This won't be just another night in the life of American television. It will be a night in the lives of the Dixie bar and grill and the waitresses' locker room at an unnamed restaurant -- and also an unlikely and surprising hand-to-hand confrontation for commercial and public TV.
Commercial TV wins.
Coincidentally, two programs airing at about the same time -- one on NBC and one on PBS stations -- share similarly microcosmic settings, downhomey characters and night-in-the-life structures. The surprise is that commercial network TV emerges a champ; NBC's "Amateur Night at the Dixie Bar and Grill" is an entirely engaging sensation. The PBS "Visions" drama, "Ladies in Waiting," is a moderately interesting failure.
There are characters in both the two-hour NBC movie (at 9 on Channel 4) and the 90-minute PBS play (at 9:30 on Channel 26) who live life through TV soap operas, and both works suggest that the heartaches, heartbreaks and backbites of real life can be as mawkish and maudlin as the mushiest melodrama.
But in "Amateur Night," the rowdies and rubes and good ol' folks come through as endearingly, earthily or hilariously credible. In the "Visions" play, they all stand around and talk playwright talk. They are prosoners of artifice.
NBC remains a network infested with klutzes and cobwebs; "Amateur Night" comes to the air with hardly a peep of advance warning or ballyhoo. In fact, it is one of the best movies ever made for television, and it also constitutes a promising suggestion -- along with recent NBC films like "Ishi, The Last of His Tribe" and "The Winds of Kitty Hawk" -- that there is a future in big-time TV for a kind of personal filmmaking, and not just for pasteurized-process cheese from factory hacks.
The point not to be lost, however, is that "Amateur Night" -- probably produced as a pilot for a weekly series -- also happens to be a really rousing rib-tickler and heartwarmer, and at the old gut level TV so often fails, though hardly through lack of bending over backward, to reach. There is more happening here, conceptually and in simple narrative terms, than in some films that have taken two or three nights to unravel.
"Amateur Night" was written and directed by Joel Schumacher, who wrote the screenplay for the movie version of "The Wiz," and it could not be said that he has scrupulously avoided the derivative. The picture owes a lot to "Nashville" and has a similar construction to a miserable theatrical film called "T.G.I.F." That was about one night in a fabulously boring disco; "Amateur" is one night -- May 15 to be exact -- at a rundown roadhouse bar where hopefuls in various stages of disarray and unreadiness brave a spotlight before an audience of likable hooligans.
The "Nashville" roots are especially obvious with guest star Henry Gibson on the premises as the talent contest judge, on on-the-wagon and apparently incorruptible has-been singer, but Schumacher brings a zest, vitality and pleasurable sense of schmaltz to the project that make it immediately engrossing and persistently amusing.
It helps that Schumacher has an ensemble of virtual virtuosos to play out the laughter-and-tears stuff and make it jauntily meaningful. Candy Clark, of "American Graffiti" and the under-seen "Citizens Band" ( a movie with a flip, bittersweet temperament similar to "Amateur Night"), Joan Goodfellow, Victor French and Louise Latham are among the people behind the counter, all of them touching and vilnerable as all-get-out, and all get out shaken but stalwart when the night is over.
The aspiring performers who romp or thrash their way through "Amateur Night" include Tanya Tucker, in her acting debut as a stage-frightened singer; Roz Kelly as a totally tonedeaf two-bit chanteuse; Andy Warholgrad Pat Ast as a plump dirigible of song whose knockabout medley knocks everything from "Strangers in the Night" to "Dixie" about, and stand-up comic Jeff Altman as the greasy-ego D.J. who acts as emcee and as tireless promoter of himself.
The customers include Don Johnson as a terminal adolescent called Cowboy on whom the waitress played by Goodfellow has a titanic crush. The way this romance is played out, with Goodfellow taking to the stage to let him know how she feels, is very adroitly handled, and Johnson and Goodfellow are attractive and impressive.
All the actors are valiant to a degree we rarely see in a TV film, and Schumacher is extremely deft at flitting among them and cutting from one woe to another, punctuating this progress with funny mordant asides from Sheree North as a terminally misanthropic barfly ("Life's too long," she says) and recurrent bulletins on the whereabouts of the "ski-mask disco killer." He is reputed to be in the vicinity of the Dixie Bar and Grill, and there's this seedy looking fellow carrying a violin case.
And so on.
"Amateur Night" is a triumph for its large and resourceful cast, for Schumacher,, and for Motown Productions which made it.
You may certainly have the feeling through much of "Amateur Nigh" that you've met these people before; the trick is in making one glad to encounter them again.
Playwright Patricia Resnick unfortunately does not have quite the knack to pull this one off, and so her first TV play, "Ladies in Waiting," while of loftier ambitions than "Amateur Night," lacks completely its invigorating human appeal.
The ladies in waiting are waitresses, and all the action occurs in the locker room where they dress, undress and complain. The ranks include such watchable actresses as Ronee Blakely, Annette O'Toole, Joyce Van Patten, Ruth Nelson, Elizabeth Wilson and Annie Potts, but the moments of truth seem few and the very theatrical nature of the thing -- it even comes in three neat acts -- ignore many of the possibilities of television.
At first the play seems a very welcome response to men-in-groups sagas like "The Changing Room," set in a men's locker room, and a raunchily updated response to such women-in-groups antiques as "The Women." These ladies are capable of cursing streaks blue enough to prompt a PBS advisory before the show warning of strong language. One waitress even has pin-ups of naked men stuck to the door of her locker.
But director Michael Lindsay-Hogg has a very difficult time bringing the words and the characters who speak them into focus, so they remain types hell-bent for exhibitionism.
And while some of the actresses, especially Blakely, manage effectively intimate portrayals, others emote as if in a 5,000-seat hall -- sometimes with excruciating results. On the other hand, Susan Tyrell, as the brassiest dame in the bunch, is as compulsively interesting as a runway carousel.
She deserves a better play, so do we, and so does "Visions."