Obviously "A Bunny's Tale" is a better title than "Origins of Modern Feminism," but that's what the ABC movie, at 9 tonight on Channel 7, aspires to document. Kirstie Alley colorlessly (that is, more colorlessly than is appropriate) plays journalist Gloria Steinem, encountering evils that men do while she researches a magazine piece about working at a Playboy Club -- a jerk's fantasy establishment where waitresses dress as rabbits, right down to an enticingly bobbing cotton tail.
The film is set in 1963, when Steinem lived through the dehumanizing experience and wrote the piece. At the end of the film, even though Alley hasn't seemed to register much of anything for two hours, she sits down decisively at a typewriter and, for the first time in the film, puts on the aviatrix glasses we associate with Steinem; at that point she becomes the woman the public knows. This is the story of how Steinem begat Steinem, in excelsis Gloria.
Though a tale worth telling, because Steinem is a pivotal figure, it's also one worth telling much more effectively and incisively than this. Deena Goldstone's screenplay is forever wandering down wayward byways and is particularly maddening in the way it postpones getting to the hearts of matters. A subplot about Steinem's romance with an egomaniacal young playwright gets too much attention at the top of the story, when we're dying to see how Steinem will react to her immersion in bunnydom, and it keeps coming back to bog the thing down.
One expects to have a few good laughs, and appalled groans, about this particular strain of sadly lurid sexual exploitation, but Goldstone and director Karen Arthur keep holding back on the damning details. The film is entertaining, and it does make potentially grating feminist points highly palatable to a general audience, but those who feel their consciousnesses were raised long ago are apt to be impatient with the dithering and diffidence.
Maybe what one can sense is the hovering of Hugh Hefner and his lawyers. A disclaimer carefully notes that the story is told from Steinem's "perspective," even though writer Goldstone includes a scene or two in which Steinem is not present and does not witness. We all know TV's standards of authenticity are low, but could Steinem really have gotten her story by just standing around in a trance, then occasionally dashing off to the dressing room to make notes on a pad stuffed down her cleavage? We never see her using a reporter's resourcefulness to get to the bottom of anything. She's just blankly there.
In addition, the film avoids the central absurdities of the preening male egotism at the hub of the Playboy "philosophy" to deal with now minor matters like the shoddy working conditions the bunnies faced -- they had to buy their own shoes, they were judged and graded according to a ridiculous demerit system, their costumes were so tight they left welts, and their arches fell from the height of the bunnyheels. Arthur and Goldstone could have made a rousing sizzler about a particular sick wackiness, but they either wouldn't or couldn't work up a hot manipulative lather.
They have a bunny by the tale and they just keep letting it go.
Of course, an aspiringly feminist movie can't come out too strongly against lechery now that society has discovered the female lech -- those shrieking, squealing women seen in TV shows about male strippers and the rather alarmingly fervid crowds they attract. Let's see; female lechery is cute, but male lechery is disgusting. Is that about right?
Diana Scarwid, probably the most adept and charismatic of the young actresses in the film, doesn't play a bunny; she plays a friend of Steinem's who is a brilliant sculptor but who is permanently indentured to the approval and companionship of men. Cotter Smith, who played Robert F. Kennedy in "Blood Feud," gets the thankless role of the pigheaded playwright (not that there's a male role in the film that isn't thankless; but that's all right, since scores are being settled by movies like this). The wonderful, towering, Amazonian Mary Woronov, so funny in "Eating Raoul," has the Eve Ardenesque role of Miss Renfro, den mother to the bunnies and chief enforcer of something they call "The Bunny Bible." She's hot even when simmering.
In fairness to Arthur and Goldstone, they do seem anxious to avoid a film that simply looks back and says, "Boy, were we dumb in the early '60s." And in shoehorning into the plot even an incident of wife beating, they do make the film a kind of Whole Earth Mother Catalogue of legitimate feminist grievances. But as Alley trances along and the film lumbers awkwardly from one episode to the next, you can't help thinking that in the right hands, "A Bunny's Tale" could have made a real movie, not just a passable facsimile.