Every film will be remade eventually as a TV movie or mini-series, and then eventually every TV movie and mini-series will be remade as another TV movie or mini-series, and so on unto infinity. There will be no logic or justice to the order in which these remakes are undertaken. Given such glum facts, one may as well accept the inevitability of NBC's four-hour, two-part remake of "The Long Hot Summer," one of those achy sultry sagas of life 'midst the magnolias.
Unfortunately, the script for the new NBC version, which airs tonight and tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 4, is utterly worthless, which is to say, of no value, irredeemable, paltry and barren. Even so, a plainly stellar cast does wring a few minutes' stupid pleasure out of it: Jason Robards as the big daddy figure in the scenario, Cybill Shepherd as the Maggie-the-Cat figure, and Don Johnson, of "Miami Vice," as the this-stud's-for-you figure. You have to give these people credit for their salvation work, but it still would be a better world if they had all said a firm no in the first place.
Perhaps the limitations of the material are what hold it back. The original film, with Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and Orson Welles, was by way of Faulkner, departing liberally from his novel "The Hamlet." The NBC version is based on the screenplay for that film by the prolific and professional Irving Ravetch and Harriet Frank Jr.; TV writers Rita Mae Brown and Dennis Turner had to take what was already a bastardization of Faulkner and inflate it to a length that could never support its minimal plot and derivative themes. Even so, they made a powerfully more horrendous botch of this than was necessary.
The genre might be called Southern Goth-ick. It used to be very common in the movies, whether they were based on Tennessee Williams plays or just based on ersatz Tennessee Williams plays. One way or another, there's always a woman with a repressed libido and a stranger in town who releases it by pressing the right buttons, as it were. The appearance of an angry mob of villagers is as much of the part of the ritual as it was in the Frankenstein movies; in this "Long Hot Summer," the townsfolk go from utter listlessness during the first seven-eighths of the thing to inexplicable frenzy in the last half hour.
Both they and their new-found passion arrive too late. Director Stuart Cooper has let everything go to seed by that time. Cooper, who called the shots for the abysmally tedious "A.D.," is the kind of director network executives like: someone who won't shock them with reckless cleverness or invention.
Johnson, as hero Ben Quick, running from a past reputation as a barn burner, arrives in town and in the film in the opening frames, picked up on the highway by Shepherd, as hot-trotter Eula Varner, and the appealing Judith Ivey, as her sister-in-law Noel. Ben is the catalyst for everything that follows, including lotsa lustin', heavy-duty jealousy and messy murder. By the end of the film he is at the end of a hangman's rope. Johnson reaches the end of his own rope quite a bit sooner.
That Johnson gets top billing in this production, over the inestimable Robards, is as grisly a sign of modern decadence as anyone could want; it puts all the portrayed decadence in the picture to shame. Robards, of course, is wonderful. In many of his scenes, he lays all the other actors out cold, and with so little apparent effort. The first sequence in which he appears is promisingly robust; old patriarch Will Varner, returning home from the hospital, is riding in the front seat of the ambulance and yahooing his greetings to folks around town. Actors can do just so much to energize a disspirited film. Robards' capacities in this respect are awesome, yet taxed to the limit.
As for Johnson, the cover boy of every magazine in the world, he seems anonymously capable in the Ben Quick role, but he certainly doesn't exhibit the insinuating sexuality that Newman did. Johnson is softer; his swagger's rather tame. The producers endeavor successfully to divest him of his shirt as often as possible, and see to it that his still-boyish torso is lacquered a lustrous bronze and sprinkled with beads of synthetic perspiration. And for all that, you still have to wonder that he could precipitate such a fuss in the henhouse.
Shepherd, on the other hand, is everything anybody could want in a sex symbol and more. In that first scene, she is the naughty epitome of tease, joyriding about in a white Cadillac convertible whose overstatement she overwhelms. She wears sunglasses and has a blue ribbon in her hair. Later she shows up with a blue parasol and, still later, in in sexy lingerie of periwinkle blue. Her rich-girl insouciance is fabulous, and she seems playfully aware that the movie is garbage, yet determined to keep herself amused by it. Some of Johnson's big scenes implode, but none of Shepherd's do.
Strangely, these two reigning heartthrobs of television have few scenes together, and no love scenes together at all. Ben Quick's ardor is mysteriously channeled to Noel (Ivey), and the two are not precisely sizzlers in the match-up department. Indignation that NBC would put Johnson and Shepherd on the same marquee and then fail to deliver them in tandem should be tempered by a certain sympathetic understanding: NBC clings to its cherished and long-nurtured traditions of ineptitude and bungling.
Even more ridiculous is the casting of Ava Gardner in a part that barely exists, friend and ex-mistress of old Will. It's completely and quizzically peripheral. One of the maddening things about this film, though, is that eventually every character comes to seem peripheral.
The two feckless screenwriters didn't write a movie, they wrote bunches of scenes. Neither came to this project with precisely imposing credentials. Brown has written poetry and novels; her last novel was called "Southern Death," which must be why she got this assignment. As for Turner, NBC publicity boasts that he wrote "20 segments of the series 'Dynasty'" during the past two seasons." Hey, that's writing!
"Summer," for all its yawning tepid stretches, will probably do fairly well in the ratings. That's because of Johnson's and Shepherd's momentary celebrity and because there are plenty of sex scenes. In one of them, Shepherd, as Eula, has just committed adultery and returned to the bed of her husband (Bill Russ) where it is clearly implied she performs fellatio on him. This one-time TV taboo has become increasingly prevalent on television, since -- approximately, that is -- the mini-series "The Executioner's Song," also on NBC. Some barriers probably should not be broken down, and this may be one of them.
"It appears it's gonna be a long, slow summer," Ben Quick accurately predicts at one point in the film. Told it's "too hot" for lovemaking by hubby, Eula says, "Honey, it's gonna be 'too hot' all summer long." And after her sheepish suitor confesses to her either his homosexuality or his impotence (it's hard to tell which), sister Noel observes, "It's been a long, hot summer." Yes that's right -- long, hot, slow, hot and long. That kind of summer. That kind of movie. No kind of movie.