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HOWARD ROSENBERG

'Liberty'-- Mixing Fact And Fiction

June 23, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Give me your tired minds, your poor scripts,

Your huddled masses of producers and directors yearning to make a fast buck,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

As it turns out, they're already here.

The "Liberty" season begins. The coming weeks will bring more Statue of Liberty centennial fare than you can shake a torch at.

This will be Patrick Henry, John Wayne and the recently departed Kate Smith rolled into one. No Old Glory will go unfurled, no flag unwaved, no patriotic song unsung.

ABC provides the centerpiece with 17 1/2 hours of centennial coverage July 2-6 that will soar off the Richter scale. But everyone else is getting into the act too.

Arriving at 8 tonight (on Channels 4, 36 and 39) is "Liberty," the three-hour "romanticized" version of "the men and women behind the creation and construction of the Statue of Liberty." As an added bonus, some of the men and women in tonight's story actually existed.

"Liberty" is followed by the following standard disclaimer: "This story is based upon actual events. However, some of the characters and incidents portrayed and the names used herein are fictitious. . . . " But are you told which characters and events are fictional or where Pete Hammel's script has taken liberties with the Statue of Liberty? Nohhhhhh.

Embellished by beautiful tintype lighting, the Richard Sarafian-directed story traces the long, tortuous evolution of the statue and its financing largely through individual contributions, culminating with an Oct. 28, 1886, unveiling. There are times, though, when tonight's focus is the Statue of Lust.

In the late 1860s, French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi (Frank Langella) becomes obsessed with erecting an enormous statue of a woman in America's New York harbor as a symbol of freedom and friendship between the two nations.

In a Parisian crowd, he sights the lovely Jeanne Baheau (Corinne Touzet) and decides to make her his model for the statue. He tells her: "Your image will be the basis for the largest sculpture in the history of mankind." And she buys it.

During their first modeling session, he asks her to disrobe, saying "The body beneath the drape is the true architecture." She buys that too.

Bartholdi becomes so impressed by Jeanne's architecture that he comes over for a closer look and, well, this is Paris. You just know that they are headed for even bigger things, including marriage, despite the objections of Bartholdi's possessive mother (Claire Bloom), who is a real hussy.

Meanwhile, French coppersmith Jack Marchand (Chris Sarandon) has arrived in the United States and immediately begins assimilating by befriending a former slave named Johnson (LeVar Burton), going to work for an Irish coppersmith named Reilly (George Kennedy) and sleeping with Reilly's beautiful niece Moya (Dana Delany).

It's evident that Jack the coppersmith will play a significant role in the insufferably platitudinous Bartholdi's copper statue.

After getting her pregnant, Jack marries Moya, then is attracted to famed poet Emma Lazarus. Jack teaches Emma social consciousness, enabling her to write the memorable words ("Give me your tired . . . ") that appear on the base of the statue.

So who's real and who's not?

Bartholdi is genuine, as is Lazarus. So is Jeanne (at least Bartholdi did have a mistress in France) and so is Bartholdi's mother.

Meanwhile, Jack--a pivotal character who gives Lazarus soul and Bartholdi the means to complete his statue--never existed. Thus, neither did Moya. And the fictional Reilly and Johnson are merely gratuitous throw-ins to fit the story's brotherhood theme.

Although "Liberty" is certainly handsome-looking and watchable, it's another example of selling the public short by putting a shine on facts for fear of otherwise losing the audience. It's one thing to add insignificant phony characters to advance a story, quite another to misleadingly make the fictional Jack Marchand a key figure in the statue's history.

Why stop with Jack? Why not have Bartholdi get help from Buffalo Bill too?

Meanwhile, if you're looking for an account of the statue that is both truthful and entertaining, look no further than Ken Burns' wonderful documentary "The Statue of Liberty," which KCET Channel 28 is repeating at 8 p.m. Sunday. It's spectacular.

The hour is vibrant and energetic, using old film, contemporary music and thoughtful anecdotes to trace the statue's history and its impact in a fascinating, innovative and honest way.

There are many more delights here than in "Liberty," and much more information.

Bartholdi's reported modeling of his statue's body after his mistress and the head after his mother was merely a rumor of the time, according to the documentary. The NBC movie elevates the rumor to fact.

You will learn also that Bartholdi, in contrast to the Langella figure in the NBC movie, was less a full-out enthusiast for America than a skeptic with reservations. And you will learn that he picked New York only after having a proposal for a similar statue turned down for the newly completed Suez Canal.

You're made aware, moreover, that for all its majesty, the statue is only a glorious symbol that sometimes contrasts with life's grimmer realities. Freedom in America, after all, comes in as many shades and variations as the "huddled masses" who brought their dreams to the nation's shores.

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