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Television Reviews : 'Right To Die'

October 12, 1987|DON SHIRLEY

The first half of "Right to Die" (tonight at 9 on NBC Channels 4, 36, 39) is such a clunky piece of storytelling that much of the audience may tune out.

If so, they'll miss a three-hanky tear-jerker, as well as a fairly intelligent examination of the issues surrounding terminally ill patients who want to pull the plug.

Raquel Welch plays a want-it-all psychologist and mother who's dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. As her paralysis intensifies, she asks her husband (Michael Gross) to grant her death wish.

W. Phil Penningroth's script, based on the true story told by Andrew H. Malcolm in his book "This Far and No More," is routine disease-of-the-week fare for too long. The woman's joie de vivre is expressed via imagery that looks like it was inspired by commercials (Paul Wendkos directed), and Penningroth's dialogue says all the usual things, in all the usual ways.

Flashback fever afflicts this part of the film. Misty dissolves signal the beginning and end of each memory with dreary monotony.

But "Right to Die" comes to life as the patient sinks into death. The hospital administrators are allowed to express their position as public stewards, committed to preserving life, without being made to look mean. As a nurse with religious scruples, Bonnie Bartlett is a vigorous opponent of the titular right.

The burden of carrying the film falls on Gross, as the man in the middle, and his performance is alive and aware.

Welch never looks ravaged. But her bag of actor's tools is reduced until she's left with nothing but her eyes, darting out of her speechless and inert body. This is just as well--she's unconvincing earlier, and some of her tortured attempts to speak through her pain are virtually inaudible. But her eyes are indubitably expressive.

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