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COVER STORY

When Ties Are Unknotted

In 'We Were the Mulvaneys,' a family is capsized by grief. Cast members dug deep to tap that painful emotion.

April 07, 2002|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The cast and crew of "We Were the Mulvaneys" found it enlightening to talk to Joyce Carol Oates before production began on Lifetime's adaptation of her novel about a well-adjusted family that collapses when the teenage daughter is raped.

"She talked to us about 40 or 50 minutes and talked about where the book came from," says director Peter Werner. "She talked about each character, and it was almost freaky that after the 10 books she's written since this book came out [in 1996], she was still zoned completely in. She mentioned that it was based on two people she knew who had been raped in a small town. One had left and never looked back; the other stayed and committed suicide. She sort of put those two people together."

"Joyce Carol Oates writes really eloquently about the dark side," says Blythe Danner, who plays the Mulvaney matriarch, Corinne. "She really writes about a kind of violent society--a society where she grew up where a lot of these kind of things happened. She had been molested. She has always written about a kind of brutality, but she is such a sensitive soul. It's interesting to see it filtered with her eyes."

Set in the 1970s in a small town, "We Were the Mulvaneys" opens on a family that's as near picture-perfect as possible. Corinne is the loving mother of three sons and a daughter, sells antiques and looks after their farm in upstate New York. Her charming husband, Michael (Beau Bridges), who had survived a horrible childhood and a drinking problem, is a successful builder.

But their world falls apart when their bright, religious 15-year-old daughter, Marianne (Tammy Blanchard), gets drunk at the high school prom and is raped by a popular football player. Unable to cope with the violent incident, Michael starts drinking again. The family finds itself unable to talk about the rape and sends Marianne away to live with a relative. But rather than improving the situation, her absence thrusts everyone further apart.

Danner says Corinne was difficult for her to play because she sends Marianne away. Corinne's "love of her husband must have been stronger than for her children," the actress reasons. "She just detached herself and went forward. Nobody thought of it as permanent, but there was no discussion about bringing her back."

Bridges believes there are lessons to be gleaned from the story.

"We live in a very fast-moving, many times cruel environment," he says. "So a family really needs to have their stuff together so when the outside things happen, they can handle it. In this case, with this family, they all do except for Dad. He is the collateral damage."

A father of four boys and a teenage daughter himself, Bridges maintains that being a father is "the hardest task I have encountered in my life. It is almost one of those impossible tasks to pull off, and this guy, I think, he just shuts down because it was so important for him to be secure, happy. That is all he wants. He really has worked hard. He's compromised. All he desires and hopes and dreams is to make money so he can buy this place, and when the outside world crashes in, he's not prepared for it."

The film, Bridges adds, also explores the healing power of forgiveness and "how important it is and how difficult it is. All of those characters all along the way have someone to forgive. Some of them do and some of them don't."

Blanchard, who won an Emmy as the young Judy Garland in ABC's "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," loved Marianne's strength. The film, Blanchard says, shows "how true faith can get you through anything, even if the pieces fall around you and your loved ones crumble. You stand strong if you have something to stand with, which is faith. She is just a special young woman."

"We Were the Mulvaneys" can be seen Monday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime. The network has rated it TV-14-V-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14, with advisories for violence and coarse language).

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