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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Three Semi-Cheers for 'Cheerleading- Murdering Mom'

April 09, 1993|HOWARD ROSENBERG

After all the tabloid stories and an ABC movie on the same topic, the Wanda Holloway-Plots-Murder-to-Advance-Her-Daughter's-Cheerleading-Career story needs more television time the way Cyrano needs more nose.

Nevertheless, coming to the screen is "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleading-Murdering Mom," a comical, bulbous schnoz of a movie offering evidence anew of TV's crime gluttony and HBO's intent to redefine at least some docudrama as farce.

Heady from last month's ratings success of "Barbarians at the Gate," its facetious account of the leveraged buyout of corporate giant R.J.R. Nabisco, HBO follows up at 8 p.m. Saturday with a black-comedy version of a case in which Holloway allegedly hoped to gain a spot on the high school cheerleading squad for her 13-year-old daughter, Shanna, by having the mother of a rival killed.

"The things you do for your children," quips Holloway (Holly Hunter), now awaiting a new trial after her conviction and 15-year sentence for murder solicitation were tossed out on a technicality.

If last year's lowly "Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story" on ABC rated no pompons, HBO's "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleading-Murdering Mom" is a tailor-made hoot for Michael Ritchie, a director especially noted for movies that depict the dark side of competition ("Downhill Racer," "Smile," "The Candidate").

Just as "Barbarians at the Gate" scriptwriter Larry Gelbart is best known for writing such comedies as "Tootsie" and TV's "MASH," so has Ritchie been associated mainly with comedies. And he comes through here with a movie that, especially in its second half, is highly amusing.

Although TV docudramas have been fibbing for years, HBO is now providing an added twist in some instances by dropping even the pretense of truthfulness, in effect using skilled comedy writing to legitimize lying. Laughter is seductive, and no one is saying the world will somehow be significantly deprived by not knowing the full truth about this case. Yet entertainment aside, this trend of entrusting docudramas to specialists in humor is dangerous, suggesting that it's acceptable to overtly twist facts in the name of fun.

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Meanwhile, Ritchie and scriptwriter Jane Anderson not only present Channelview, Tex., homemaker Holloway as a worst-case metaphor for all fanatically pushy parents of junior athletes and performers, but also extend their indictment to the disgusting media predation generated by this case. The media slam is done self-mockingly, for the Hollywood frenzy over story rights depicted here is one in which the producers of this film themselves greedily and aggressively took part.

In fact, greed is the story's subtext, something the movie treats hilariously as the various figures in the case revel in their five minutes of fame, taking meetings, doing lunches and negotiating deals for their stories. Divorced from Wanda, Shanna's sleazy father, Tony Harper (Gregg Henry), searches for a lawyer to "help me get a good deal on the movie rights." Later, he's on the phone trying to sell family pictures to a tabloid for $1,000 each. "OK, $500. Plus I can give you insight as to the nature of my ex-wife. Plus, I can get you access to my daughter, Shanna, my son, Shane, and my brother, Terry."

Then Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia) accuses her father of selling her rights. "Mom said you're stealing my story."

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Later, scriptwriter Anderson surfaces in her own movie as herself, informing Verna Heath (Elizabeth Ruscio), the woman Holloway allegedly targeted, that Hunter may be hired to play Wanda. "She's not right," Verna replies. Still later, Tony Harper worries that ABC's movie will be classier than HBO's, telling Anderson that he heard the ABC version was "going to be real, wasn't going to be exploitative, nothin' like that."

Anderson replies: "Never believe what a writer tells you." Or everything in a docudrama.

Yet much of this one is very funny. And even many of the indisputable facts of this case need no embellishment to read like the punch line to a joke. Holloway stands accused of seeking the murder of Heath, a neighbor whose popular daughter, Amber, appeared to have a lock on the cheerleading position wanted by Shanna. The criminal charge arose from conversations Holloway had with her former brother-in-law, Terry Harper, in which she asked him to put out a contract on Verna, in hopes that losing her mother would make Amber too distraught to compete for the cheerleading squad. Holloway was unaware that Harper was taping their talks for authorities.

When confronted by authorities, she claimed she hadn't been serious. However, although she laughed and giggled a lot on the actual tapes, Holloway sounded very serious.

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