September 22, 2005

Shepherd dons stripes for ‘Martha Behind Bars’

By Ray Richmond

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - Four months after it was
pulled from the May sweep to be better positioned with Martha
Stewart's September Spectacular (i.e., her new two-series
partnership with Mark Burnett and a shiny new warm 'n' cuddly
image), "Martha Behind Bars" finally hits the CBS air looking
less like a biopic than a trip to Fantasyland.

It stars Cybill Shepherd as the famed tackling
dummy-turned-vanquished icon, and if it seems like a case of
"deja-view," it's only because Shepherd is now making a career
of portraying Stewart. She already played Martha the Terrible
in 2003's "Martha, Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart" on NBC,
which basically cast the multimedia domesticity diva as a cruel
bitch. Now, exhibiting something akin to range, Shepherd comes
back to give us Martha the Magnificent, a woman who is driven,
yes, but also good and ethical and ultimately wronged by the
government. You figure that at any moment, she's going to bag
her tycoon gig outright to launch a career helping old ladies
cross the street.

This isn't to say the film isn't entertaining. It's
actually quite a hoot, in a revisionist history sort of way.
Charlie Bohl's teleplay leaves the impression that Stewart
didn't really do anything so illegal, certainly not enough to
justify her being charged with conspiracy, securities fraud and
obstruction of justice and convicted of lying to a grand jury.
The impression we're left with in this divertingly sympathetic
exercise is that while Martha might have been evil before, now
she's a woman of impeccable character for having been martyred.
Fortunately, "Bars" doesn't take itself or its subject too
terribly seriously, allowing for the material's camp value to
seep through.

The title also winds up being a bit of an overstatement.
"Bars" doesn't even pick up Stewart's stay at Alderson Federal
Prison (aka Camp Cupcake) until the movie's halfway point. The
first hour chronicles the events leading up to her indictment
for insider trading and ultimate conviction. Yeah, the script
allows, she knew that the price of ImClone stock was going down
when she instructed her broker, Peter Bacanovic (Gale Harold),
to dump it. But we're assured here that she didn't so much as
alter an e-mail to cover her tracks. She was bagged in a witch
hunt, the movie makes clear.

It's when the film heads to prison that it really gets fun,
however. Stewart's five-month stay in the slammer is depicted
as something of an extended trip to camp: great female bonding,
lousy food, always looking to pull one over on the
counselors/guards. Shepherd portrays Martha somewhat blandly
but with occasional spirit, showcasing her subject's steely
determination and dignity amidst the chaos. Director Eric Bross
commendably resists the urge to mock Stewart's situation or
dress up the production with too many broad touches, basically
keeping the shoot and his performers looking straight ahead.

But "Bars" doesn't need bells and whistles to seem a little
ridiculous. Enduring five months in a federal lock-up with
one's safety and sanity intact is one thing; showing it to be
positively revelatory is quite another. We're to believe that
Martha more or less thrived in the pen, making close friends,
becoming a leader of and advocate for her fellow inmates,
crusading for prison reform on her Internet site, taking it in
stride when she's caught smuggling nutmeg (nutmeg!) pilfered
from the kitchen in her bra and never feeling sorry for
herself. She's no mere short-timer, she's Super Prisoner! If
the film plays like a mere extension of the current Martha
Makeover, well, maybe we should cut the poor mogul a little
slack. She's already endured unimaginable nutmeg trauma.


Martha Stewart: Cybill Shepherd

Peter Bacanovic: Gale Harold

Lexi Stewart: Sabine Singh

John Cuti: Jonathan Higgins

Robert Morvillo: Alan C. Peterson

Douglas Faneuil: David Alpay

Mariana Pasternak: Julie Khaner

Susan Lyne: Lori Hallier

Big Martha: Jackie Burroughs

Kevin Sharkey: Alec McClure

Ann Armstrong: Deborah Tennant

Sam Waksal: Robert Verlaque.

Executive producer: Tom Patricia; Producer: Frank Siracusa;
Co-producer/teleplay: Charlie Bohl; Director: Eric Bross;
Director of photography: Horacio Marquinez; Production
designer: Doug McCullough; Costume designer: Denise Cronenberg;
Editor: Gib Jaffe; Music: Douglas J. Cuomo; Sound mixer: John
Thomson; Casting: Jason L. Wood, Stephanie Gorin & Associates.

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter