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THE CRITICAL VIEW : 30 of the Best From an Uneven Collection

April 23, 1989|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Prejudice is hard to kick.

In some circles, for example, television movie remains a term of derision. It's the industry's equivalent of a racial slur.

Siskel and Ebert, TV's syndicated movie critics, are among the worst offenders, their ultimate putdown being "It reminded me of a TV movie"--as if anything made for the small screen were necessarily inferior.

Thumbs down to that.

Although most movies made for television are as bad as most movies made for theatrical release (which is pretty bad), a review of the last 25 years finds many that were outstanding.

The best TV movies are generally equal to the cream of theatrical releases. It's how they're presented--on a small screen, almost always fragmented by commercials--and how they're watched--at home, where kids yell and phones ring--that makes them seem inferior to their threatrical counterparts. They're not.

Here is one man's "Top 30" list.

What constitutes a TV movie? The pocket definition here is a self-contained, one-part production that is not a play. That may be too narrow for some tastes, too broad for others.

A few movies make the list chiefly because of their historical significance or because they're considered landmarks. The rest are here based solely on quality.

It should be noted that only one pure comedy is included. That's because TV movies are rarely comedies, and those that are comedies are rarely funny.

What is most striking about the list is the predominance of movies about issues--sometimes controversial ones--an area where supposedly timid TV has a big lead over theatrical movies, if only because issues are very promotable and TV is very promotion minded. Typically in a TV movie, the issue ends up devouring the dramatic elements of the entire story, but that was not the case with the issue movies listed here.

When it comes to years, 1974 and 1984 (each with five movies making the list) stand out.

The movies, chronologically:

"Brian's Song" (1970). Although vastly overrated as drama, this account of the friendship between Chicago Bears teammates Gayle Sayers, played by Billy Dee Williams, and dying Brian Piccolo, played by James Caan, was very moving and marked the TV-movie genre's first giant step toward legitimacy.

"That Certain Summer" (1972). This fine movie was noteworthy for its masculine depiction of gay lovers, played by Martin Sheen and Hal Holbrook, one of whom had to explain his homosexuality to his young son. The real stars were director Lamont Johnson and writers Richard Levinson and William Link. There was no real display of affection between Sheen and Holbrook, however; 1972 was too early for that.

"The Marcus-Nelson Murders" (1973). Undoubtedly the best movie pilot for a series ever made, this first-rate thriller, based on a real case, introduced America to a cop named Kojak, conferred stardom on Telly Savalas and won deserved Emmys for writer Abby Mann and director Joseph Sargent. Although it had its moments, "Kojak" the series never lived up to its pilot.

"The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman" (1974). The history of slavery was vividly relived through the memories of a fictional 110-year-old woman beautifully played by Cicely Tyson in a story adapted for TV by Tracy Keenan Wynn and directed by John Korty. The climactic scene, when Miss Jane defiantly drank from a "whites-only" water fountain, was one of TV's most memorable moments in one of TV's most memorable movies.

"A Case of Rape" (1974). Elizabeth Montgomery played the rape victim in a ground breaking story that, although dramatically flawed, was far and away TV's most sensitive and honest portrayal of rape and its impact to date.

"The Execution of Private Slovik" (1974). This reunion of actor Martin Sheen, director Lamont Johnson and writers Richard Levinson and William Link from "That Certain Summer" produced an achingly grim and meaningful version of William Bradford Huie's book about the only American soldier since the Civil War to be executed for desertion. Sheen excelled as Eddie Slovik (who faced a firing squad in 1945), getting fine support from Mariclare Costello and Ned Beatty. The chilling climax was one of the most powerful execution scenes ever filmed.

"F. Scott Fitzgerald and 'The Last of the Belles' " (1974). Richard Chamberlain, Blythe Danner, David Huffman and Susan Sarandon starred in a haunting account that captured the ambiguity and melancholia of Scott and his wife, Zelda.

"The Law" (1974). TV viewers got their first big dose of Judd Hirsch here as an unglamorous public defender in a tough and compelling film, directed by John Badham, which exposed the ugly underbelly of the criminal justice system.

"The Migrants" (1974). A stretching Ron Howard showed that he had range beyond situation comedy and Cloris Leachman was brilliant in this searing adaptation of a Tennessee Williams story about the plight of migrant farm workers. In subject matter, there's been nothing to equal it since.

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