ABC takes TV trash a quantum leap upward tonight with "Scandal Sheet," the "Monday Night Movie" at 9 on Channel 7. Lurid, florid and hysterical, it takes itself to be a sermon -- film folk lecturing on morals again -- but proves itself to be a romp.
Apparently the subject of supermarket tabloids is one that really gets juices flowing even in our oh-so-sensitized New Hollywood (nuclear proliferation should arouse such indignation out there). Executive producer Henry Winkler seems to have approached this baby with his wee little eyes ablaze.
Thanks to writer Howard Rodman, director David Lowell Rich and Burt Lancaster, who plays the ruthless publisher of Inside World magazine, "Scandal Sheet" is a shamelessly manipulative potboiler in shades not of gray but of purple -- tabloid television about tabloid journalism. Succulent and truculent, it rides roughshod over even its own preposterousness.
The requisite sweet young thing whose corruption is chronicled in the tale is Pamela Reed as Helen Grant, a magazine reporter who angrily quits her respectable job when the editor says he's postponing her series on Southeast Asia for a multiparter from Norman Mailer. She stomps off in the direction of Lancaster as Harold Fallen, the devil in this Faustian fable and a character not unlike the fascist gossip columnist Lancaster played in "The Sweet Smell of Success," 1957's generous bequest to The Late Show.
Presumably the filmmakers aren't going for ultimo credibility here, since we are asked to believe that Grant takes a job at Inside World completely oblivious to the fact that the paper has been hounding and terrorizing her dear friend Ben Rowan, ex-alcoholic movie star, on its front pages for weeks. Ben and wife Meg are played by Robert Urich and Lauren Hutton. The movie is so resolute about deck-stacking that both of them are depicted as rampagingly adorable harmless victims, two merry sprites whose lives are shattered by virtually Satanic intercession.
According to the script, Fallen doesn't just publish hateful gossip to sell papers, he does it to be mean. In the part, Lancaster gives smarm a tinklingly crystalline elegance. Reed isn't bad, either, as the seduced reporter who in the end announces, "So be it, I'm a whore." The fact that those who made this picture may actually have imagined themselves to be hammering out A Statement about rights of privacy or journalistic responsibility, doesn't detract from the movie's status as deliciously vituperative entertainment -- daft high dudgeon that comes across as slick rich kitsch.