In the last half-hour of "Napoleon and Josephine: A Love Story," Josephine gets consumptive and is forced to take drastic action. She buttons her dress all the way up to the neck. Thus is signaled the impending conclusion of ABC's six-hour, three-night historical mini-series.
Until that moment, the magnum opus is really more of a sternum opus. The film, premiering at 9 tonight on Channel 7, is handily dominated by milady's cleavage. So much so that they might have called it "Napoleon and Josephine's." But then that naughty naughty The're`se (Stephanie Beacham) seems even more exposed than Josephine is.
Indeed, most of the ladies-in-waiting (and there's lots of waiting) wear dresses that, how you say, make zee poosh-poosh on zee bosom. It is not precisely a sea of troubles that greets the pint-sized emperor.
Josephine is played by Jacqueline Bisset, one of the most steadfastly uninteresting beautiful women in captivity, and she's certainly in captivity this time. She whispers and pouts her way through the most enervated and embalmed kind of historical processional, the sort of thing they were spoofing in "Singin' in the Rain" 35 years ago. And even before that!
We may never have thought this could possibly happen, but "Napoleon and Josephine" is so achingly dull it makes one long to see Norma Shearer in her Antoinette wig again. It's hard to decide whether this mini-series is creakier in concept or in execution. Either way, it's heavy creaking.
The notion of a Napoleon & Josephine act done by, say, Suzanne Somers and Billy Barty would have possibilities. It might have been the perfect comeback vehicle for Sonny and Cher. But here Bisset is teamed with, or against, Armand Assante as Nappy. Mostly what he does is log a lot of brooding time.
As the salient question provoked by the appearance of the actresses on hand is, how do they keep those dresses up, the one inspired by Assante's Napoleon has to be, how on earth does he keep those darn white pants clean?
Also lurking about is Anthony Perkins, looking incongruously Dickensian trussed up for the role of the manipulative scoundrel Talleyrand. Oh a saucy fellow was he! Or maybe just sauced. Perkins' eyes are perpetually popped open through the whole thing, as if Mama Bates has just rushed out of the fruit cellar with her butcher knife again.
Perkins looks craggy and venerable enough to be planted amongst the giant redwoods. Here is a new theory: Anthony Perkins is actually the picture of George Hamilton that ages so that George never does. Crazy, you say? You too will have such crazy thoughts if you sit through all 42, or was that six, hours of "Napoleon and Josephine"!
The movie opens badly, sending out reliable signals of dread. Even the credits, with their Polaroids of Nappy and Jo, are put-offish. They're followed by an establishing shot of Madame La Guillotine, we see the inscription "Paris 1794," and then, "The French Revolution." What one hopes to see next is, "Corner, Fourth and Main." But no, they're just feeling explicit, not playful.
So you've got your French Revolution and your Madame La Guillotine and here's a young upstart named Napoleon Bonaparte walking through a whole field of erupting explosions completely unfazed. Mon Dew! "You're very bold," a man says to him (quel cheek!), but soon the future emperor (of France -- see, that's where the French Revolution took place) has spotted Josephine, "the most beautiful woman I've ever seen," as well as "the most divine creature ever created."
A fun couple they ain't. Between her pouting and his brooding, you wouldn't want to get stuck between them at a dinner party or even a Rod McKuen concert. The complications tumble out, as do most of the ladies from their dresses. Napoleon's brothers denounce Josephine ("a female skilled in the arts of passion! steeped in treachery and guile!") but relent when he throws a fit right there in front of them.
Certainly this David L. Wolper production is rich looking. Money was definitely spent. However, the battle scenes are so suspiciously overpopulated that they may have been borrowed from other movies, perhaps including King Vidor's "War and Peace." To defray costs, an announcer notes at the conclusion of each night's chapter, "Transportation for Napoleon and Josephine was furnished by Air France."
Of course they mean "Napoleon and Josephine" and not the actual personages, but you can't blame a viewer for trying to wrest a little chuckle out of the thing. James Lee had the sad task of writing this extravagant anachronism and Richard T. Heffron directed, perhaps patterning his approach on the manner in which movies were directed in the 18th century. That's right; there were no movies in the 18th century! Somebody oughta tell Heffron.