Stockbroker leaves wife and kids, drinks and brawls and gets VD, hangs out with loonies, then sails for Tahiti where he takes up with a half-clad girl who is just 13 -- there is a lot of the sort of stuff that sells the soaps in the tale of Paul Gauguin.
Why then is "Gauguin the Savage," which CBS will air tonight (Channel 9 after the president's news conference), so silly and so tame?
The answer is that Gauguin made his name be painting, and painting, for some reason, always makes the TV folks go all awed and earnest. Dumb-struck by high culture, they have somehow turned the arrogant and naughty, self-dramatizing painter into a loving daddy with a need to roam.
He is played by David Carradine, woodenly. The loony in his life, the painter Vincent van Gogh, is played by Barrie Houghton, who jerks and twitches eerily before taking out his razor and lopping off his ear. Lynn Redgrave, who plays Mrs. Gauguin, throws the show off kilter, for she is the only member of the Gauguin family the viewer will believe.
Gauguin was not, as the actors' accents here imply, a midwestern American with an English daughter and a Danish wife. Nor did he grow up in French respectability. He spent four of his first five years living in Peru and when still in his teens sailed off to India. The savagery he boasted of was to a large degree theatrical: Many romantics of the 19th century glorified as "natural" what polite society viewed, instead, as sin. His role in art history is hardly touched on by this dreary show. Why, by the way, does the old National Geographic rule still hold on prime-time TV? Why are the only women allowed to take off their shirts on camera those without white skin?