If they know anything about Alzheimer's Disease, most people probably know this: it takes away your memory, and Rita Hayworth has it. Tonight, a TV movie personalizes an abstraction as TV movies at their best can do. Joanne Woodward plays a 50-year-old teacher and poet robbed of her vibrancy, robbed finally of her self, in "Do You Remember Love," an illuminating and compassionate CBS film at 9 on Channel 9.
Barbara Hollis, the literature professor played by Woodward, is at a pivotal moment in her life. Nominated for tenure at the college where she teaches, she also learns she is a candidate for a prestigious prize in letters. In the midst of all this activity, her family and friends begin to notice new eccentricities in her behavior. She is chronically forgetful and unpredictably irritable, loses track of her train of thought during lectures and, mystifyingly as far as her husband is concerned, has taken to making coq au vin for dinner three times a week.
One night during casual conversation, she forgets the word people use for those things they wear between their feet and their shoes. "Socks."
As usual with this kind of TV movie, the first third is the diagnostic phase, the second third is the confrontational phase, and the last is the resolution phase. But the script by Vickie Patik is anything but pat. For one thing, not only is the character of the victim made dimensional and substantial, but the whole academic milieu is intelligently, believably sustained. Director Jeff Bleckner keeps the film above the tear-jerker level, and David Shire's music is never needlessly needling.
But the strongest element is Woodward's rock-solid and heartbreaking portrayal of the teacher. Not all of TV's great performances are on "Great Performances." Woodward has distinguished herself with big work for the small screen before. Even though she tends to do films about the correct causes and the chic issues, there isn't that sense of do-goodism one sometimes perceives in a Jane Fonda or a Jane Alexander. The informational value of tonight's movie is high, yet Woodward remembers it's a drama, not a lecture.
Woodward is also able to play strong, dynamic women without aspiring to embody all of noble womanhood. In "See How She Runs," she was one brave, lonely sprinter, rousingly worth rooting for. In "Crisis at Central High," she played with unaffected dignity a Little Rock, Ark., teacher determined to uphold a new law banning segregation in schools. Her Barbara Hollis is a similarly formidable force.
Woodward's second career as a TV-movie actress has eclipsed her first career as a movie star. Sometimes in tonight's film you may feel you are seeing clips to be used in a Joanne Woodward "life achievement" special. Well, you are.
Richard Kiley plays Hollis' husband, and he does an able enough job (Kiley doesn't over-do, really, he just sort of over-is), Geraldine Fitzgerald plays her mother, and Jim Metzler and Marilyn Jones play the couple's son and daughter-in-law. These people go through what are presented as the typical responses to Alzheimer's. At first the husband thinks his wife is going through menopause. When a doctor tells him the facts about the disease, the husband thinks it can be licked with flinty determination. But it can't. It is irreversible.
Because of the capsulizing requirements of a two-hour film, the symptoms escalate rapidly. Patik tries to cover this with a line from a doctor about her symptoms "progressing unusually fast." But the filmmakers make even this fairly credible and, better still, they avoid both a voyeuristic morbidity as Woodward suffers, and the alternative, that sunset of false optimism into which the afflicted in TV movies often gallantly walk.
Dutifully, patiently, Kiley as the husband in one scene removes the dustpan from the refrigerator and the iron from the freezer, where his wife had absent-mindedly put them; the film even finds a tiny spark of humor in these direst of straits.
When the disease is in early stages, a friend says, "Barbara just doesn't seem like herself lately." Soon she will be barely herself at all. It's essentially the same nightmare of soul-draining as in the science-fiction fantasy "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," but its origin is entirely of this Earth.
Losing grip on her identity, Barbara Hollis clings to what remains of her humanity. "Do You Remember Love" skillfully and sensitively encourages us to cling along with her.