13 August 2002 | petershelleyau
duelling typewriters and egos
This made-for-TV movie about the 30 year old relationship between writers Dashiell Hammett (Sam Shepard) and Lillian Hellmann (Judy Davis) gives more detail than what was presented in Fred Zinnemann's 1977 feature Julia which starred Jason Robards and Jane Fonda as Hammett and Hellmann respectively.
The teleplay by Jerry Ludwig frames Hellmann's memory of Hammett, who she met in Hollywood in the 1930's, with her appearance in Washington in 1952 for the House Un-American Activities Committee, who had subpoened her. The majority of the narrative is then in flashback testiment to their stormy relationship which resulted in her being treated as Hammett's widow when they had never married. Both characters are presented as alcoholic and promiscuous, the selfish artist who lives beyond the acceptable moral code, both with career peaks and lows, and the difference in their ages - Hammett was much older than Hellman - not an issue. It is Ludwig's conceit that Hammett based his Thin Man series on himself and Hellman, and whilst the inclusion of film of William Powell and Myrna Low in the Thin Man feature by director Kathy Bates is pleasing, it also shows that different the real Hellmann was to Hammett's idealised version. As the treatment is clearly told from Hellmann's point of view, with her final deference to Hammett as the greater artist, it's surprising that she is described as a `ballbuster'. Ludwig has Hellmann tell Hammett her biography in an amusing dismissive way, he includes actors rehearsing Hellmann's hit play The Children's Hour, when Hammett shows concern over Hellmann cutting his hair she replies `My contented customers include Vincent Van Gogh', and Lillian's desperate finances forcing her to work in a department store has great comic potential.
Shepard's casting provides a nice resonance, although his Hammett is less realised as a character than Hellmann, possibly because he is weakness to her strength. However Davis is more successful. A master at playing cynical neurotics, Davis' initial seduction of Shepard and her drunk scenes are hilarious, one on a staircase in particular has her both ferocious and poetic. She presents Lillian as a sensualist and looks beautiful in the period clothes by Nic Ede. Davis' American accent has the suggestion of Hellmann's New Orleans origins, and Bates gives her a long reaction shot to news of cancer.
Also good is Bebe Neuwirth as Dorothy Parker, her alcoholism paralleled with that of Hammett's, and her sense of humor with Hellmann's lack of same. Bates uses newsreel footage and mixes in recreations for Hammett's WW2 involvement, and a wedding announcement defies an expectation, but the music score of Laura Karpman is too much, distracting us from the actor's faces in close-up.