There on the grating in front of the shop, an elfin, aged face peeks out from under a blanket of trash bags and says, "Well, I'm still here." We are probably meant to take this as a statement from the actress as well as one from the character she plays, since the character isn't much anyway and the actress is Lucille Ball, whose place in television history is roughly comparable to the status of the Statue of Liberty in nostalgic Americana.
"Lucy Plays a Bag Lady" might have been the title for an episode of "I Love Lucy" in which Lucy Ricardo donned one of her toothy crone get-ups as a way of getting even with husband Ricky. Actually, though, it conveys the essence of the CBS Tuesday Night Movie, "Stone Pillow," which airs at 9 on Channel 9. Following somewhat in the footsteps of Bette Davis and the Apple Annie character she played in the movie "A Pocketful of Miracles," Ball dowdied herself up and hit the streets of New York for this film, a disappointment to be sure, but one not quite so laggardly as "Izzy and Moe," the movie that reunited two other '50s TV stars, Jackie Gleason and Art Carney, on CBS in September.
What Ball does with the character of Flora the bag lady qualifies more as an appearance than an actual performance, but one must admit it is warming to turn on a TV set and have her appear there again.
Too bad the film is such a standard TV-movie problem drama. It's so ploddingly generic that writer Rose Leiman Goldemberg might as well have titled it "Bag Lady Script." The director, however, is the venerable and esteemed George Schaefer, another survivor of TV's golden age who, like Lucy, is still working. He does as much as possible to disguise a pitiful lack of invention.
Flora the bag lady does not seem particularly typical, and thus may not make a very good symbol for "the homeless," the topical social issue to which the film sympathetically attaches itself. There is a passing reference to a victim of deinstitutionalization, a mental patient who is out on the streets and helpless, but Flora is quite lucid and resourceful, and she has even found a way to get fresh vegetables to eat. She also knows her way around a bus station ladies' room.
According to the storyline, she teaches her rules of survival to a young social worker (Daphne Zuniga) who is just out of college and unaware of the crueler facts of urban life. As in just about every TV movie and series now in production, this one includes an attempted rape -- in this case, one that further alerts the young woman to life's treacheries and has nothing whatsoever to do with the story at hand.
During the Great Depression, another social worker lectures at one point, "strong men jumped out of windows to avoid what that old lady faces every day." Unfortunately, that old lady's life is not dramatized in ways that pique one's conscience -- nor even, indeed, that really provoke one's interest. If the character were not played by Lucille Ball, we'd probably react the way passers-by, it is noted, react to real bag ladies on the street: We look, we see, and we hurry on our way.