Sinise Shines as Wallace
In Controversial Cable Biopic
By John S. Pancake
George Wallace, the mean little rooster of American politics, comes to life this weekend in a two-part TNT movie that airs several times tomorrow and Tuesday nights.
Wallace's story is a certifiable American epic a tale about the power of hatred and fate and perhaps even redemption.
The movie lasts four hours, which is a long time to spend with George Corley Wallace, but it's worth catching thanks to the sorcery of Gary Sinise, who transforms himself into Wallace in a way that will make your skin crawl.
It's as if lovable Lieutenant Dan from "Forrest Gump" (a role that won Sinise an Oscar nomination) had ingested the former Alabama governor's DNA. He has perfected Wallace's walk, his serpentine quickness (Wallace was a bantamweight Golden Gloves champion), his arsenal of smiles, his magnetic defiance, his hypnotic cadences, even that trademark forelock that arched back across his scalp like a cockscomb.
Sinise is so good that I found myself trying to figure out what the real Wallace had that Sinise's Wallace is missing. (Scarier eyebrows.) It is a tour de force.
Eccentric director John Frankenheimer ("Birdman of Alcatraz," "The Manchurian Candidate") and writer Marshall Frady have built a plot that begins at the middle and jumps forward and back in time. This approach is mildly confusing but allows the filmmakers to draw some interesting comparisons.
"George Wallace" begins with the 1972 assassination attempt in Laurel, Md., that left the politician confined to a wheelchair. From Laurel, Frankenheimer wades back through the rich ferment of Wallace's political career, showing how "Big Jim" Folsom (a wooden Joe Don Baker) ran interference for Wallace early on. Folsom, though a boozehound and womanizer, was the closest thing we folks in Alabama had to a racially moderate governor, and the young Wallace followed in Folsom's wake.
But after losing his first gubernatorial campaign to a race-baiter, Wallace dropped the pretense of tolerance like a dirty paper plate and swore he'd never be "out-niggered" his phrase again.
The film pivots on the central event of Wallace's career, his "stand in the schoolhouse door" on June 11, 1963. By then he had been elected governor on a segregationist platform. Keeping a campaign promise, Wallace blocked the entrance of Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama so that two black students, Vivian J. Malone and James A. Hood, could not enroll. It was an act of cynical defiance that kept the university segregated for a total of four more hours before federal troops ordered Wallace to stand aside.
Sinise plays this bit of brilliant political theater for all it's worth. And Frankenheimer's merciless camera follows the giddy Wallace and his gloating, mouth-breathing advisers (played with relish by Skip Sudduth, Mark Rolston, Tracy Fraim, William Sanderson and Terry Kinney) as they grandstand their way onto the national stage.
The happy little band is contrasted with a powerful portrayal of Wallace's long-suffering first wife, Lurleen (a taut performance by Mare Winningham). In one particularly cruel scene, the doctors tell Wallace that Lurleen has cancer, and the man whose slogan is "Stand Up for Alabama" can't find the nerve to face her with the bad news.
Lurleen is the only remotely likable white person in the Wallace household. She becomes a symbol of homespun integrity compared with the second Mrs. Wallace, Cornelia (Angelina Jolie), who comes off as a horny beauty queen.
Frankenheimer also inserts a fictional black servant into the governor's mansion: Archie (played with stoic intensity by Clarence Williams III, looking much graver than in his days as Linc on "The Mod Squad"). This character allows Frankenheimer to examine Wallace's personal callousness toward blacks and to illustrate the wellspring of anger that blacks felt toward him. In one scene, Archie toys with the idea of planting an ice pick in the governor.
Archie is also there to wheel the broken, contrite Wallace into the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery where Martin Luther King Jr. had presided to ask black people to forgive him. This event really did happen, and it must have been unimaginably dramatic. The movie makes the most of it.
The Wallace family has objected to the ice pick scene and other aspects of the film. Current Alabama Gov. Fob James has declared the filmmakers "not fit to trod on Alabama soil" quite a concept.
Unquestionably, parts of the film are made up. If Frankenheimer submitted the script to a history professor, he'd get an F. But this is not history, of course, it's drama. And great storytellers going back to Homer and Shakespeare have always embroidered history. This movie is no different.
If you want to worry about whether George Wallace gets a fair shake in this film, go ahead. Personally, I don't have that much charity. It is certainly touching that Wallace, who turns 78 Monday, paralyzed, in pain, deaf, unable to control many of his bodily functions, is having second thoughts. He probably rode the mule of racism farther than any politician in American history four terms as governor and four presidential campaigns. In his heyday, he had an awesome ability to call out the worst in people.
Perhaps the fairest thing to say of George Wallace is that if we as a people had been better, his opportunism would taken him in less evil directions. The hate-spewing governor is certainly one of history's villains, but he is far from the only one.
Part 1 of "George Wallace" airs tomorrow night at 8, 10 and midnight. Part 2 airs Tuesday night at 8, 10 and midnight. Both parts will be repeated on Aug. 29, Aug. 31 and Sept. 3.
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company