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Mom Vs. Mom : Texas cheerleading case is re-enacted as the real players watch from sidelines

April 04, 1993|MICHELE WILLENS | Michelle Willens is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer who contributes to Calendar and TV Times

It's over 100 degrees this August day in Monrovia. Inside the Foothill Gymnasium--redesigned to resemble Alpha Gymnastics of Channelview, Tex.--cool air is blasting, but at least two fevers are rising. Mother and daughter Verna and Amber Heath are watching themselves being portrayed in HBO's version of the Texas cheerleading case: the almost-murder allegedly perpetrated by one competitive mom on another. And they're not smiling.

"I didn't coach her from the sidelines like that," says Verna, the target of neighbor Wanda Holloway's plot to kill. "If there's one thing I don't do, it's break the rules." She points to a large sign along the wall that reads: "Parents, please refrain from coaching."

And 15-year-old Amber, who beat out Wanda's daughter Shanna for a coveted cheerleading spot, watches her young look-alike do a few tumbles and then looks to her actress-mom for approval. Realistic?, she's asked. "Not really," says the teen-ager.

The Heath family had pretty much regretted its decision to sell its story to HBO ever since they read the cable network's description of the film--titled "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom" and airing Saturday night on HBO--as a black comedy.

"When I read that, I wanted to come out here and punch someone in the face," says Jack Heath, father of Amber. Instead, the family accepted an all-expenses trip from HBO to visit the set for a few days and meet their docudrama counterparts. "Well, it was free and we needed a vacation," Verna says.

When the case broke, it led to a feeding frenzy among the media, and producers camped out in the tiny town of Channelview to gobble up the rights of the participants. When the dust had settled, there was enough for two TV movies: last year"s traditional retelling of the story on ABC, called "Willing to Kill" and starring Lesley Ann Warren as Wanda. And now the rock and rolling HBO version that features Holly Hunter in the same role.

The HBO movie, which seems to have found the perfect director in Michael Ritchie ("Smile," "The Candidate"), entails not only the story of the feuding Heaths and Holloways, but also the ensuing media circus. In fact, some of the reporters portray themselves, and even the battle between HBO and ABC is enacted.

Surrounded this smoldering day by young actor-gymnasts, Ritchie is all smiles and energy. When he settles down for a break, he explains why this was the first project in 25 years to bring him back to the small screen.

"It was simply the best script I'd read since 'Smile,' " he says. "Not only was it all true, but there were no composite characters, no shrinking of time. And just when I thought the writer (Jane Anderson) had done everything, a whole third act begins, which is about how this story became larger than life on both the highest and lowest levels."

Ritchie sees the film as being about not only the incident at its heart but also about TV journalism ethics and what he calls "our public appetite: the sleaze factor that has overwhelmed America." His participation was a real draw for much of the HBO cast.

"The writing was so compelling and amusing," adds Hunter, who also stars in the upcoming feature film "The Firm." "It cried out to be spoken aloud, to have a life. And while I can't say I liked Wanda, there was something endearing about her. She is a woman incapable of trust, or of being trustworthy. And she's a woman for whom the best part of her life probably ended in her adolescence, so she is still there emotionally. And yet I liked her sense of humor and her survivor instinct."

Ironically, actress Beth Ruscio was approached by ABC about playing Verna, but she'd already signed with HBO. Her physical resemblance to Heath is uncanny, obvious to everyone on the set.

All the actors are hoping to fill out roles that could easily become black and white. "He's a little good and a little bad, which is what makes him interesting," says Beau Bridges about Terry Harper, Wanda's former brother-in-law to whom she allegedly goes seeking a hit man. Harper had had former problems with the law, though ultimately he's the one who turned Wanda in to authorities.

Swoosie Kurtz, who plays Terry's fifth wife, took on the HBO movie even though it meant running from her day job as well-heeled Alex in "Sisters." "Instead of being exhausted, I was exhilarated," says Kurtz, "because the two roles are so different."

Kurtz's portrayal of a woman who spends most her time scrubbing the sink and hearing voices in her head walks that thin line between certifiable and empathetic, between satire and realism.

As does the whole movie. Ritchie & Co. say the folks of Channelview should not be offended by what they ultimately see.

"Actually what they'll feel is probably what they felt through the whole ordeal," says Hunter. "Those people sought a quick hit of fame, then later they found it a violation. The movie has humor but it's not mocking. It's much more complicated than that and we think the people involved probably are too."

"The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO.

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