Home Box Office is having admirable success reviving the omnibus TV series, most notably with its popular horror anthology show "Trilogy of Terror." This weekend, the cable network presents a trilogy of terror of a distinctly different sort with the triple-headed premiere of "Women & Men: Stories of Seduction," which in fact offers stories less about seduction than about subsequent romantic withdrawal, paranoia and betrayal. Now that's scary.
HBO can count on a much tougher sell for "Women & Men" (premiering Sunday night at 9), which--notwithstanding the saucy subtitle--veers mighty close to PBS territory by offering stately adaptations of time-honored short-story properties, albeit with bigger names in front of and behind the camera. It's worth the effort it might take to find and keep an audience: The episodes on view in the premiere are by turns wildly funny and quietly affecting, and at all times seductively literate.
Wittiest and best of the three is "The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit," with Frederic Raphael (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of "Darling") writing and directing Mary McCarthy's pathos-tinged story about a one-night stand on a railroad car between a haughty left-wing journalist and an initially boorish traveling salesman.
Playing from sophisticated to girlish to churlish--in direct proportion to the alcohol she's consumed--a terrific Elizabeth McGovern reels off one zinger after another, the cynical barbs in her voice-over narration only slightly more stinging than those she aims at her conservative trainmate. ("Stand by for a Fascist invasion," she intones before finally succumbing to his sexual overtures.) Her world-weary, drunken soliloquy about men is both hilarious and moving.
Beau Bridges achieves an equally difficult task, sympathetically taking his middle-class Everyman from obnoxiousness to empathy and creating the kind of character you can believe the liberated McGovern might spend her days pining for.
If only the middle episode, Dorothy Parker's "Dusk Before Fireworks," were cast as well. Elegantly directed by Ken Russell in his most subdued mode, the lighthearted Valerie Curtin teleplay has a wealthy, bathrobe-clad Lothario trying to placate an increasingly suspicious young flapper while fielding calls from other lady friends in his apartment.
It may be that Molly Ringwald is too anachronistic a presence to do justice to the period archness of her lines; the overwhelming effect of her fulsome youth may be intentional, given that Peter Weller, exuding wooden romantic insincerity, appears to be playing older than type in marked contrast.
The subtlest and most serious tone is set with the third episode, director Tony Richardson's filming of one of Hemingway's more female-sympathetic stories, "Hills Like White Elephants." Writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne pad the dialogue a bit more than they might've--as short as the teleplay is, Hemingway's story was even shorter. But it's remarkably faithful to its skimpy source, with a pair of American lovers in Spain bickering over the "it" that neither will refer to out loud: an impending abortion.
Suggesting both meek compliance and a submerged sophistication that may never be allowed to surface, Melanie Griffith's conflict between the desire for settledness and submission to her husband's wanderlust is most poignant, in contrast to the uneasy wavering and hardened manipulativeness of James Woods, who presses for the abortion but makes her feel the decision is hers.
This is no white elephant sale; this is quality stuff. "Women & Men: Stories of Seduction" airs again on HBO Tuesday and Thursday and also Aug. 25, 27 and 29.