Showtime’s ‘Geraldine Ferraro’: A political icon who paved the way, but faded quickly


Geraldine Ferraro is the subject of a new Showtime documentary. (Dazzling Media/Showtime)
Hank Stuever
TV critic March 20

In the intriguing documentary “Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way,” airing Friday on Showtime, a viewer clearly gets the sense of duty and devotion that brought this project about: Donna Zaccaro, a former “Today” show producer and the oldest of Ferraro’s three children, made the film because she worries people are already beginning to forget her mother, who died of cancer in 2011 at age 75.

It’s possible that a younger generation has. (A colleague reports that the words “Geraldine Ferraro” mostly make him think of a line from a Wu-Tang Clan song.) One aspect of the often fascinating footage culled for “Geraldine Ferraro” is the astonishing distance we’ve traveled from the look and feel of the summer of 1984, when Democratic presidential nominee Walter F. Mondale picked Ferraro, a third-term congresswoman from New York, as his running mate. The Mondale-Ferraro ticket, as history has written, was up against the essentially undefeatable popularity of Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” reelection campaign, but, as the film reminds us, Ferraro’s nomination was every bit the milestone.

Hank Stuever has been The Post's TV critic since 2009. He joined the paper in 1999 as a writer for the Style section, where he has covered an array of popular (and unpopular) culture across the nation. View Archive

I don’t know that it’s possible to set aside politics from our 2014 perspective, but any fool can get a sense from this film of the rapturous, nationwide glee that accompanied the news that a woman had at last made it to a presidential ticket. It was a huge day; little did anyone know that another 24 years would elapse before it happened again.

Zaccaro’s film is made from that place of daughterly and feminist pride, which gives it a sense of the official and the emotional, but also lessens some of its insight. Before Ferraro died, Zaccaro persuaded her mother to sit for the camera and recount her life story — which, by the way, would be remarkable even without the vice presidential nomination.

Ferraro is matter-of-fact about the gender norms and good-Catholic-girl rules that formed her early life and the contradictions that followed: She went to law school surrounded by men. She kept her maiden name professionally. But she also obeyed husband John Zaccaro’s demands that she stay at home with the kids, which she did for a decade.

It seemed victory enough that her late-blooming career took her from a job as a Queens County prosecutor in 1974 to winning a House seat four years later as a “tough Democrat” who ran a hard race in a conservative, Archie Bunker district. On Capitol Hill, Ferraro’s determination and eloquence quickly caught the attention of the Democratic leadership and the rest is, if not capital-H history, then a big footnote to it.

Ferraro’s upward trajectory was continually dogged by questions about her husband’s finances, starting with his improper contributions to her first campaign and blowing up in the summer of ’84 when he refused to make public his tax returns, which he’d always filed separately from his wife’s. Thus launched a season of acrimonious conversations about marriage, partnership, money and even Italian stereotypes.

Donna Zaccaro doesn’t leave any of this out — including an attempt to get her guarded father, now 80, to open up about the stress that the scrutiny brought to the family and the marriage.

“Geraldine Ferraro” is far more successful in getting more than two dozen of Ferraro’s colleagues, supporters and even one-time adversaries (including George H.W. and Barbara Bush) to ebulliently recall her energy and passion for public service.

After Reagan’s landslide win, a hint of wistfulness runs through the remainder of the film, as Zaccaro chronicles her mother’s two failed Senate primary campaigns and her attempts to remain vital to whatever political conversation was happening. There seems to be a message here, somewhat muddled, about Ferraro’s — or anyone’s — ability to control how history will remember us.

‘Blondie’s New York’

It may seem like a wild swerve to include “Blondie’s New York” in this review (also airing Friday, on Smithsonian Channel), but, really, is the distance so great between Ferraro’s New York of the late 1970s and the original CBGB scene, where a band fronted by a female singer faced as much skepticism as a woman on the presidential ticket?

This plain and simple documentary recounts the making of Blondie’s now-classic 1978 album “Parallel Lines.” In separate interviews, the band members listen to masters of tracks from the album and reminisce not only about the songs but about the gritty, arty (and assumed to be forever lost) Gotham that informed them.

I find rockumentaries about albums (such as Davis Guggenheim’s 2011 film about the making of U2’s “Achtung Baby”) are preferable to more sweeping attempts to make rockumentaries about groups. “Blondie’s New York” is an efficient inquiry into the mechanics of the album’s 12 songs, including “Hanging on the Telephone” and “One Way or Another.”

Itching for a hit to make good on a million-dollar record deal, Chrysalis Records and Blondie brought in a meticulously pop-minded producer, Mike Chapman, who gives delightful interviews here about the recording process. Woven into this is some valuable hindsight about image, particularly as it concerned the trendsetting look and moves of Blondie’s lead singer, Debbie Harry, and how audiences — and the music industry — responded to her.

The members of Blondie knew this album would finally ostracize them from their punk peers, especially once people heard the perfectly disco-fied, ingeniously layered, surefire hit single “Heart of Glass.” The song is still huge. “Every band in that little [CBGB] world, regardless of what they say — they all wanted a big hit,” says keyboardist Jimmy Destri. Selling out never sounded sweeter.

Geraldine Ferraro: Paving the Way

(90 minutes) airs Friday at 9 p.m. on Showtime.

Blondie’s New York

(one hour) airs Friday at 10 p.m. on Smithsonian Channel.

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