"I Want to Live!" this week's ABC Monday Night Movie, is a marginally satisfactory remake of the 1958 film about Barbara Graham, convicted on circumstantial evidence and prejudice for the slaying of an elderly woman and executed in the gas chamber at San Quentin in 1955. Susan Hayward won an Oscar for playing her. And she won it the old-fashioned way; she earned it. Once she finished chewing the scenery within an inch of its life, she started gobbling up the furniture.
It was a performance and a half.
Lindsay Wagner, despite a fiery red wig (which makes her look, in some shots, like Jayne Meadows), makes a feeble substitute in the new and not improved version, tonight at 9 on Channel 7. Directed with no identifiable ingenuity by David Lowell Rich, and written by Don Mankiewicz and Gordon Cotler, the film is able to present certain sordid details of Graham's life that were not included in the earlier movie, and it is more explicit about the actual execution, but somehow the earlier film was more harrowing and hard-hitting.
The earlier film also made a more coherent statement against the barbarism of capital punishment, in part because one couldn't help rooting for the heroine. Hayward's Graham was a hard-luck Hannah with a ferocious determination to survive. Wagner's Graham is a woeful wrong-o who is persistently victimized by circumstances not always beyond her control. All of Wagner's fire is in her hair. Even when she is supposed to be hysterical in her cell, she seems to be holding back, still playing patty-cake with the part.
Wagner won't let herself be aggressive enough and she won't let herself be trashy enough, whereas Hayward let out more stops than there are on the organ at Radio City Music Hall.
Since these are the terribly enlightened '80s, the new version of "I Want to Live!" depicts Graham as a victim of, among other things, sexism. To support this thesis, the friendly male reporter played by Edmond O'Brien in the movie has been turned into a friendly female reporter, Edie Bannister, played by Pamela Reed. When the camera pans reporters' faces at the execution, only Edie, the sole woman, shows any emotion or compassion; all the men are stony-faced. It seems a cheap reverse-sexist touch.
The film opens on the morning of the execution. A last-minute stay allows for the predictable flashback. A flurry of indignities in Graham's wayward life are crammed into the first hour (pregnant, she marries a sailor, then an instant later they're separated and the baby is 2), while the second hour is given over to the arrest, the trial and the conspiracy by law enforcement officials to entrap her. An epilogue states that laws against self-incrimination were stiffened after Graham's tragic ride on the railroad.
Among the men in Graham's life are Martin Balsam as her lawyer; Robert Ginty as one of her husbands, a junkie; Dana Elcar standing around awkwardly as the warden of San Quentin, and Harry Dean Stanton as one of the no-account cretins who committed the robbery and murder in which Graham was implicated. Most of the men in the film are rats, pure and simple--or simple, at any rate.
As the flashback begins, Graham, released from a women's facility, is employed as a maid by a couple called the Cooleys. When friendly Mrs. Cooley leaves town briefly, nasty Mr. Cooley makes a surly pass at Graham. The closing credits confess, however, that "This film contained fictional characters, including the Cooleys." So much for authenticity.