'Martha Behind Bars': The Jailbird Who Famously Feathered Her Nest

Martha Stewart (Cybill Shepherd) stands trial for securities fraud and other charges in
Martha Stewart (Cybill Shepherd) stands trial for securities fraud and other charges in "Martha Behind Bars." (By Ben Mark Holzberg -- Cbs)

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By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 24, 2005

"Martha Behind Bars" -- does anyone really wonder which "Martha" that's bound to be? -- is not only a disappointment but something of a cheat. By rough calculation, Martha's only behind bars for 30 minutes of the picture, which is but a third of it with commercial time subtracted.

Compared with that depressing statistic, it's only a minor discrepancy that there are, in fact, no bars. Not so's you'd notice. Inmates, all women, at the Alderson Federal Prison Camp to which Martha Stewart is sentenced for five months, occupy less formal sorts of cells. They're cinderblock cubicles, really, without big clanging doors. Stewart's even has a window with a pleasant view of the world outside.

The film, CBS's Sunday night movie at 9 on Channel 9, is a virtual but not official sequel. "Martha, Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart," which covered Stewart's rise to prominence as America's scrappiest happy homemaker -- and also benefited greatly from having Cybill Shepherd in the lead role -- aired on NBC in May 2003. Since then, of course, Stewart's immaculately configured and tastefully appointed world came tumbling down, Stewart having been found guilty of obstruction and other charges related to an insider trading scandal.

Where the previous movie aspired to be a camp classic, "Martha Behind Bars" takes itself more seriously, and less entertainingly. There aren't scenes to equal the crowd-pleasers of the first film, as when Stewart tossed a copper pot at a disloyal underling or hurled the "b" word (the five-letter one) at the mother of a young woman she suspected of philandering with her hubby. It was a drive-by spewing.

About the closest the new film gets is a fairly delicious sequence set in prison -- a Christmas decorating contest that the fellow members of Stewart's cell block feel they have absolutely no chance of losing. After all, they have the queen of arts and crafts in their midst. Imagine their chagrin and disgruntlement at winning second place, not to mention Stewart's personal outrage and horror. She knew prison would be no picnic -- but a living hell like this?!

The salt in the wound: The winning entry stinks. Just some gloppy old gingerbread house or something, a sodden lump when contrasted with Stewart's graceful little origami bird mobiles. Prison is, of course, insulting and demeaning, but Stewart doesn't face as many comeuppances as one might expect. She learns, the hard way, not to bring them on herself. After leaving the showers and complaining to a guard that "there's no shower slippers and the floors -- well, they're beyond disgusting," Stewart is given the job of cleaning them on her hands and knees.

"Bad girl, bad girl, Martha was a bad girl," the other prisoners chant.

Shepherd's performance as Stewart this time out is heftier both in physical terms (prompting one to wonder if she gained weight for the part or failed to lose enough for it) and dramatic. She artfully mimics Stewart's revealing mannerisms, including the regal walk and the straight-ahead stare -- outward expression of her stubborn unflappability, which crystallizes in Stewart's famous-last-words declaration to lawyers preparing her case, "I am not going to jail."

By the movie's account, she needn't have gone and could have avoided it if she'd only accepted a deal offered by the prosecution: Admit one mistake, lying to the Securities and Exchange Commission, and earn a lighter-than-air sentence. But no. Admit one mistake? Sacre bleu !

"I've done nothing wrong," she insists, proving herself even better at egotistical self-delusion than at making origami birds.

Too much of the movie consists of meetings and of scenes in which Stewart dashes from appointment to appointment in her GMC SUV, multitasking her little fanny off (well, not little in this dramatization) and playing with panache the role she has chosen for herself. She's already divorced when the movie begins and she shows no particular interest in becoming romantically involved with anyone. She'll flirt, sure, but only to get her way. There's a pathos as well as a funny futility to her rigid determination.

In triumph, she always gloats, as when her company goes public and it's said that she makes a billion dollars in a single day. Not only that but an assistant utters three words that are unerring indicators, in America, anyway, that one has arrived: "Larry King called." Unfortunately, writer Charles Bohl fails to include such potentially yummy scenes as the one in which Stewart freaked out during an appearance on the CBS "Early Show," peppered with questions about her legal troubles as she chopped up a salad.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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