Issues

Made for Quality Television?

by Caetlin Benson-Allott

from Film Quarterly Summer 2013, Vol. 66, No. 4

Behind the Candelabra (Steven Soderbergh, 2013)
Anna Nicole (Mary Herron, 2013)

Most Critics agree that since the late 1990s, we have enjoyed a “golden age of quality television” wherein serial dramas such as The Sopranos (HBO, 1999–2007), The Wire (HBO, 2002–2008), and Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013) have revitalized the medium with their self-aware narrative complexity, high production values, esteemed (often cinematic) actors and auteurs, and formal experimentation. This aesthetic revolution has transformed a wide variety of genres, from the police procedural to the miniseries, but there exists an implicit masculinist bias within its system of values. Simply put, the shows celebrated as quality tend to be about men and for men and often depict a great deal of violence along with other elements such as intertextual references, knowing dialogue, and unconventional camerawork. Masculinist bias may explain why made-for-television movies—that most feminine and denigrated of television genres—were never considered “quality” until very recently. This summer, two telefeatures brought quality television’s innovations to small-screen docudrama. Steven Soderbergh’s Behind the Candelabra recounts the tumultuous five-year affair between Liberace (Michael Douglas) and his much younger lover, Scott Thorson (Matt Damon). Produced and promoted by HBO, Behind the Candelabra was the subject of an Entertainment Weekly cover story, rave reviews, and 15 Emmy Award nominations. Mary Herron’s Anna Nicole tells a similar story with equal self-reflexive panache, yet it received no such ballyhoo. In fact, Entertainment Weekly mocked Herron’s biopic with the same relish it used to praise Soderbergh’s, cruelly lampooning it as “destined to be [a] Peabody-, Emmy-, Golden Globe–, and (why not?) Nobel Prize–winning film” (Lanford Beard, “Popwatch Viewing Party: Lifetime’s Anna Nicole,” Entertainment Weekly, June 30, 2013). Such critique belies the striking resemblance between two TV movies that both adapt nonfiction source material to tell analogous stories about blondes from disadvantaged backgrounds looking for a better life. But Anna Nicole embraces and interrogates the “feminine” conventions of made-for-television movies whereas Behind the Candelabra asserts its value by repudiating the gendered history of the genre. Taken together, the two movies suggest that to be recognized as “quality,” a television movie must distance itself from female subjects and audiences.

Today, made-for-television movies are typically dismissed as scandal-of-the-week cable quickies designed to cash in on recent headlines and social anxieties, but this was not always the case. In the 1960s and 1970s, made-for-television movies were network prestige projects and incorporated a wide range of genres, from the western and the historical film to the mystery and even the horror story. It was not until the 1980s and 1990s that the genre was reduced to “little personal stories that executives think mass audiences will take as revelations of the contemporary” (Todd Gitlin, Inside Prime Time, New York: Pantheon, 1983). Often these films translated social controversies such as drug addiction or spousal abuse into personal narratives, thus benefitting from salacious subject matter while translating it into less political terms. Of late, the broadcast television networks have all but ceased airing telefeatures, leaving them to niche cable channels such as Lifetime. (Disney and SyFy also make hay from made-for-television movies, but their niche markets lead them toward other genres and beyond the purview of this article.) Lifetime—which branded itself as “television for women” in the 1990s—is the most famous and successful made-for-television movie producer of the past twenty years, regularly bringing in more than three million viewers per original-movie premiere. Despite their popularity, Lifetime movies are widely ridiculed for their melodramatic focus on women’s crises. They are scorned even by other woman-oriented television shows, including HBO’s Sex and the City, wherein one heroine rebukes a histrionic friend by sniffing, “I don’t watch Lifetime television for women” (“Running with Scissors,” August 20, 2000).

For years, HBO promoted itself as “not television,” and this ethos still extends to its original movies, which typically distance themselves from their gendered genre. With a few noteworthy exceptions such as Martha Coolidge’s Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) and Michael Sucsy’s Grey Gardens (2009), HBO’s made-for-television movies offer professional dramas about men for a predominantly male audience. Behind the Candelabra‘s gay melodrama modifies this formula in some important ways. Its narrative focuses on the emotional lives of gay men while its camera embraces the opulent mise-en-scéne provided by Liberace’s “palatial kitsch” mansion and glittery jewelry. The movie’s considerable charms arise from this sexual candor and visual excess; indeed, its high-camp take on high production values makes it one of the most engaging biopics in years.

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However, it also overtly distances itself from the more feminine elements of the television docudrama including its traditional audience. The first time Thorson sees Liberace performing his nightclub act, he comments that “it’s funny this crowd would like something this gay,” to which his friend Bob Black (Scott Bakula) replies, “Oh, they have no idea he’s gay.” A cutaway to an offended audience member reveals “they” to be middle-aged women, also the stereotypical audience for made-for-television movies. Soderbergh’s film satirizes this implicitly unhip audience even as it depicts their idol with respect and affection. In short, the film embraces historical kitsch but does not want to be seen as kitsch itself; that might disrupt Soderbergh’s earnest attempt to advocate for gay-marriage rights late in the film. Hence his vociferous attempts to distance Behind the Candelabra from the made-for-television movie genre. In interview after interview, Soderbergh insists that he accepted HBO’s financing only because his film was too controversial for U.S. theatrical distributors. He also hails quality television as the new independent cinema, praising the filmic influences (and audiences) of the qualitytelevision movement (“Behind the Candelabra Is ‘Pretty Gay,'” Huffington Post, January 25, 2013). Critics took up this gambit and praised Behind the Candelabra for its cinematic production values including its spectacular costuming and elaborate prosthetics.

Ironically, Behind the Candelabra shares such camp pleasures with Anna Nicole as part of their mutual debt to docudrama. Both use behind-the-scenes stories about gaudy American celebrities to comment on contemporary social issues (gay-marriage rights and prescription-drug abuse, respectively). Both rely on causal narratives of family trauma to explain their protagonist’s pathologies and deploy eye-catching wigs and make-up to transform Oscar-winning actors into some semblance of historical personages. (Particularly impressive is Martin Landau’s metamorphosis into Anna Nicole‘s benefactor-cum-husband, J. Howard Marshall.) But Behind the Candelabra repudiates its status as a made-for-television feature whereas Anna Nicole celebrates it. It is this difference that brings Behind the Candelabra its acclaim—and makes Anna Nicole the more interesting movie.

Anna Nicole opens through the viewfinder of a camera recording a television documentary about Anna Nicole Smith (Agnes Bruckner). This conceit immediately identifies Bruckner as Smith for viewers while also reminding us that this film is not a window onto Smith’s life but a media creation about a woman who was herself a media creation. The movie then cuts to a fast-paced montage of Smith’s life on the red carpet. Many of these shots feature prominent interlacing that calls to mind the cathode-ray monitors Smith appeared on in her heyday. This device places the audience on the far side of the screen from Smith, reminding us again that this film can show us only a mediated version of its star. Moments later, the film’s title appears in bright pink brush script, a clichéd font choice that pays homage to the movie’s generic predecessors. In short, Anna Nicole not only embraces but emphasizes its medium and genre, unlike Behind the Candelabra, which uses no title card—a common cinematic conceit to increase viewer immersion and disguise mediation.

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Herron’s various narrative experiments also reflect her investment in exploring made-for-television melodrama. Most prominent among these are visitations from Smith’s past and future selves, a storytelling technique that critics scorned without studying its actual execution in the film. As a girl, Smith (née Vicki Lynn Hogan) uses Playboy to envision a happier future for herself. One day, while admiring Marilyn Monroe’s cover image and ignoring her stepfather’s sexual abuse of her young aunt, Hogan hears someone calling her name. She looks up to see the adult Smith smiling out at her from a bedroom mirror. The apparition is initially surrounded by a full-body computer-generated halo, but as soon as Hogan engages it, it starts to refract, doubling in the beveled edge of the mirror. The next time Hogan sees Smith—moments before making her debut at a Houston strip club—the halo is gone and Smith’s image is cropped by the edges of the mirror. Thus does reality edge out fantasy as Hogan gets closer to it.

Finally, when Hogan/Smith reaches a public nadir on her reality-television show, she sees an image of her girlhood self in the mirror. This figural reversal is trite, but it is also critical to the film’s most experimental and meaningful sequence. That sequence begins in a pizza parlor with the spectator watching through a realitytelevision camera as Smith and her lawyer/confidant Howard K. Stern (Adam Golderg) square off in an eating contest. When Smith leaves to purge her meal, the film shifts from the mediated voyeurism of reality television to the more intimate gaze of a peeping Tom. Herron’s camera hovers around Smith as she bends over a toilet, but every shot is obstructed to some degree, as though the camera were peering around the stall door. The audience never gets a clear image of Smith vomiting, which forces us to confront our desire to see such a moment, a moment too private and painful for even reality television. When Smith leaves the stall to snort an unspecified drug, she spots her younger self in the bathroom mirror, watching unhappily over her shoulder. Patterns of light and shadow suggest that the girl might be in the room with Smith, might even be the one whose prying gaze the camera just occupied. The conceit is impossible, of course, but even as a suggestion it disrupts any notion of audience innocence. The child is just as voyeuristic as the home audience and is as fascinated by Smith’s downfall as she once was in watching the star shine.

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With this complicated visual metaphor, Herron communicates her talent as a filmmaker and her respect for both her subjects: Anna Nicole Smith and the made-for-television- movie. She captures the schadenfreude (joy in another’s failures) that drives the docudrama’s hegemonizing discourse while also celebrating its melodramatic impulses and attention to women’s stories. “I’m attracted to things that have stigmas,” Herron explained to Vice magazine earlier this year (Mitchell Sunderland, “First Patrick Bateman, Now Anna Nicole Smith?” Vice, June 23, 2013). Behind the Candelabra is not; from its paratexts to its production values, the movie seeks to eradicate stigma by embracing the androcentric and cinematic conceits of quality television. Consequently it offers viewers only quality television instead of a qualitative engagement with television. Anna Nicole has faults—most of them arising from the production’s limited budget—but in its willingness to ask what made-for-television movie viewers get out of the genre, it embraces both self-reflexivity and the history of the art form. It also happens to be “about women, for women,” to quote Herron again—but that qualification does not preclude the possibility of quality.

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