Midway through tonight's NBC movie, "Victims for Victims: The Theresa Saldana Story," at 9 on Channel 4, there is a scene set in the hospital where the heroine, a young actress, is recuperating from the physical and psychological damage of a brutal knife attack. She has been traumatized to a point nearing complete breakdown, and has difficulty communicating her terror and anguish to doctors, family or friends, but then she learns there is another victim of a violent crime in another room of the hospital.
She phones the other woman, they agree to meet, the actress makes her way with her intravenous bottle and other medical paraphernalia to the other woman's room and once there, quietly gives her a small stuffed animal as a gift. It's a little moment, but it put me away. It destroyed me. It made the movie for me, too, but I was really won over already by the earnest intensity of the picture and by the fact that it implicitly rebukes all the glib, glitz violence on television. By dwelling on some of the effects of one incident, it demonstrates how corrupt it really is to use violence as cheap kinetic decoration.
We almost never see the effects of the violence done night after night in television fictions. "Victims for Victims" shows it in wrenching detail. That starts with a depiction of the attack itself, which is unstinting and unnerving. It adds to the impact that the actress playing the victim is in fact the actress who was the victim.
On March 15, 1982, Theresa Saldana, whose most conspicuous film appearance had been as Jake LaMotta's sister-in-law in "Raging Bull," was, as the prologue to tonight's film states, "viciously attacked and repeatedly stabbed" while standing next to her car on a Los Angeles street near her home. As horrific as the attack itself was, Saldana discovered that the aftermath of such a nightmare is in fact more nightmare. Her months of painful recovery put her in touch with others in similar straits, and as the movie ends, she founds a group called Victims for Victims to provide for traumatized people the kinds of support and rehabilitation that doctors and nurses cannot provide.
The stabbing is as shocking as it has to be. It is living-room seismic. A great deal more blood is shown than one is accustomed to seeing on television. The director, Karen Arthur, who all through the film shows that she knows how to use the camera more purposefully than the directors of most TV films, has enough inventiveness to make the sequence graphic and terrifying but not gaudily gruesome. For Saldana, this was only the beginning. The approximate next step was a hospital emergency room where her husband hears the interns say, "We're losing her," during a race down a corridor and desperate attempts to locate a surgeon.
They don't lose her, but for months, she feels lost. She relives the attack in dreams; she reverts to a helpless, nagging, childlike dependence on her parents; she feels herself alienating her husband, with whom she shares not only emotional devastation but the prosaic trauma of enormous medical expenses; and she worries about the effect on her marriage, and on her life, of the physical scars left by the attacker's knife. Moved to another hospital, she learns that a nurse there was also a victim of a violent attack; in the age ofanxiety and rampant violent crime, victims are becoming a subculture. "Sometimes I feel like nobody understands," Saldana tells the nurse. "Nobody does," the nurse replies.
Arthur Heinemann wrote the screenplay, which is at least as good as the better socially conscious TV movies, but the film is elevated to a singular impact by the presence of Saldana. Yes, there is something morbid about the fact that she is playing herself and reliving her personal crises for a camera. The situation is not unprecedented, however; director Martha Coolidge's first film, "Not a Pretty Picture," included a reenactment of the filmmaker's own rape. She could be seen telling the actress playing her how to react.
Whatever misgivings one might have about the civility of this, no one could doubt that Saldana's performance is about as genuine as fictional filmmaking can get. For one thing, she has perfected an accusatory look that is penetrating. Others who lend support both as characters and as actors include Adrian Zmed as Saldana's husband, a counselor for alcoholics who finds himself unable to treat the problems of others once the incident has restructured his life. For a change, Zmed (of "T.J. Hooker") proves himself more than a floating dreamboat; he's too coiffed, but he can act. Mariclare Costello gives the role of the nurse arresting complexities, especially considering the small amount of screen time she gets.
The male performance one will most remember from this film is probably Kenneth Philips as Jeff Fenn, delivery man. He has only two scenes. During the attack, he is the single onlooker witnessing this daylight nightmare to have the presence of mind to intervene, and to disarm the deranged attacker (a twice-deported Scottish immigrant who had seen Saldana in a film). In the second half of the film, the man who courageously saved her life returns for a reunion with Saldana at the hospital. I'm sorry to be so personal about this but yes, when they hugged and sobbed, I was put away again. "Victims for Victims" is just about as strong as stuff gets on commercial TV, and just about as good, too.