Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Film Actresses Find Second Lives on TV

Whatever happened to Katharine Ross?

“Katharine who?” you might ask.

Remember “Elaine,” “Mrs. Robinson”’s daughter, in “The Graduate”? The gorgeous young woman “Benjamin” traveled back and forth between L.A. and U.C. Berkeley (erroneously driving across the Golden Gate Bridge to reach the East Bay from San Francisco!) to visit.
Within months, Ross became America’s sweetheart, which led to starring roles in “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and “The Stepford Wives” (the original version, before Nicole Kidman and Christopher Walken camped-up the remake in 2004). Soon after the release of “The Graduate,” both actor Dustin Hoffman and director Mike Nichols became (and have remained) household names. But, unless pressed, who can recall the spunky, diminutive, long-auburn-tressed actress, who turned 68 in January (and remains a true Hollywood anomaly: an actress whose body is a plastic surgery-free zone).

Hollywood history is filled with examples of many a talented actress, who often shared a similar fate. (Although, no doubt until her dying day, Meryl Streep will continue dazzling movie audiences with her verbal gymnastics of obscure languages and her ability to learn yet another musical instrument.) But, I believe, the summer of 2007 may be remembered as the year cable television discovered movie actresses of a certain age and cast them in their own weekly-serialized dramas.

I hope you haven’t missed an episode of the riveting “Damages” on FX (Tuesdays at 10 PM), starring 58-year-old Glenn Close, the actress audiences love to hate (“Fatal Attraction,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “101 Dalmatians”). Nominated five times for Oscar’s Best Actress Award, Close –– with her scary smile and demonic stare –– once again makes your skin crawl as Patty Hewes, the cold-blooded New York litigation attorney. But, unlike “Fatal Attraction”’s Alex Forrest, who boils bunnies for fun, Patty’s own Machiavellian tendencies are tempered by trouble at home. Namely, a son who purchases hand-grenades on line and delivers them, courtesy of Uncle Sam’s postal service, directly to Mom’s office. Yes, that could give even the most hard-bitten, unsentimental parent pause for thought.

Holly Hunter, the versatile 49-year-old Oscar winner for “The Piano,” assumes the titular role (and a producing credit) in TNT’s “Saving Grace” (Mondays at 10 PM). Grace Hanadarko (“darko” … get it? she’s a badass.), a police detective working in Oklahoma City, drives a beat-up old Porsche –– as she swigs from a whiskey bottle, sleeps with a married man, and disputes the existence of God with a (what else is new these days?) crusty angel, who drinks beer day and night, “chaws tobacca,” and could double as a country-Western singer. Hunter is ever watchable, even though, as Grace, her performance is a few notches below what we’ve come to expect from the quirky skills she displays in “The Incredible,” “Thirteen,” “The Firm,” and “Raising Arizona.”

If you’re a fan of Indies, you’re probably familiar with Lili Taylor (“I Shot Andy Warhol,” “Dogfight,” “Household Saints,” “Casa de los babys,” “Factotum,” as well as HBO’s “Six Feet Under”). In Lifetime’s “State of Mind” (Sundays at 9 PM) Taylor (at 41, the baby among the trio) plays psychiatrist Dr. Ann Bellowes. Although the series was created by Amy Bloom, a writer and psychotherapist –– without being too self-referential here –– Bellowes bears not the slightest resemblance to any psychiatrist I’ve ever met. She’s too “normal,” for starters. Taylor has a sweet way about her, but the series tries to do too much and with too many characters. By the third episode, I’d already lost interest.

Cable’s efforts to identify the segment of an audience that mirrors their leading ladies “of a certain age” –– just as “Sex in the City” appealed to women in their 30s –– is working.

Perhaps next summer they’ll even surprise us with a new drama, starring the still effervescent and natural Katharine Ross. Now that’s a series I’d look forward to.

NOTE: This article originally appeared in Cathleen's Cinema and Culture Column in the “The Santa Cruz Sentinel” on 24 August 2007.


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