Jessica Savitch lived a much too short and much too unhappy life. It ended in an auto accident 12 years ago, but she is still one of the most talked-about personalities ever to work in network news. The camera loved her. The audience loved her. And some of her co-workers hated her guts.
Her spectacular career and tragedy-filled life flies by in "Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story," a movie made for the Lifetime cable network and premiering there at 8 tonight, with a repeat at 11. Between these two showings of the docudrama, Lifetime will do an unusual and perhaps daring thing: air a documentary about Savitch, "An Intimate Portrait," which helps clarify some of the facts of her life that the movie obfuscates or fumbles.
The film is well made and the documentary poorly made, but together they do flesh out a haunting portrait of the troubled star. The film is also blessed with Sela Ward, of NBC's "Sisters," who gives a stunningly powerful performance as the bright young newswoman who vowed to be a network anchor by the age of 30 and died at 35.
She had, however, made good on her vow.
The film suffers from some slipshod storytelling and the miscasting of a drowsy and bloated Ron Silver as Ron Kershaw, a reporter with whom Savitch had a long, sometimes violent love-hate relationship (the movie doesn't even clearly spell out that Kershaw, too, was a TV reporter). Kershaw, who died of cancer in 1988, was both guru and nemesis; he advised and shepherded Savitch over the years, but also physically abused her -- though this is reduced in the film to one punch and a black eye.
As the movie opens, Jessica and Ron are looking at home movies and other visual souvenirs of her life. The story flashes back to Houston in 1971, when Savitch got a job as a reporter at KHOU-TV. Even at the outset she is demanding, temperamental, tightly wound and high-strung. She screams at colleagues, tells a tired film editor that her piece has "got to be perfect" and is accused by the news director of "stepping on toes."
But she knows what she wants and works hard to get it, studying tapes of herself on the air to perfect her delivery.
About 20 minutes into the film, Savitch moves on to the larger and much more important TV market of Philadelphia, where she is told by a station executive, "You have to look and talk like a movie star" to succeed as a broadcast journalist. She is transformed into a more glamorous presence and soon becomes a local smash, even inspiring a popular song, "Jessica, Oh Jessica."
But it's also at this period of her life that, according to the film, she began using cocaine, a habit that haunted her almost to the very end. One night during a commercial break in a newscast, Savitch, then an anchor, threw a temper tantrum that was preserved on videotape and passed around all over the industry to derisive chuckles.
It was only a matter of time, though, before a network came a-calling. Savitch had tremendous charisma and class on the air. But when NBC hired her, she was sent to the Washington bureau and assigned to Congress, a beat for which she was hopelessly ill-prepared. She was, an executive notes, not a competent reporter and yet a huge success, a tremendous popular favorite. Television has always been more generous at rewarding style than substance. Savitch had style.
At a speed that qualifies as hectic, the movie traces the parallel, eventually intersecting lines of her private and public lives. Her two marriages both end badly -- the first, to a worshipful businessman, in divorce; the second, to an emotionally disturbed celebrity doctor in Washington, in his suicide. She aborted the child conceived during that marriage, but the public was told she miscarried. Finally, assigned to a nightly 43-second "NBC News Digest" report that aired during prime time, she showed up one night strung out and glassy-eyed, and badly fumbled on the air.
"My life's never been more of a mess and I've never been more popular," she muses while at NBC. As the flashbacks end, she tells her friend Ron, "I'm really just a scared fake" and says the Jessica Savitch on TV is "someone I dreamed up to sell tickets." Off drugs, she promises herself that she'll pull the crazy pieces of her life back together -- but then, on a rainy night in bucolic New Hope, Pa., in 1983, a car in which Savitch was riding with a male friend plunged into a canal.
The last few minutes of her glamorous life were spent suffocating in mud.
Lifetime's 45-minute documentary about Savitch, between the two showings of the movie, contains a few seconds of that infamous "Digest" performance, although all tapes of it were ordered erased at the time by NBC executives. Only a few seconds are shown, however, then confusingly repeated. Herky-jerky camera work, jangled editing and a pretentiously morose solo piano score make the documentary hard to watch, yet worth the trouble.
Together, the two films tell a sad but gripping story of a young woman who doted on her father, lost him when she was only 12, and once said to a friend, "Every man in my life has let me down."
But there is more to come. Hollywood is readying "Up Close and Personal," a film originally inspired by the Savitch saga and written by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. The story has gone through changes, however; the Savitch character, called Tally Atwater, doesn't die at the end. Instead, her mentor does, like Norman Maine in "A Star Is Born."
Hollywood hates the messiness of true tragedy.
"Almost Golden," meanwhile, is almost great, and one of the best films yet made for basic cable. Ward's portrayal is an award performance, a conscientious examination of a fascinating enigma. CAPTION: "Almost Golden": A blond Sela Ward portrays the driving -- and driven -- Jessica Savitch. CAPTION: Sela Ward stars as anchorwoman Jessica Savitch on Lifetime's "Almost Golden."