Jane Fonda brings a literary classic to TV in 'The Dollmaker'
Like father, like daughter. ''The Grapes of Wrath'' was Henry Fonda's 1940 movie celebration of the innate strength of America's Oklahoma ''Okies.'' Now his daughter, Jane Fonda, following in his creative footsteps, is presenting television audiences with an extraordinary film about the innate strength of Kentucky ''hillbillies.''
The Dollmaker (ABC, Sunday, 8-11 p.m.) is based on a 1955 classic novel that came rolling down out of the Kentucky mountains unheralded but quietly triumphant in 1955. It was an instant cult success.
Kentucky author Harriette Arnow's novel was revered for its startlingly accurate sense of time and place, and for its sensitivity to women's sense of self that was then reemerging.With a taut, spare screenplay by Susan Cooper and Hume Cronyn, directed with almost parsimonious restraint by Daniel Petrie, ''The Dollmaker'' traces the life of Gertie Nevels from her tenant farm in the Kentucky hills to the wartime slums of industrial Detroit.
Miss Fonda has finally and completely managed to slough off the ''Barbarella'' glamour image as she portrays a strong woman whose inner resources carry her through hardship and personal tragedy to a point where she is able to recognize her own strength - and use it to make a better life for herself and those around her.
Gertie whittles. She escapes into a creative world - carving dolls from bits of wood - as she raises her family, cultivates the land, saves to buy herself a farm, follows her husband to Detroit. The piece de resistance of her talent is a huge carved cherrywood figure of Jesus which becomes the centerpiece of the climactic moment of this sensitive film, as she recognizes her own power and thus has less need to depend upon this material symbol.
''The Dollmaker'' is a film that would never, in all probability, have been made for American commercial television if not for the professional and economical power of a superstar such as Jane Fonda. She is to be congratulated not only for an acting job superbly done, but for the vision and perseverence she showed in bringing the project to fruition.
For me, the film succeeds, to some extent, because I wanted it so much to succeed. So few major literary works find their way to TV unadulterated that I tend to be kinder, perhaps, to a film such as this because of its lofty intentions, its generous vision, its unpretentious ''take-me-as-I-am air.
If the vision of ''The Dollmaker'' is just a bit stronger than the execution - well, let's just accept it as a lovely, fragrant Mother's Day bouquet to all women. Better yet, to all mankind.