Somewhere in the '30s, out Hollywood way, actress Merle Oberon encountered Hedda Hopper at the Brown Derby and reportedly demanded of the famous gossip columnist, "Hedda, will you tell me what possibly inspired all the vicious things you have been writing about me?" To which Hopper is said to have replied, "Bitchery, dear. Sheer bitchery."
She could as well have been explaining the dissolute allure of "Malice in Wonderland," a waspish comic drama about two veteran wasps, Hopper and her arch enemy in columny calumny, Louella Parsons. The "CBS Sunday Night Movie," at 9 on Channel 9, is slow to start, but eventually its two stars, Elizabeth Taylor and Jane Alexander, bring it to full hammy ramming speed, and what they give us is a whale of a show.
Based on "Hedda and Louella," a purely delightful 1973 dual-biography by George Eells, who recounts the Oberon anecdote among dozens of others, "Malice" harks back to the heyday of the big movie studios and the rival queens of pink and yellow journalism who not so much wrote columns as presided over domains. Unfortunately, the script by Jacqueline Feather and David Seidler insists on flashing us from a fanciful Hedda-Louella summit conference at Romanoff's to "how it all started," with Hopper's arrival in a Hollywood that Parsons had already staked out as her turf.
Eventually, after lots of unnecessary detail about Hopper's years of struggle as an actress, she undergoes an unexplained personality change and becomes the equal in vindictive powermongering to Louella, both in syndicated columns and on radio, where Hopper had the advantage with her lilting, trained voice, whereas Parsons apparently sounded like a dying accordion.
Taylor does not look the zaftig matron, which Parsons was; perhaps as an in-joke, someone offers the slimmed-down actress food near the beginning of the film so she can say, "Oh, put it over there. I'm on a diet." Indeed, her performance is more of a display than a characterization, but who is going to complain about a chance to watch Elizabeth Taylor do two hours of catty? She seems to get, and thus to give, enormous pleasure from it. It's perhaps a kind of revenge for whatever she suffered at the hands of columnists in her early years at MGM or in all the very newsworthy years since.
Alexander hardly seems the embittered blithe spirit the script calls for -- she is more at home in somber roles -- but she does get a grip on the character, delivering certain key lines with just the right Hopperly inflection, and she holds her own in the big fight scenes, particularly a climactic hair-pull in the ladies' room.
Liz as Louella: "I've had a gutful of you, you smarmy little sneak!" Jane as Hedda: "You're Little Miss Hiccup from Hicksville who happened to land her butt in the butter!"
While it could have been something of a tawdry wallow, "Malice" proves instead an affectionately askance send-up of Old Hollywood as it might have been but probably wasn't. The caricature of Louis B. Mayer is harsh and stupid, and he is witlessly played by Richard Dysart, but none of the dramatis personae should be thought of as a real person. Nothing was real in that artificial orchid of a town back in its Cobb salad days.
There are plenty of sly, funny touches. Parsons dictates an item on Joan Crawford's newly adopted daughter Christina: "What a lucky girl to have such a mommy." Hedda waltzes up to a pipe-smoking crooner making eyes at a starlet and cracks, "Hi, Bing, how's the wife and kids?" Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles, those rascals then preparing "Citizen Kane," are deftly impersonated by Tim Robbins and Eric Purcell, and Cotten gets the honor of propelling Hopper into a plate of deviled eggs. It's in the Eells book, more or less, so maybe it actually occurred.
The writers, and director Gus Trikonis, are interested not in the truth and nothing but the truth, but rather that which Parsons and Hopper both promised their eager readers: the dirty lowdown, and the lower the better. "Malice in Wonderland" sees in all this mischief a sweet, lost innocence. What, after all, is so quaint as that which shocked our forebears out of their skins? 'A Death in California'
"A Death in California," the "ABC Sunday Night Movie," at 9 on Channel 7, and the "Monday Night Movie" as well, is a pornographic film for those who like to watch helpless women suffer. Cheryl Ladd has a few happy moments as the heroine in the first 15 minutes of this four-hour lurid dirge, but for most of it she whimpers, cowers, grovels and weeps. The word "revolting" comes to mind.
Anything goes in television as long as it is "based on a true story," and this voyeuristic walk on the vile side is. Ladd plays an extremely unstable young woman who falls under the spell of an amoral psychotic ludicrously overplayed at full twitch by Sam Elliott. The man shoots her fiance' and rapes her, then intimidates her into covering up the crime and putting the lives of herself and her children in his hands.
Dispiritingly derivative after such TV movies as "Murder in Texas" (in which Elliott also played the crazed killer), "Fatal Vision" and "The Burning Bed," the ABC film exploits the sensationalism of the crime and the aftermath and finds nothing sufficiently reverberant or particularly revealing in the sorry tale. A pathetic last-minute attempt by writer E. Jack Neuman to throw in some social significance is as sick a joke as Elliott's Barney Google performance.
The rape scene in Part 1 is prolonged, but not as prolonged as a nerve-wracking psychological torture sequence that follows it. In part two, director Delbert Mann drags us with merciless sluggishness through every arrest-and-trial cliche' in the book. Ladd, meanwhile, even limps limply; she just cannot handle a part like this. We are supposed to pity the young woman, but as written, and as played by Ladd, she really comes off as an irresponsible imbecile.
Perhaps every scandalous murder is now ripe for the TV docudrama plucking. With "A Death in California," the genre might seem depleted. Oh but no. Precisely one week from Sunday, ABC will air "Deadly Intentions," which it describes as "a terrifying four-hour drama based on a true story about a young wife and mother who finds that her seemingly perfect husband is, in fact, a dangerous psychopath plotting her murder."
In "California," cops talk about the killer. "This monster must be stopped," one of them says. He has "no conscience of any kind" and is "a classic sociopath." He sounds like a television network.