"Unhappiness Causes Cancer," declared one of the most bold-faced headlines in the history of the National Enquirer. But in movies made for television, it's more often goodness that causes cancer. No one seems to get it who isn't the soul of virtue and pretty as a picture.
It's hard to knock a television program that has more good intentions than the League of Nations, but "A Shining Season," the two-hour CBS movie scheduled for next Wednesday, is simply too contrived (though based on the life of a real person), too treacly and too much in the tradition of telegenic melanoma that has become a TV genre unto itself.
"Season" tells a story with certifiable inspiring elements. John Baker, a 24-year-old Albuquerque, N.M. track star, discovers he has cancer and decides to dedicate his last months to helping a girl's track team earn a place in the Southwestern sun. He tries to face death courageously and without complaint, and for the most part succeeds.
Not only is the drama, written by William Harrison and directed by Stuart Margolin (often seen as an actor on "The Rockford Files"), absolutely overflowing with the milk of human kindness, but General Motors, the sole sponsor, has decided the event is one of such spiritual uplift that no cars will be hawked during the show's five commercial breaks. They won't even try to unload a spark plug.
Instead, GM will turn over the commercial time to spot documentaries about the three winners of this year's first annual GM-sponsored cancer research awards. The idea is to imbue viewers with hope of some day defeating this devastating disease.
Now, who but an incorrigible ayatollah could object to such a plan? On the surface it is as worthwhile as a week in the country. But there is hope and there is false hope. The program, like so many others in this decade, turns cancer into just another ingredient in a 99 and 44/100 percent pure soap opera, and it was decided somewhere that the victim in this case had to be not just lovable, but a living saint.
Apparently, to judge from TV movies on the subject of heroic sufferers, grouches and misanthropes never get cancer.They never get anything. Diseases, particularly the fatal types, strike only the sweet and decent. Just once it would be reassuring to see a TV movie about someone who faces the specter of terminal illness with a great deal of whining, complaining, protest and anger.
I mean absolutely no disrespect to the memory of the real John Baker, who suffered the terrible tragedy of dying young. But as played in the film by the alternately sleeve- and heart-tugging Timothy Bottoms, the kid is just unbelievably wonderful. He does everything but help chipmunks cross the street. He makes Sister Kenny and Albert Schweitzer look like slouches.
"Never quit! Never!" he commands one of the young trackies he's coaching to victory. He makes sure a chubby little girl wins a trophy. He sings "Tip Toe Through the Tulips" a la Tiny Tim to make the kiddies laugh. In a particularly embarrassing and misconceived scene, he runs into a church alone to cry out, "Oh, Gahhhhhd," after learning of his illness and its seriousness.
Yet the illness is not allowed to appear too serious on the screen, because that would be depressing. Do an excellent two-hour documentary on cancer and cancer reserach and the world will beat a path away from your door, but do a sudsy, mushy tearjerker about a cancer victim and people tune in in droves. It's all part of the quizzical cosmetology of American television.
"A Shining Season" is part of another TV tradition, an especially 1970s one: the canonization of athletes. In the '70s, exercise became equated with moral worth. We never see movies about cancer striking layabouts or slugabeds or -- heaven forbid -- intellectuals. Qualities such as being literate or wise are rarely extolled in these fictions (or manipulations of fact); only physical qualities get the TV seal of approval.
As I recall it from the Old and New Testaments, Moses did not come down from the mountaintop at a sprint, and there is no record of Jesus jogging. The new American worship of physical prowess, as often endorsed by television, has worrisome, troubling overtones.
Perhaps many viewers will find solace and succor in "A Shining Season." Certainly it does not have a mean bone in its body, but there are negative aspects to the mythology it perpetuates. When Bottoms says, "Seems like a person ought to be able to die alone," you think, "Yes -- and without a TV movie being made about him."