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COVER STORY

A Mad Romance

May 30, 1999|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the simplest of terms, A&E's "Dash and Lilly" is a cross between "A Star Is Born" and "The Days of Wine and Roses."

The drama, which premieres Monday night on the cable network, chronicles the tempestuous 30-year relationship between legendary writers Dashiell Hammett and Lillian Hellman.

Playwright / actor Sam Shepard ("The Right Stuff," "Baby Boom") stars as Hammett, the former Pinkerton detective who changed the face of modern detective stories with such novels as "The Maltese Falcon." Oscar nominee Judy Davis ("A Passage to India," "Husbands and Wives") plays Hellman, the feisty, opinionated writer who penned such acclaimed plays as "The Children's Hour," "The Little Foxes" and "Another Part of the Forest."

"Dash and Lilly" also marks the feature-length directorial debut of Oscar-winning actress Kathy Bates ("Misery," "Primary Colors"), who previously directed episodes of "NYPD Blue," "Oz" and "Homicide: Life on the Street."

"I think their professional connection was the purest part of the relationship," says Bates of Hellman and Hammett. "They were star-crossed lovers. It just wasn't a match made in heaven. It was a match made in hell more of the time."

"They couldn't live without each other," adds screenwriter Jerry Ludwig ("Columbo," "Hawaii Five-O"), "and had a hell of a time living with each other. It is called a dysfunctional bonding pattern. You hurt me, I hurt you. But we put the wagons in a circle when there is an outer danger."

When Hammett and Hellman met in Hollywood in 1930, they both were married. But they were instantly smitten with each other and left their spouses. Weaving in and out of their lives in both Hollywood and New York was the acerbic, witty writer Dorothy Parker (Bebe Neuwirth).

Despite their passion for each other, their life together was marked by drunken rages and heated battles. Hammett was a womanizer and in turn, Hellman had her share of flings. But they would always return to each other.

The characters of the sophisticated sleuths Nick and Nora Charles who inhabited Hammett's last novel, "The Thin Man," were based on their lives.

Both politically liberal, their involvement in Marxist causes in the '30s haunted them during the 1950s McCarthy era. Hammett spent six months in prison for not cooperating with the House Un-American Activities Committee. Though Hellman also refused to name names, she was spared prison. But her career went into a downward spiral. At one point she worked as a department store clerk until her resurgence in the 1960s.

"When I first read the script I was caught by the fact that there were these people who beat the [expletive] out of each other," says Bates, "but when it was time for her to stand up and be counted, she did the right thing. For me, that was the thing that drew me to it."

Bates credits her two stars for making these rather unlikable characters sympathetic. "I think they loved these characters," says Bates. "When you watch the film, they begin to grow on you.

"If I can show the humanity of the people that I act," Bates add, "or as a director, then it teaches people they can walk in somebody else's shoes for an hour and see the world from their point of view. That's my philosophy. That's what I like to try to do."

"I think she was a bad person in many ways," says Ludwig of Hellman, who he knew briefly when he was a publicist on the 1961 film version of "The Children's Hour." "But you have to filter in Hammett's influence--the example he set. He was her conscious. He would sort of raise an eyebrow [when she would have a tantrum] and she could come off of it. She certainly turned into much more of a dragon lady once he was gone."

Despite Hammett's flaws, Ludwig says, he liked the author from the very beginning of his research. Hellman was a different matter.

"Midway through the research, I got depressed and annoyed about her. It just seemed-'Why am I writing about her'?" recalled Ludwig. "I actually came to a stop and thought about it for a while."

Eventually he came to the decision that one should judge a person by how they behave under difficult circumstances and in moments of crisis. "In those moments, she came through," Ludwig says.

"She didn't take the easy way out with the House committee. She stuck by Hammett until the day he died. She was also very supportive of Dorothy Parker, in other ways, who was an alcoholic near the end of her life. When I thought, 'What is good about this woman?' You sort of add it up and she comes out with a pretty high score."

"Dash and Lilly" premieres Monday at 5 and 9 p.m. on A&E. It also repeats Saturday at 6 and 10 p.m. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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