOVIES GALORE. PRETTY GOOD ONES. BUT FIRST, the news.

In what amounts to a corporate research grant, a group of 11 major advertisers, including Procter & Gamble, General Motors, IBM, Sears, AT&T and Wendy's International, will fund the writing of "family-friendly" scripts for possible development by the WB -- a network currently best known for making teenage girls into sex symbols, notwithstanding that its biggest hit is the heartwarmer 7th Heaven. (Interestingly, playing both sides of the family-friendliness question, the network has also just inked a fat sitcom deal with American Pie's Chris and Paul Weitz.) It's my nature to be suspicious of anything that gets that much big business into one room, but the fact is that television continues to make such a poor showing on this account -- in part because advertisers overwhelmingly favor the attention of young white males -- that any remedy short of legislation seems worth a try.

Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission recently ended its 30-year-old "duopoly" ban and will now allow companies to own two TV (and up to six radio) stations in the same market. Certain restrictions will apply, but all you really need to take from this bulletin is that we are one step nearer to the single megacorp that will one day supply -- and, indeed, create -- all your grandchildren's needs. Television isn't so very excellent now that it'll necessarily seem much worse under this new ruling; but it is useful to know who owns what in this world, if only to know whom to curse.

I would also like to say that I was dismayed, annoyed and insulted -- felt even, yes, betrayed, given that it was not on the advance tape I received -- to find a laugh track added to the air version of the VH1 sketch comedy Random Play. Canned laughter is the very symbol of television's habitual low estimation both of the intelligence of its audience and the quality of its own product. It's time we shuffled off these old deceits everyone knows are phony anyway. I'm sure it won't be a hundred years before they'll have devised some way to subconsciously stimulate the humor center of the cerebral cortex, canceling at a single stroke the need for a laugh track and for actual humor -- or any sort of content at all -- but while our minds remain marginally our own, let us not be prompted to laugh at what's not funny, or, more to the point, what is.

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SHOWTIME'S STRANGE JUSTICE RETURNS US TO THOSE thrilling days of 1991, when underqualified Supreme Court candidate Clarence Thomas and reluctant witness Anita Hill were linked forever in television history. Acknowledging the he said/she said nature of the case -- in which one sees reflected nothing so much as one's own prejudices and politics -- the filmmakers, dramatizing a book by two Wall Street Journal reporters, have aimed avowedly for equity, and indeed have given the adversaries more or less equal time and do not pretend to know things they cannot. (Still, in little ways, from casting to camerawork to the fact that conservatism is not a cinematically sympathetic attitude, the picture favors Hill.) The real subject of the film, however, is the way in which Thomas and Hill -- played by Get Shorty's Delroy Lindo, and Regina Taylor of TV's I'll Fly Away -- were used alike for partisan ends, and made wretched by their contact with the vile bodies of Capitol Hill. It was an ugly little scene, you may recall, and the filmmakers have left such terrible Ghosts of Committees Past as Orrin Hatch and Alan Simpson, present in archival clips, to speak for themselves; no mere actor could do their drivel justice.

As directed by Ernest R. Dickerson (Spike Lee's cinematographer for years, and the director himself of Juice and other films), the picture is smart and stylish and sometimes surreal: When Thomas and Hill give testimony, the picture shifts from real to artificial, public to private space, allowing the actors to shade and stretch and rip it up; the picture in these moments has vaguely the flavor of Off-Broadway, and becomes something better, or anyway more interesting, than intelligent -- a work, then, not just of re-creation, but also of interpretation. Of art. The cast, including an unusually restrained Mandy Patinkin as Republican spinmeister Kenneth Duberstein, is uniformly fine, though the imposing Lindo is physically a strange choice to play Clarence Thomas; with his spectacles and tight mild manner, he's Superman badly disguised as Clark Kent. But he manages. And as Anita Hill, Taylor is quietly phenomenal, a subtle virtuoso of meter and pitch and the focused eye; I look forward to her starring in every movie made from now on.

THE PLIGHT OF THE BLACK ACTOR, MUCH IN THE TV news of late, resonates retrospectively in the HBO biopic Introducing Dorothy Dandridge. The title is apt enough: Even with recent high-profile interest in her story -- Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston both wanted to play it, but Halle Berry got there first -- Dandridge, a nightclub star in the '50s and the first African-American nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, is nowadays a quantity more heard of than heard, known of than known. As this sort of movie goes -- rapidly, from peak to valley to peak to valley, substituting event for story and signs for psychology -- it is really not bad at all. Directed by Rambling Rose's Martha Coolidge and based largely on a book by Dandridge's manager, Earl Mills (Brent "Data" Spiner, As You've Never Seen Him), who is therefore a significant presence here, it more or less follows the factual outlines of her life, which ended at age 42 from an overdose of antidepressants, and hits upon its major themes. (And looks good doing it.) Hers was a particularly extreme combination of success and misfortune, not the worst part of which was to be a black leading lady before Hollywood wanted one; a few decades later, she might have had Halle Berry's career.

Berry is bodily a tight fit for the role; as a black woman with universal sex appeal, she has something in common with Dandridge, and what's more, and what's rare, is enough of a star herself to convincingly play a star. (Check out the discount Marilyn Monroe and Ava Gardner in the party scene.) She's graceful and energetic, handles herself exceptionally well in a couple of dance routines, and is pretty much the only thing you see whenever she's on screen. Klaus Maria Brandauer as lover (and leaver) Otto Preminger, Obba Babatunde (Miss Evers' Boys) as first husband Harold Nicholas, and Spiner offer unflashy support. As Dorothy's mother, the actress Ruby Dandridge, Loretta Devine (The PJs' Muriel Stubbs) is, for me, a special treat: I just love her voice.

TNT'S YOU KNOW MY NAME, IN WHICH A LEGENDARY lawman comes out of retirement to clean up a dirty town, is also based on a true story, but in this case the truth of the story is unimportant; few of us will have heard of Bill Tilghman, and it's enough that the film, which portrays not his long and colorful life as an Oklahoma peace officer but only an episode within it, is a perfectly effective, old-school Western, albeit one set in 1924 with a coked-up Prohibition officer for a bad guy. Sam Elliott, whose résumé runs back to "Card Player #2" in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, plays Tilghman, and he seems clean in a way no contemporary action hero quite does; he may be our last truly convincing screen cowboy. His nemesis is the great Arliss Howard, who goes pretty far over the top this time, but no more than, say, Al Pacino in Scarface. While the film does not escape the usual Hollywood fibs -- the whores are all beautiful, for instance -- it is at the same time unusually convincing: Director-writer John Kent Harrison (in whose William Faulkner's Old Man Howard starred a couple seasons back) has a great sense of landscape, light and ancillary detail; his Cromwell, OK, is a place of Hogarthian life and clutter, and what small holes there are in his picture he covers over with mud and oil and smoke and crowds and rain. It all works. Well told, well played, well made, well done.

STRANGE JUSTICE | Showtime Premieres Sunday, August 29, 8 p.m.

INTRODUCING DOROTHY DANDRIDGE HBO | Premieres Saturday, August 21, 9 p.m.

YOU KNOW MY NAME | TNT Premieres Sunday, August 22, 8 p.m.

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