Pay cable's feminist drama of a friendship
The ultimate feminist accommodation movie has found a home on pay cable. Between Friends (HBO, Sunday, Sept. 11, 8-10 p.m., and at least six additional showings on other days at other times, check listings) stars Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett. It is a film that Ms. Magazine might very well have made if it decided to go into film production. (Carol Burnett and the film are featured on that magazine's current cover, by the way.)
''Between Friends'' is an accommodation movie because of many variations of male sexism vs. female resistance and acquiescence are investigated, given a reasonably fair hearing, adjusted slightly, then resolved in a manner totally acceptable to all involved. Well, all except the most extreme male chauvinists, I suppose.
Home Box Office, the most prosperous film producer in America today, has begun to utilize the hundreds of millions of dollars it collects in monthly cable fees in the production of some worthy projects. Many of these projects would not be done at all if not for the bold and innovative initiative of HBO program chief Michael Fuchs (whose horror-film choices, though, have not always been my favorite TV viewing). In the past couple of months there have been ''The Terry Fox Story,'' an inspirational film about a handicapped marathon runner, and ''Mr. Halpern and Mr. Johnson,'' an offbeat little drama starring Laurence Olivier and Jackie Gleason. Other unusual films, for release on HBO and in theaters, are already in production.
''Between Friends,'' based on Shelley List's novel ''Nobody Makes Me Cry,'' deals with two mature divorcees, one who feels totally dependent upon men, the other who uses them only for casual promiscuity. Elizabeth Taylor plays a self-described ''Jewish princess'' with uncanny reality; Carol Burnett portrays a cold, hardened ''achiever'' with equal skill.
Their unlikely meeting and unpredictable friendship evolves into bonded sisterhood and allows both to become more appreciative of each other as well as themselves. Thus they are able to take what comes in the world with a more healthy perspective.
Although the script is often guilty of exploitation because of near-explicit immorality and foul language, the film turns out to be basically a morality tale - although the morality is taken from 1970s pop psychology and 1960s feminist position papers. Skillful direction by Lou Antonio prevents it from deteriorating into soap opera . . . although it comes close in several instances.
Because ''Between Friends'' has a kind of suburban-chic quality - decorator-plush, satin-savvy, and three-car garage-ish - there may be a tendency to regard it on its most simplistic, superficial level. But the message about the need for self-respect which it delivers is an important one.
The cathedral-ceilinged rooms of this opulent movie are overstuffed with superb stunt-performances by Liz and Carol, who make the most of the opportunity to laugh hysterically, cry similarly, attempt suicide, and you name it. It makes for sometimes engrossing melodrama, but overflows with a somewhat unrealistic lush suburban materialism. ''Between Friends'' also boasts tough direction and lovely cinematography. The production is aimed at an affluent segment of the HBO audience, but for the rest of broadcast America it may be an excursion into the wild territory of fantasyland. A sometimes enjoyable roller-coaster of a ride, but a puzzling one no less. A Chat with Marion Rees Los Angeles
Executive producer Marion Rees has been involved in the production of some of the most relevant TV shows of recent years: ''The Marva Collins Story,'' ''The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman,'' ''Queen of the Stardust Ballroom,'' ''Tell Me Where It Hurts'' and ''Orphan Train.'' ''Between Friends'' is a production of her own company as is a forthcoming CBS drama special about drunken drivers, ''License To Kill.'' We met to chat about ''Between Friends'' but our conversation delved into the ticklish area of TV handling of current social topics.
''American television seems to have weathered a difficult period during which exploitive subject matter was handled too glibly,'' he says. That is now coming to an end. And TV seems to be emerging with the ability to handle relevant material deli
cately,'' says Ms. Rees. This producer of quality programming utilizes her casually coiffed gray hair as a startling accent to her stylishly youthful appearance - one that belies 30 years of experience.
''But maybe that is because TV is following social change. Even as society we are redefining, looking for new values. Life is problem solving, isn't it? The educational system in this country is in drastic need of attention so that the safety of the individual to grow to his own potential can be secured. But, if you can't read and write and don't have a mathematical sense of thought processes, how can you be expected to solve problems?''
Producer Rees touched on that problem in the recent ''Marva Collins Story.'' The show concerned an inner-city teacher who is determined to teach unteachable students.
What new relevant subjects will Ms. Rees tackle next?
''Thrusting children into immature maturity is the theme of 'Too Fast, Too Soon.' Humans need natural processing - and when you move a 12-year-old into adult behavior too soon, it is a diminution of the human condition. A child who is robbed of the time may never recover from the loss.
''The whole subject of parenting interests me, although I am not a parent. But obviously parenting is a very special ability that can only be administered well by a mature person. I want to do a film about that.
''And then there is 'In This Sign,' a book by the author of 'I Never Promised You a Rose Garden.' It's the definitive book of the nonhearing world. I want very much to do that picture.''
ABC has a drama special for the new season about father-daughter incest which some people may find objectionable because of the topic. Does Ms. Rees feel that TV can handle any topic in its drama specials?
She thinks about that for a moment, seems just a bit reluctant to comment, but then says thoughtfully: ''No. We may have already touched the limits. I sense the pendulum is swinging back. Not to extreme conservatism. But coming back to a more controlled and rational handling by the media.
''There must be some limits. There must be less exploitation. And that is coming about because TV has developed more skilled writers who can handle delicate material delicately. I believe the public wants it to be that way. But, the limits of good taste should always be there.''
Ms. Reese confides that it has taken several years to find a place in the media for ''Between Friends.''
''The film is now really the story of a friendship between two women, the beauty of friendship, the power of love. We can come through the worst crises in our lives through interrelationships. People can help lead each other toward self-perception so that they can evolve a different agenda for the rest of their lives.
''That's my own feeling. And that's what the film is all about. That's what life is all about, too, isn't it?''