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Where's the Balance in 'Late Shift'?

March 04, 1996|JOANNA LEE | Joanna Lee is an Emmy Award-winning writer-producer. She has received four Writers Guild of America nominations, four Directors Guild of America nominations and five Emmy nominations. Besides an Emmy for "The Waltons," she has received the Humanitas and Christopher awards. She has just completed her first book, "A Difficult Woman in Hollywood--A Story of Survival."

To quote the TV Times cover story of Feb. 18, "Finding the right actors to play Jay Leno and David Letterman in HBO's 'The Late Shift' was a delicate challenge for executive producer Ivan Reitman." The story goes on to say how actor Daniel Roebuck had to spend 4 1/4 hours in makeup every day to look like Leno. John Michael Higgins was luckier. He had a physical resemblance to Letterman. He just snapped in false teeth. Both researched the role by turning on their television sets. So far so good.

The movie was absolutely riveting. One little problem though. According to the billing the star of the show was Kathy Bates, an enormously gifted actress. Except they weren't calling the part she played Jane Smith or Dolly La Tour. They were calling her Helen Kushnick, a real-life person like the male characters were playing. No prosthesis for her. No hours in makeup. Never mind that she is heavier than Helen Gorman Kushnick, whom I have known for 25 years. Never mind that although little Irish Italian Helen could be volatile and manipulative, she was also funny, warm, sweet and often deeply caring. Of course, she was my agent years ago and people change.

Perhaps Helen got tired of playing cute little girl so she wouldn't threaten the big guys. Perhaps she just grew too old or too angry. Life is always twice as hard for a woman playing hard ball than it is for a man. Then, too, losing a baby son as a result of an AIDS-infected blood transfusion and losing her partner/husband to cancer just a year later could toughen one up a bit. But except for one quick throw-away line, was any of her background alluded to?

In the many movies I wrote and produced over the years the No. 1 concern from the networks was that when presenting a controversial subject there must be balance. The movie I saw didn't come close.

Helen Gorman Kushnick did nothing more than the army of Armani-clad top agents and network execs do every day. Treachery, betrayal and obfuscation fuel the deal. In Hollywood parlance, "It's not personal, it's only business." But to Helen it was personal. Her mistake was she grew too strident. She yelled.

Many of the reviews I read lauded the portrayal of Helen as brilliant and funny. No one mentioned crucifixion, character assassination or public humiliation, so I thought I would.

The score? Old boys' club, 10; Helen Kushnick, 0.

That lady could use a friend.

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