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Barbarians and (Alleged) Cheerleader Murdering Moms: Before HBO was in the TV Show Business

April 25, 2012

Matt Clark (Edward Horrigan) and James Garner (F. Ross Johnson)

Holly Hunter (Wanda Holloway)

As James Wolcott’s recent article in Vanity Fair (and Mark Olsen’s rebuttal in the Los Angeles Times) proved, the argument about whether or not TV is better than movies isn’t going away any time soon (full disclosure; Wolcott was a customer at Movie Place when I worked there from November 2002 to July of 2003, and while we weren’t friends, we had a few nice discussions on subjects ranging from Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Brian De Palma). Since the rise of HBO shows such as OzThe Sopranos and The Wire starting in the late 90’s, TV advocates have not only praised how the medium can support the kind of storytelling movies are unable to do – long-form and complex narratives that can combine epic yet intimate stories and character arcs – but also support writers and directors with a type of environment free of the executive meddling that has plagued most movies these days, and also a way to appeal to an adult audience most studio movies seem to have left behind these days. On the other hand, movie advocates will (rightly) counter how there’s as much crap on TV as there is in movies, and there are still good movies being made if you know where to look (foreign and independent titles). What people seem to forget is this not only isn’t a new debate, it actually had a different element to it at first.

1993 was a very good year for movies; in fact, for me, only 1999 was a better year for movies that decade. There were terrific entertainments (Much Ado About NothingThe Fugitive), but there were also serious directors making serious-minded and probing films, from Hollywood (Fearless – the Peter Weir film – Schindler’s List), the indie scene (Short CutsRuby in Paradise), and abroad, whether in English (The PianoRomper Stomper) or in a foreign language (BlueThe Bride with White Hair). Yet, that same year, HBO released two movies as good as, if not better than, most of the films to hit theaters that year. Both of the films under discussion here – Barbarians at the Gate, directed by Glenn Jordan, and The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader Murdering Mom, directed by Michael Ritchie – are, coincidentally enough, based on truth stories, and both put comic spins on those stories. More importantly, both of them deal squarely with issues still affecting us today – our toxic financial industry and our toxic celebrity culture – and do it with more nuance and intelligence than most of the movies that come out of Hollywood (or indie studios, for that matter) today.

In 1989, KKR (aka Kohlberg, Kravis & Roberts Co.), a private equity firm, ended up buying RJR Nabisco, the conglomerate containing the merger of Nabisco (the food and snack company) and RJR Reynolds tobacco company. How this all came about was detailed in the fascinating book of Barbarians by two Wall Street Journal reporters, Bryan Burrough and John Helyar. Jordan, a TV director best-known for Sarah: Plain and Tall, starring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken, would seem to be an unlikely candidate to translate this story into satire, but he’s smart enough to get out of the way and allow for Larry Gelbart’s screenplay to shine through. Gelbart, the veteran comedy writer who had written for such comics as Jack Benny, Sid Caesar and Bob Hope, as well as on such TV shows as M*A*S*H (as well as movies such as Tootsie), had already shown his penchant for satire the year before in the made-for-Showtime film Mastergate (based on his play), tackling Congress, Hollywood, and the media, but that was just a warm-up for Barbarians.

In one respect, the movie is the story of two notorious businessmen involved in the deal: F. Ross Johnson (James Garner), the CEO of RJR Nabisco, and Henry Kravis (Jonathan Pryce), chairman of Kohlberg, Kravis and Roberts (KKR), an acquisition company. Both are very rich and live ostentatiously, though in different ways; Johnson’s spending is on corporate perks, like the company jets (even one for his German Shepherd), parties, and celebrity golf tournaments he loves to throw, to the consternation of Nabisco head John Greeniaus (Jeffrey DeMunn), while Kravis indulges for himself with art and antiques. Both are on their second marriages, Johnson to Laurie (Leilani Ferrer Sarelle), who is the outsider as far as trophy wives go (she hasn’t had plastic surgery, and eats what she wants), and Kravis to Carolyn Roehm (Rita Wilson), a fashion designer (another of Kravis’ spending habits is he helped set up her business). And both are very stubborn, which is what brings things to a head time and again. Kravis was at the time, the acknowledged king of leveraged buyouts (LBO), which is what happens when an executive of a publicly-owned company (i.e., with stockholders) decides to buy the company and turn it private with the help of money from someone like Kravis (who, with the money, provides the “leverage”). Johnson initially flirts with the idea of turning to Kravis because the stock price isn’t going anywhere (despite how well Nabisco is doing, Johnson’s heart is with the tobacco company, which is under siege at the moment), especially when the so-called Premier cigarettes they have coming out, are, to be blunt, a disaster (the consensus of tests is “they taste like shit”. Literally). However, Johnson balks at the idea of Kravis telling him what to do, especially when it comes to cutting jobs and any of his perks (he seems more concerned about the last part). Instead, he decides to go to Jim Robinson (Fred Dalton Thompson), CEO of American Express, his wife Linda (Joanna Cassidy), who heads a PR firm, and Peter Cohen (Peter Riegert), the chairman of Shearson (at that time partnered with American Express) to do the LBO, and the fun begins.

In focusing on those characters, you could argue Jordan and Gelbart are missing some big picture details, like the fact Kravis (who naturally was offended at being left out and jumped in with his own bid) and Johnson weren’t the only players in the deal; First Boston, an investment bank who was one of the major bidders, is barely mentioned, and Ted Forstmann (David Rasche), head of his own investment firm Forstmann Little, and who considered himself a lone voice in the wilderness against what he saw were the dangers of Kravis’ reliance on “junk bonds” (bonds that pay big dividends, but have a higher risk of defaulting), is also given somewhat short shrift (though, in the book, he’s credited with coming up with the phrase “barbarians at the gate” to describe Kravis and his ilk, and it’s alluded to in the movie). Still, within their focus, Jordan and Gelbart are able to hit their satirical targets with a bulls-eye every time. While they keep their eye on the story, they throw in little details to show the excesses of the business culture, such as Johnson being approached for bids for the company while in the bathroom, Johnson and Edward Horrigan (Matt Clark), director of RJR Reynolds, talking on their phones while on their separate corporate jets, and Cohen’s team literally running from a cab to meet the deadline for their presentation. Obviously, tobacco companies come under fire here (we see Johnson lighting the cigarette of a man who’s coughing heavily, which Gelbart and Jordan wisely don’t harp on), but also in a satirical way, as when Johnson finds out the cigarettes not only taste like shit but also smell like a fart (“It’s one unique advertising strategy, I’ll tell you that!” Johnson  retorts at one point). And though there’s plenty of information and jargon that goes with the story, Gelbart is able to distill it all to its essence, even having minor characters, like Laurie’s masseuse, explain LBO’s to her (the other “little people” in the story are also smart without being sentimentalized; we see a bike messenger calling his broker about RJR Nabisco when he overhears information, while the cleaning woman at the company is able to explain to Johnson what’s going on in the negotiations between Charlie Hugel (Tom Aldredge), the chairman of RJR, and the rest of the board).

But again, the focus is mostly on Johnson and Kravis. We first see Johnson as a little boy delivering newspapers and selling subscriptions, doing whatever he can to be successful at the latter (and we here the defining line about him, when a would-be customer cheerfully complains Johnson “could sell an ice cube to an Eskimo”). I seem to remember some critics at the time having problems with Garner’s performance at Johnson, saying he made Johnson too likable, but since he is a salesman, you’re supposed to find him somewhat likable. And Garner isn’t afraid of Johnson’s darker sides either, like his obsession with keeping corporate perks, his temper, how he loves his wife yet is somewhat condescending to her, how he always feels the need to crack wise (Gelbart, of course, developed and created the TV show of M*A*S*H, which also had characters who reflexively cracked wise), and how he may talk about jobs he wants to protect but seems blithely unconcerned with the consequences of his freewheeling ways (after a contentious meeting with Johnson, Hugel muses, “Now I know what the ‘F’ in F. Ross Johnson stands for”). Of course, no one is completely likable here, from Horrigan flaunting his cigarette in front of Kravis’ partner George Roberts (Peter Dvorsky) to Cohen taking offense from Kravis in a matter of minutes during what’s supposed to be a conciliatory meeting, but Johnson’s hard-charging style and Kravis’ imperial air stand out (though Pryce got good reviews for playing a Bond villain as a corporate smoothie in Tomorrow Never Dies, his performance here precedes it). In 1987, Tom Wolfe, best known for “New Journalism” books like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff, published his first novel, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which took a similarly barbed look at Wall Street culture (though, to be sure, that wasn’t his only target). Brian De Palma’s 1990 movie version of the novel (which, coincidentally enough, also featured Wilson in a small role) was a colossal artistic and box-office failure, and Barbarians can be seen as the movie De Palma’s film wanted to be, in capturing not only the greed of the 80’s, but how it continues to have repercussions today.

In 1991, Wanda Holloway, a Texas housewife, was arrested for solicitation of murder. In her obsession with trying to get her daughter Shanna on the school cheerleading squad, she approached Terry Harper, brother of her ex-husband Tony, about hiring a hitman to take care of Verna Heath, mother of Amber Heath, the girl Wanda saw as Shanna’s main competition. Wanda was found guilty, though the verdict was voided when it was discovered one of the jurors was on probation, and she subsequently pleaded no contest and was sentenced to 10 years in prison (she ended up serving six months, and the rest of the time she was on probation). This definitely sounds like the story of a network made-for-TV movie, desperate to cash in on headlines like this, and, in fact, there was one made for ABC in 1992 – Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story, starring Lesley-Ann Warren as Wanda. Richie and writer Jane Anderson (It Could Happen to You), however, are after something deeper.

In his heyday in the 70’s, Ritchie, while never put on the same plane as other 70’s directors like Coppola and Scorsese, directed some well-regarded, documentary-like satirical movies like The Candidate (about a political campaign) and Smile (about a beauty contest); in her review of the latter, Pauline Kael said he lacked depth, but was a whiz at the found moments and making them funny. On the surface, the story of Cheerleader-Murdering Mom may not seem to have much depth – tabloid culture – but Richie and Anderson are able to find the humor without taking the easy way out. It starts out as a commentary on the media coverage itself, where we see Wanda (Holly Hunter) and Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia) preparing to be interviewed for TV after Wanda’s guilty verdict is overturned.  Even then, her “devotion” to Shanna (or rather, the way she’s living out her dreams through her) is single-minded, to the extent of ignoring her son Shane (Frederick Koehler) – a running gag of the movie is Shane asking his mother and father C.D. (Eddie Jones) for money for a car, only to be ignored. From there, we see how she fixates on her “rival”, Verna (Elizabeth Ruscio) and her daughter Amber (Megan Berwick), as obstacles towards Shanna becoming a cheerleader; at a competition, Wanda expects the judges to let a particular rule slide, but when Verna is the one who points out it should be enforced, that ends up hurting Shanna, and this sends Wanda over the edge, or so it seems.

It’s also at this point we first meet Terry (Beau Bridges), who lives in a trailer park with his crazy wife Marla (Swoosie Kurtz), who thinks she sees “rug monsters” and rubs cleaning fluid on herself (Terry is contrasted with his brother and Wanda’s ex-husband Tony (Gregg Henry), who lives fairly comfortably even though Wanda complains about the money he doesn’t send her and Shanna). Any woman seems sane next to Marla, or so Terry thinks, but when Wanda starts talking about wanting to get rid of Verna, and maybe even Amber, alarm bells start going off in Terry’s head, and he goes to the police, convincing Detective Helton (Gary Grubbs) and Sergeant Blackwell (Jack Kehler) Wanda is serious. Next time Terry meets with Wanda, he tapes her talking again about getting rid of Verna and/or Amber (though when Terry presses the point whether she means murder, she’s vague about it), and this leads to Wanda’s eventual arrest.

It’s at this point Ritchie and Anderson tip their hand. While there have been satirical touches throughout, it’s with Wanda’s arrest that it dips into full-blown satire, as each of the characters are, or become, media-savvy. Verna finds the role of victim to be oddly fulfilling, Tony and Terry start competing to sell the rights to their own stories, and everyone starts thinking about who they should be played by in the ABC movie (Anderson, as herself, interviews Verna about this; she doesn’t like Hunter for Wanda, preferring Susan Lucci instead). And Ritchie and veteran cinematographer Gerry Fisher (The Go-BetweenWise Blood and Ritchie’s previous film Diggstown) give the film a semi-documentary look and style to play against the comic elements, which makes it even funnier.

But the main focus, of course, is on Hunter as Wanda. It would be easy to go overboard here, but Hunter actually gives a grounded, centered performance. She doesn’t downplay Wanda’s obsessiveness, or how self-centered she gets, but even when she’s making overtures towards murder, or so you think, Hunter remains grounded and lucid (Kurtz actually goes more over-the-top, but she makes it funny). And the rest of the cast is equally as good, even people in small roles like Matt Frewer (as Wanda’s lawyer), Giovanni Ribisi (as Shane’s friend, whose joking about murder first plants the idea in Wanda’s head), and Andy Richter (as a police officer). Like many of the well-known directors in the early-to-mid-70’s, Ritchie had fallen on hard times (except for Fletch); this and Diggstown suggested a resurgence, but in reality, it was a last gasp. Still, Cheerleader Murdering Mom has a sharper edge than Ritchie had shown in more than a decade, and more than ever, in an age of fascination with tabloid headlines involving lurid crimes (this came out two years before the O.J. Simpson trial), it remains relevant.

With these movies and other ambitious films such as And the Band Played On (about the history of the AIDS crisis), Citizen X (about the worst serial killer in Russian history) and Doomsday Gun (about the last years of missile scientist Gerald Bull, while he was working for the Iraqis before the first Gulf War), HBO seemed poised to be a haven for smart filmmaking with nuances and characterization not found in most studio films. But as the decade wore on, HBO’s movies, while not devoid of quality, became less distinctive, and by 1997, starting with Oz, it had turned to the types of TV shows that would define their programming over the next decade, doing their own counter-programming against both the networks and the movie studios, instead of, as with movies like Barbarians at the Gate, trying to beat the studios at their own game.

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From → TV movies

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