"Portrait of an Escort" may not stand up hotsy for totsy against "Portrait of a Mistress," another suggestively titled TV movie, but the CBS film, at 9 tonight on Channel 9, is an extremely competent trifle. In television, even minimal competence is refreshing, so these turn out to be two hours a viewer needn't hate himself for spending.
Susan Anspach plays Jordan West, a divorced mother who can't afford to buy braces for her teen-age daughter (Debbie Lytton, natural as yogurt) on the puny salary she gets at a real-estate agency. When co-worker Sandy (Mary Frann, a Taj Mahal of a girl) casually notes one day, "I have a second job," Jordan soon finds herself embarked on one of the few well-paying careers open to single mothers whose daughters need braces.
No, not prostitution. Jordan signs on with an escort service and is determined not to be morally compromised. What happens next -- and next, and next, and next -- isn't nearly as predictable as melodramas of this sort usually are. Perhaps it helps that it was written by a woman, Ann Beckett, who does a fine job at keeping the heroine believable and dimensional. Anspach's sunny vulnerability is a great asset, too.
Tony Bill, always affable in roles requiring low profiles, plays Jordan's boyfriend who, it turns out, in a neatly executed irony, has done some compromising of his own. He is being kept by no less than Cyd Charisse, whose appearance in anything is a lucky charm. Other welcome veterans in the cast include Gretchen Wyler, Kevin McCarthy and Edie Adams, who plays the head of the agency. When Jordan quits, Edie chirps, "Well, we shall miss you. You're a popular item."
Director Steven Hillard Stern, unlike many of his colleagues in television, actually took the time and trouble to organize shots in a meaningful, purposeful way (with stiffs like "Beulah Land," you wonder if there was even a human director on the set). He at least has the energy to tilt the camera whenever something twisted and menacing is about to happen; yes, there's a psycho on the loose, but even this old standby is handled adroitly, and it's refreshing that, when threatened, the heroine doesn't have to fall apart and blubber wildly in order for us to fear for her safety.
"Portrait of an Escort" pleasurably rises above the tawdry expectations provoked by the ads and the title and an eager-to-grovel CBS. It deserves to be a popular item itself.