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The Best Years of 'Heidi's' Life : WENDY WASSERSTEIN'S 1988 PLAY IS TOLD ON CABLE--WITH A '95 EPILOGUE

October 15, 1995|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wendy Wasserstein was "beyond nervous" about bringing her watershed 1988 Broadway comedy-drama "The Heidi Chronicles" to the small screen. She was "terrified."

"You feel very protective of ... a play which meant a lot to you and to other people," Wasserstein explains. She notes she recently saw a high school production of "Heidi," which won her a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. "It's just fine as a play. I said, 'Fine. There it is. It's alive and well.' "

And now it's a TNT movie with a cast that includes Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Hulce, Kim Cattrall and Peter Friedman. Paul Bogart ("Broadway Bound") directed; Wasserstein wrote the screenplay.

"Heidi" depicts 30 years in the life of baby boomer art historian Heidi Holland (Curtis), chronicling her personal relationships, her commitment to the women's movement and her career. Hulce plays her best friend, Peter, a gay pediatrician; Cattrall is her flighty friend Susan, and Friedman re-creates his Broadway role as Scoop, Heidi's on-again, off-again boyfriend. Not only was "Heidi" a critical hit, it ran 18 months on Broadway, making it one of the most successful plays written by a woman.

"I'm pleased with how it [the movie] came out," offers Wasserstein, 44, with a broad smile. On this sunny morning, Wasserstein is curled up in an antique chair in her hotel suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena. She frequently breaks into a hearty, infectious giggle. Interviewing Wasserstein is more like visiting with an old chum.

"I was scared about the cuts that I made, that they would work," Wasserstein says. But her fears were assuaged by director Bogart. "I thought, here is a person of substance who understands this and knows this well. From my knowledge of the theater, if your collaboration is right, it's OK."

Curtis as Heidi, the playwright says, adds immensely to the film's success. "She's a positive person. You begin to see this woman and those are interesting choices that she's making. I know a lot of young people, my nieces actually, and they say you have to be married by 26, you have to have your babies by 30. It's interesting to see something about a woman whose life didn't have to have those 'havetas.' You know, one who sort of made it up for herself."

Wasserstein starts giggling. "It's that whole idea, at least when I was growing up, you would find someone who would protect you," she muses. "I think that's so crazy. On particularly bad days, I will think I will just marry a plastic surgeon and move to Scarsdale. Then I think, 'Wendy, it's too late. Why do you think it would be particularly pleasant to be with this person?' I don't know what type of protection is out there."

Originally, Savoy Pictures was set to make "Heidi" as a feature, but it never got off the ground. The excuses Wasserstein heard were: "too elitist or too intelligent or we know this already, 'Murphy Brown' had a baby, or it's dated."

Answers Wasserstein: "It's a chronology. It's supposed to be dated."

After Savoy's flirtation, PBS' "Great Performances"--which presented the production of Wasserstein's first play, "Uncommon Women and Others," to great acclaim--showed interest in "Heidi."

"I have worked with them a lot and I liked them," Wasserstein says. "That sort of fell through." Then she got a call from producer Michael Brandman about adapting it for TNT.

"It took me a long time to make that decision," Wasserstein acknowledges. "I was just worried about it because you feel protective. But I thought, given the temper of the times and all of this stuff about family values, a play which says our friends are our family and has a woman who has a gay best friend and who adopts a baby, I thought, 'Let's do this ...' "

The play ended with a single and content Heidi rocking her adopted baby daughter. The film ends in the present-day with Heidi, her daughter and her friends attending an art gallery exhibit.

In 1988, Wasserstein received a lot of flack from feminists who thought the ending meant a woman could only be happy if she had a child. The criticism shocked Wasserstein. "I thought, it isn't like she's going to stop working," Wasserstein asserts.

Wasserstein gets the giggles when she recalls the time she spoke at Cornell University and two women historians approached her about "Heidi."

"One of them said, 'I have to speak to you about your play. The first act was my life. The second act wasn't.' I said [to myself] 'God, help me.'

The new ending, she says, is an extension of the play. "She's fine. She has organized this exhibit of women painters. There's her daughter and in her world, her friends are her family. That's her world.

"What's good about this, from a feminist perspective and women's perspective, is that here is this play by a woman about women that had made money, was commercially viable, won the Tony Award, the Pulitzer Prize and is done on TNT," Wasserstein says. "No one can say we can't do things about women, that it's not commercial. What was wrong about the feminists is that this is something that opens the field up--don't turn against it. Use it and move on from there. Write a different kind of play, a response. But to turn on it is a mistake."

"The Heidi Chronicles" airs Sunday at 5, 7 and 9 p.m. on TNT; it repeats Wednesday at 7 p.m.; Saturday at 5 p.m.; Oct. 22 at 3 p.m.; Oct. 24 at 5 p.m. and Oct. 26 at 9 p.m.

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