Some day the video memoir will replace the written memoir, and this may not be the calamity it might sound -- not on the basis of "Profile," a five-part interview with writer Lillian Hellman, which airs nightly at 11 this week, starting tonight, on Channell 26.
At first the questions, posed by NBC News alumnus Marilyn Berger for KERA-TV in Dallas, seem random and poorly organized, and obsessed in almost a People-magazine way with fame and success. Does Hellman prefer writing books or plays? How does she deal with success? Does she mind being recognized in public?
The answers to these banal inquiries dignify them considerably. Reminded of a passage quoted from one of her past works, Hellman, after lighting a cigarette, says, "Did I write that? Oh goodness, maybe I'd better stop writing." Asked if she finds fame "instrusive" (just how famous does Berger think she is?), Hellman replies, "No, I don't find it intrusive. I wish it would intrude a little more."
But all of this is really just an appetizer for the main course, the final few minutes of the program, when Hellman talks about the movie of her story "Julia" and how it wandered off from the truth near its conclusion. In the film, the heroine (Hellman) searches gallantly to find the child of her dead friend Julia; Hellman says that in fact she never embarked on such a mission.
But years later, when the book in which the story appeared was published, she heard from the son of the doctor who had signed Julia's death certificate. The story Hellman tells about this encounter is captivating and beautifully related; producer-director David Dowe wisely moves in for a sustained close-up. Hellman has brushed aside all the pesky little questions and now she is doing what she does best: She is telling a story.
Dowe was able to enliven the interview visually -- using still photos or, when it's being discussed, a silent clip from "Julia" -- without gimmicking things up. The conversational tone at first is a trifle hesitant, respectful almost to a funereal point, but the production is unfailingly tasteful and classy, easily as good as anything of the same genre that has been done in smug Old New York.