Kathleen Turner still has a lot to offer, and she offers some of it in tomorrow night's CBS movie, "Friends at Last," at 9 on Channel 9. Turner gives a very satisfying performance in what turns out to be a stubbornly unsatisfying film.
How sad that Turner is considered over the hill by those who make Hollywood features, whereas her former co-star, the geezerly Michael Douglas, still gets top dollar for movie roles and even manages to pass himself off as a sex symbol. It just isn't fair. Turner may be a little on the plump side, but there's still plenty of sexual charisma there, and her husky-musky voice has lots of residual sizzle.
"Friends at Last" starts off like a remake of "Diary of a Mad Housewife" and then abruptly turns into a disease-of-the-week picture about two-thirds of the way through. Turner plays Fanny Conlon, a bored and ignored wife whose husband is a columnist for the New York Times and also an insufferable pompous ass (no credibility problem there).
When Fanny tries to strike out on her own, he belittles her, and he can't see her as anything but a supporting player in his grand opera of a life. Oddly enough, the film, written by Susan Sandler, doesn't state Fanny's case very well and almost makes it look as though she should bite the bullet and play the submissive spouse. The film was produced by Procter & Gamble Productions, which may help explain why it stops miles short of being a feminist manifesto.
There are some charming moments in the film, especially during the brief period before the marriage crumbles, as when Fanny and hubby watch their little girl, Diana (Krista Marie Bonura), dance around the living room to "The Waltz of the Flowers." The film revisits the marriage when Diana is 11 and 21, by which time it is an ex-marriage with seemingly no future.
Then the illness hits, a veritable deus ex machina that obliterates all the issues raised earlier in the film, and for some reason we're supposed to see the husband as a redeemed soul. He's a louse, and weakly played by Colm Feore. Faith Prince hits a few high notes as Celia, a friend of Fanny's (oddly, her only friend) who tries to liberate her from the husband's domain.
Director John David Coles could have done a lot more to shape the material and give it a sense of purpose. The sole asset really is Turner, whose performance has the kind of teeter-totter vulnerability that keeps you on your toes. She's a joy to have around even in surroundings as unworthy as these.
Patty Duke as a busybody minister poking her perky little nose into everybody else's troubled life? We must have all died and gone to Hell. But no, here it is, for real -- more or less -- a new NBC series called "Amazing Grace," with Duke doling out the Patty-tudes and playing Little Ms. Fixit to a world of walking wounded.
The series premieres at 8 tonight on Channel 4, unless the whole thing is some ghastly April Fools' joke and the network plans to show something intellectually stimulating like a "Blossom" rerun instead.
Duke plays huggable Hannah Miller, new to the ministry and fresh from a recent near-death experience in surgery. "I'm on a high, a natural high," she declares. Hannah has just moved across town with her two kids and taken over a church from which, apparently, all religious icons and symbols have been banned. It's the church of Just Feelin' Good All Over, with Patty the high priestess of simpering pap.
Before you say there should be more wholesome shows like this on television, get a gander at the pilot, where so-helpful Hannah comes to the rescue of an embattled mom who ran off years earlier with little baby Bobby to escape a vengeful dad. "How can I help you, Carol?" Duke asks the mother, her facial features contorted into a facsimile of achy-breaky angst. Hannah, for all her alleged wisdom, provides surprisingly little good advice and virtually no spiritual counsel. People complain that religion plays little or no part in the lives of TV characters, and so some may welcome the series. But what it practices and preaches is religion with the religion removed: Religion Lite, a synthetic sugary substitute that's about as profound as a smile button. As for Duke's performance, the kindest phrase that can be applied to it would have to be along the lines of "absolutely unbearable." "To err is human, to forgive divine," the dear little phrase-maker lectures her son at one point. To air a show this insipid is inhuman, however, and the divinest thing one can do is forget that it ever existed.