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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'Wednesday Woman' Doesn't Let Real Story Get in Its Way

May 19, 2000|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Muriel Davidson, a popular novelist and TV writer who was found shot to death in her Benedict Canyon home in 1983, lives again in a coming CBS movie.

In fact, she never dies.

Welcome to reality, fictional style.

Occasional corner-cutting, fudging and other minor dramatic license you can tolerate. These compromises come with the territory of docudrama, for after all, the literal telling of any true story is just about impossible.

Yet "The Wednesday Woman" lowers the bar well below tolerance by having Davidson, who is played by Meredith Baxter, almost be slain.

Bad enough this drama is flat, listless and formulaic, despite a capable cast that also includes Peter Coyote and John Heard. Much worse is its fanciful and cavalier approach to what actually happened, a truth gap that mars many TV movies ripped from or inspired by headlines, and is getting to be a habit at CBS. Another of its movies this season was a so-called fact-based story about a Beverly Hills murder that those keeping tabs on the area's homicide record say--small detail--did not occur.

The murder of Davidson, at age 59, did.

This will give KCBS, the L.A. station owned by CBS, an opportunity to do a self-serving 11 p.m. news tie-in about the "real story" of Davidson.

Her death was a small footnote of the '80s, and reversing her fate is not on a par historically with, say, someone making a movie about JFK that has him traveling to Dallas in 1963 and not getting assassinated. The more filmmakers cross minor lines, however, the easier it becomes to cross major ones.

CBS says that "The Wednesday Woman" is "based on the life" of Davidson and "suggested by actual events" and "inspired by actual events." Make that uninspired, for the defining act of violence that ended Davidson's life apparently didn't conform to the Nielsen scenario that CBS had in mind for the May ratings sweeps.

The movie's Davidson does live in the Northwest instead of the Santa Monica Mountains. Yet asked to explain why Davidson survives in the movie, a CBS spokeswoman said only: "It's not entirely her story."

Oh.

If the movie didn't intend this to be "entirely her story," all the way to the grisly end, why give the Baxter character Davidson's name and have her lead a life closely paralleling that of the real Davidson? Why not name her Sally Glubberman and make her a doctor or a spot welder?

And why call her husband (Heard) Bill Davidson, which was the name of the real Muriel's husband?

Also:

* In addition to TV scripts, celebrity profiles and other magazine articles and books, the real Davidson wrote a novel titled "The Thursday Woman," about an addictive woman who has an affair with a dangerous fruitcake.

Besides writing for a magazine, the movie Muriel writes a novel with a similar plot titled "The Wednesday Woman."

* The real Muriel was murdered by Robert Thom, an alcoholic whom she met at a hospital where she counseled alcoholics once a week. A police report called the two "quite close." A county probation officer said that just prior to her murder she had tried to sever her sporadic sexual relationship with Thom, who pleaded no contest to second-degree murder and was given a sentence of 17 years to life.

In the movie, Muriel is a recovering alcoholic, as is her psychotic lover (Coyote) who tries to kill her after she wants to end their relationship.

* The real Muriel's slayer was a former aerospace worker. The movie Muriel's lover/tormenter is a former aerospace executive.

* The real Muriel was from Minnesota. The movie Muriel, too.

* The real Muriel's husband was a journalist, as is the movie Muriel's husband, who is determined to rescue her from her recklessness.

But CBS insists this movie--produced by Deborah Gabler, directed by Christopher Leitch and written by Nevin Screiner--isn't "entirely" the real Muriel Davidson's story. Even though it appears to be just that, until the pivotal last scene.

Who's being reckless now?

*

FLAWED MASTERPIECE: "In French, as in English, the word for 'fox'--'renard'--is associated with cleverness and cunning."

That's how the program guide for KCET, whose slogan is "Infinitely More," introduces "Monsignor Renard," the current "Masterpiece Theatre" offering it calls the "latest engrossing drama" from this centerpiece PBS series.

Not entirely engrossing, perhaps.

It turns out that "Monsignor Renard," which stars John Thaw ("Inspector Morse") as a priest who defies the Nazis occupying his French village in 1940, is infinitely less than the "Monsignor Renard" that aired in England and Canada.

No wonder some U.S. viewers are confused by the four-part Carlton Production that premiered May 7 on PBS, and are wondering why Renard returned to his village after leaving 20 years earlier. They're seeing only three parts.

That's because those clever, cunning foxes at WGBH's "Masterpiece Theatre" skipped the opening 75-minute episode of "Monsignor Renard" and launched the story with Part 2. Talk about your shrewd editing.

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