Oprah and Whitney produce TV events


By Ed Bark / The Dallas Morning News

America's pre-eminent black women entertainers converge on ABC Sunday for a night of authentic "event" television.

Give it up for Whitney Houston, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg and Brandy. They're restoring some much-needed luster to network television with two films of exceptional quality and merit. Thanks, we needed that.

The third TV version of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella stars Brandy in the title role and Ms. Goldberg as Queen Constantina. Ms. Houston, who grew too old for the role of Cinderella while the project languished, has regrouped to play the fairy godmother. She's also co-executive producer of the two-hour musical, airing under The Wonderful World of Disney banner.

Oprah Winfrey Presents enables the talk-show diva to fly her own flag as producer and occasional co-star of six planned movies aiming to "open our hearts a little wider." The first, Before Women Had Wings, is an extraordinary adaptation of Connie May Fowler's acclaimed novel. Ellen Barkin's portrayal of an abused and abusive mother qualifies as one of the few truly great TV performances of the 1990s. And young Tina Majorinio is immensely appealing as 9-year-old "Bird." Ms. Winfrey offers capable, understated support in the pivotal role of Miss Zora.

All of this unfolds on the first big Sunday night of the November "sweeps" ratings period. Competing for viewers, NBC resorts to another special effects-laden lollipop with its cartoonish House of Frankenstein while CBS reverts to Angela Lansbury in a new Murder, She Wrote movie. Give ABC full credit for challenging audiences to answer higher callings. Cinderella and Before Women Had Wings are litmus tests in times of rampant creative constipation. When's the last time you've seen a broadcast TV movie that really wowed and moved you? Sunday night affords two opportunities. Make ratings losers of them and you might be on the receiving end of a Tori Spelling film festival next November.

Previous all-Anglo TV versions of Cinderella in 1957 and 1965 starred Julie Andrews and Lesley Ann Warren, respectively. Disney's adaptation is aggressively multicultural from head to glass-slippered toe.

For one, Ms. Goldberg's queen is married to a white King (Victor Garber). Their son, the prince (newcomer Paolo Montalban, no relation to Ricardo), is Filipino. And Cinderella's wicked stepmother (Bernadette Peters) has a black daughter, Minerva (Natalie Desselle), and a white one, Calliope (Veanne Cox).

Does or should any of this matter? Yes, but only in the context of making this timeless fairy tale accessible and identifiable to a more diverse audience. The fantasy and the music still work their magic whether Cinderella is chartreuse or her stepsisters polka-dotted. In truth, actors of any origin can play these parts. In practice, they're finally getting the chance.

Cinderella first soars when its other principal star, Seinfeld's Jason Alexander, goofs his way through a vigorous, bouncy production number. Mr. Alexander, who plays the loyal servant Lionel, is entrusted with spreading the news that "The Prince Is Giving a Ball." You'll likewise have a ball watching him cavort amid townsfolk in a choreographed romp worthy of the big screen.

The film's lush look and eye-catching costuming also are of feature-film quality. Whatever Cinderella's shortcomings - you'll have to briefly endure Ms. Goldberg's singing - scrimping definitely isn't one of them.

Brandy and Mr. Montalban effectively communicate their puppy love, whether gazing at each other or singing Rodgers and Hammerstein's classic melodies. Ms. Peters always knows her way around a musical, and Mr. Alexander should seriously consider a Broadway career now that he can afford one. Ms. Houston is a bit much as Cinderella's latest in a long line of fairy godmothers. We're used to seeing them plump, not glamorous. And Ms. Houston's vocal gymnastics on the concluding There's Music in You are considerably showier than they should be.

Still, a small dent or two doesn't keep this Cinderella from working its wonders. This is stellar television, and none too soon. But wait, there's more.

Set in the 1960s, Before Women Had Wings likewise is musically inclined in its early scenes. Billy Jackson (John Savage) is a would-be country-music star whose voice has gone raspy from too many whiskey rivers. But he remains capable of singing a poignant You Are My Sunshine to his darlin' daughter Bird. In an even better sequence, they belt out Johnny Cash's Ring of Fire while whipping along a back road in Dad's convertible.

Billy's a pig when he's drunk, though. He beats his wife, Glory Marie (Ms. Barkin), before blaming her for instigating it. One day, consumed by self-loathing, Billy finally makes good on his promise to kill himself. Mother, Bird and older daughter Phoebe (Julia Stiles) are left destitute, shell-shocked and in search of a new start in Tampa, Fla. In return for services never quite articulated, they're allowed to stay in a decrepit trailer home owned by the seemingly benevolent Mr. Ippolito (Burt Young).

Glory Marie's desperation and drinking increase, as does her contempt for Bird and Phoebe. Ms. Barkin is a marvel in this difficult role. Embittered, jittery and drying up inside, she lashes at the demons infesting her by terrorizing two innocent girls. Bird seeks refuge with the kindly Miss Zora, who lives alone and still hurts inside. Together they'll build an emotional life raft.

Before Women Had Wings is an enormously affecting, character-driven masterpiece driven by Ms. Winfrey's laudable determination to "reach people in a way that makes them want to improve their lives."

If that sounds like a platitude, so be it. Ms. Winfrey is practicing what she preaches on a night when ABC deserves two gold stars and appreciable, appreciative audiences.