A sizable contingent of strong performances and a dalliance with provocative subjects make "Resting Place," the "Hallmark Hall of Fame" movie airing tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 9, worth watching, but as drama, its story of racism and Vietnam malaise doesn't quite hold together.
Like the theatrical film "A Soldier's Story," the CBS movie investigates the death of a black GI, in this case a seemingly heroic Army lieutenant whose death in Vietnam may have been at the hands of his own troops -- a victim of the so-called "fragging" phenomenon.
But the film opens as quite a different tale. The lieutenant's body has arrived by train in his home town of Rockville, Ga., in 1972, and an attempt to bury him in a previously all-white cemetery meets with callous resistance from local bigots.
John Lithgow plays Maj. Kendall Laird, who accompanies the body and is shocked by the reaction of the townspeople. Vowing to prove that the soldier died not only in the service of his country but in an act of heroism that saved the lives of men in his battalion, Lithgow goes off on the kind of detective work that occupied Howard E. Rollins Jr. in "A Soldier's Story."
The script, by Walter Halsey Davis, tries to bring the two story lines together and relate them both somehow to racism, latent and overt, but a viewer has to be awfully forgiving to find this entirely cohesive. Still, director John Korty gets vivid, fibrous performances from virtually everyone in the cast -- especially Lithgow, who radiates convincingly troubled concern.
Morgan Freeman and C.C.H. Pounder play the determined parents of the dead lieutenant; Pounder has a high-impact speech on why they have resolved to see this through. Frances Sternhagen portrays a local, conscientious eccentric with authenticity. G.D. Spradlin, as the town newspaper editor, proves himself capable of subtle shadings of culpability, not just the broad-stroke villainy ("Dream West") for which he is best known.
M. Emmet Walsh as a craggy old "Sarge" and Richard Brooks as Sgt. Booker T. Douglas, one of the slain officer's comrades, also register in small but vital roles. The problem is, whereas the recollections of witnesses in "Soldier's Story" were acted out in flashbacks, in "Resting Place" they are simply related in conversation. Not even a director as resourceful as Korty can sustain much interest in such a long sequence of chats.
On the one hand, it's encouraging that the film is not as simple as it starts out being -- a story of how a town's racism is overcome and justice triumphs. The complications are commendable up to a point. Finally, though, you're left with a fairly good diffuse movie that might have been a singularly powerful one.
Salute to Billy Wilder'
Arguably the offbeat highlight of tonight's "American Film Institute Salute to Billy Wilder," a 90-minute NBC special at 9:30 on Channel 4, is a shot of Sylvester Stallone applauding the name Ernst Lubitsch. Yo, Ernst! Surely were Lubitsch alive he would eagerly be angling for a chance to direct Sly's very next witty bloodbath.
Director-writer Wilder -- whose films include "Some Like It Hot," "The Apartment" and "Sunset Boulevard" -- unquestionably deserves the AFI's Life Achievement Award, but something about the show in which he's given it is a tad draggy. All those encomiums, all that applause, all that Hollywood back-slapping seems very draining, especially when showered on a figure who does not trigger a great many sentimental associations.
Most of Wilder's films have been brisk, wry and hard boiled. His work is probably more respected than beloved. This can be a problem when you get a crowd together for the purpose of gushing their brains out.
Naturally the throng at the AFI dinner (at which this show was taped on March 6) is prone to be overappreciative. But even allowing for that, does Audrey Hepburn really merit yet another standing ovation? Does James Stewart? How about Ginger Rogers, for Pete's sake? Others on hand to praise Wilder include Fred MacMurray, longtime collaborator I.A.L. Diamond and emcee Jack Lemmon.
Carol Burnett, Walter Matthau, Lemmon and Tony Curtis stagger through a raggedy musical number, "I'm Just Wild About Billy," that may be klutzy but is terribly welcome for the way it breaks up the solemn monotony of the speechifying. The clips don't seem as broadly representative of Wilder's work as they might have been, but the opening tango montage is an eye-catching rouser.
Also appearing are a jittery Jessica Lange and the ubiquitous lightweight Whoopi Goldberg. No, they never appeared in any Wilder films. But they each saw one. That should count for something!
As is the custom, Wilder himself ambles up to the podium for the final words, introduced by AFI producer George Stevens Jr. Wilder seems amiable and alert, even though his last few films were not.
Of all the gratifying images in all the clips, one that seems particularly piquant is a quick shot of Barbara Stanwyck in "Ball of Fire," appearing at Gary Cooper's door and exclaiming, "Hi de ho!" Somehow, it's glisteningly magical, so full of brash life. As Gloria Swanson says in "Sunset Boulevard," they had faces then. Though this is not the best AFI tribute ever, by a long shot, these annual specials do give Hollywood a chance to feign graciousness and remember when it still had a touch of class.
Tonight the honoree is someone who appears to have appreciated the rarefied phoniness of Hollywood all along. In his remarks, he recalls sage advice from Samuel Goldwyn: "You have to learn to take the bitter with the sour." This AFI tribute honors a director who has shown repeatedly how the sublime and the ridiculous can be one and the same.