The TV stories that Hollywood tells worst are the ones that Hollywood tells about itself. "Malice in Wonderland," starring Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Alexander (airing 9 p.m. Sunday on Channels 2 and 8), is no exception.
Too much wonderland.
Based on the book "Hedda and Louella" by George Eells, this is the tale of two newspaper witches who terrorized the movie community with innuendo and the printed smear. Tall, elegant-looking, mad-hatting Hedda Hopper and squat, homely Louella Parsons exerted tyrannical influence over an earlier Hollywood through their syndicated gossip columns.
The story covers the 1930s, when Hedda, the moderately successful Hollywood actress, was a tipster for her Hearst columnist friend Louella, and the early 1940s, when they became bitter enemies competing for the same dirt. This was an era when two words described the attitude of most of Hollywood toward Hedda and Louella: fear and hate.
As the story goes, Louella's initial assignment in Hollywood was to use her column to promote the movies of Marion Davies, who was the mistress of Louella's boss, William Randolph Hearst. Legendary MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer later backed Hedda against Louella in an attempt to curtail Louella's power, but instead ended up having to face two vipers instead of one.
"Malice in Wonderland" implies that after 1944, Hedda and Louella's public rivalry was a myth that they maintained only because it served their careers.
All this is nice cocktail chatter, perhaps, and occasionally diverting, but it's also flat and flavorless.
Directed by Gus Trikonis and written by Jacqueline Feather and David Seidler, "Malice in Wonderland" offers little sense of period or insight into a movie community that allowed itself to be terrorized by two hit women. What was it about old Hollywood that tolerated such gossip-columnist power mania and what is it about contemporary Hollywood that rejects it?
Is it because the complexion of the movie business has changed? Is it because Americans are now less morally judgmental, hence less titillated by juicy Hollywood stories? Or is it that tabloids have become the modern Heddas and Louellas?
You'll get no clues from "Malice in Wonderland."
Equally mysterious is the casting of gorgeous Liz as frumpy Louella. It's unfortunate that Taylor went back to being svelte and beautiful just in time to play a dumpling whose looks and voice were the butts of jokes. She makes a stab at imitating Louella's comic radio delivery, but otherwise her glamour gets in the way.
When "Malice in Wonderland" does occasionally rise above the mundane, the responsible party is usually Alexander, a gifted and versatile actress who seems incapable of giving a bad performance, no matter the material.
Alexander somehow gives dimension to a one-dimensional character. She plays Hedda with style and a grand sense of fun, and several of her scenes make you laugh out loud.
In one, an actress is pregnant and Louella and Hedda haggle over the story like two bargain-basement shoppers tugging on the same dress:
"This is my pregnancy!"
"This kid's a Hedda Hopper exclusive!"
In another scene, Hedda is at a Hollywood party when she looks across the room and spots an actress she wants to talk to. Instead of crossing the room, she whistles loudly as if calling a dog.
How much of "Malice in Hollywood" is truth and how much fancy? More mystery. The end of the movie carries the standard convoluted disclaimer that raises more questions than it answers. It's the kind of disclaimer that should have appeared on many of Hedda's and Louella's columns:
"Some of the characters and incidents are fictitious and any similarity to the name, character or history of any such persons or incidents is entirely coincidental and unintentional."
Like a columnist writing a blind item, CBS does not reveal which characters and incidents are fictitious.
No fantasy villains, though, were Hedda and Louella, whose many victims included a young, oft-married superstar named Elizabeth Taylor.
"Elizabeth knew both of them, so they both are probably turning in their graves," Alexander said recently.
Is Taylor too gorgeous to play Louella? Alexander laughed, gustily. "I'm sure Louella thought of herself as beautiful."
Hedda Hopper, on the other hand, was "flamboyant, dramatic, theatrical--a woman of contrasts," Alexander said. "I talked to a lot of people who knew her and I would always get one of two reactions. They'd either say they hated her or that she was the kindest, nicest person they knew. Maybe those people understood her ruthlessness, or were not in a position to come under her attack."
Alexander has worn almost as many hats as an actress as Hedda did in real life. She has been brilliant as TV's Eleanor Roosevelt, poignant as the lover of a lesbian mother trying to keep custody of her children, calamitous as Calamity Jane and intensely moving as the courageous mother in "Testament," for which she received her third Oscar nomination.
Alexander is a naturalist and nuclear-freeze activist, and is now committed to producing as well as acting. Heavy stuff. But playing Hedda was a real hoot, she said. "I just loved dressing up and putting on all those hats."
Jane in wonderland.