Becoming Legends

Another part of the forest: Shepard and Davis in Dash and Lilly.Photo: M. Courtney/A&E

Early and late in Dash and Lilly (Monday, May 31; 8 to 10 p.m.; A & E), we see snippets of The Thin Man (1934), in black and white on a color TV set. William Powell and Myrna Loy as Nick and Nora Charles drink like fish, smoke like chimneys, rub-a-dub like Inuits, and wisecrackle through a screwball murder mystery. The Thin Man, of course, was the last novel Dashiell Hammett ever wrote. Nick and Nora were how he chose to imagine his smarty-pants romance with the playwright Lillian Hellman – leashed to a wirehaired terrier instead of their occluding anger, and omitting the radical politics. We don’t see snippets of Julia, with Jason Robards playing Dash as omniscient/avuncular and Jane Fonda playing Lilly as furious/heroic – which is how she chose to confabulate their relationship in Pentimento. Nor, though his name is mentioned, do we see Bogart as Sam Spade in The Maltese Falcon. And certainly not the post-Dash Lilly, in that notorious New Yorker ad for a Blackglama fur. But these images crowd our heads as we watch Sam Shepard and Judy Davis profess their love for 30 years while jockeying for the perfect vampire bite.

Shepard and Davis are a triumph of casting. He may seem a little too healthy for a former Pinkerton detective who suffered most of his life from tuberculosis, who chain-smoked his way to emphysema, and who died, in 1961, of cancer in both lungs, but Shepard’s got the evasive eyes and the sudden violence and the Citizen Robespierre righteousness (Dash beat up on women, which the TV movie duly notes, and one of those women was Lilly, which it fails to mention). She has just the right fidgety voraciousness, like the cloud chamber of a cyclotron, all fissure and fusion and somehow denser than the rest of us. (Fonda was fine, too, in Julia: muscular, driven, a payback counterpuncher. It’s just that we didn’t notice at the time, because we were all so busy pouncing on the self-serving prevarications in Pentimento.) Even when she decides to have more fun as a blonde, it’s as if she’s put on war paint and chucked herself like a spear.

It’s also nice to see Laurence Luckinbill again, as Joe Rauh, the lawyer who represented Hellman before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. David Paymer is stalwart as Arthur Kober, the first husband who is loyal even after he’s discarded when Lilly meets Dash in Hollywood. And Bebe Neuwirth would have stolen the show as Dorothy Parker, a self-destructive Slinky, if director Kathy Bates had let her. But Bates, who warmed up for her first feature-film directing job with snappy episodes of Homicide, Oz, and NYPD Blue, never falters in her ferocious focus; she is as obsessive about her principals as they were about each other.

I have decided not to complain about Jerry Ludwig’s screenplay. Ludwig, besides writing for TV shows like I Spy, Mission Impossible, Columbo, and Murder, She Wrote, has obviously read everything Hammett and Hellman ever wrote, plus everything ever written about them, changing his mind as he went along – and he also worked as a studio publicist on Hollywood productions of two of her plays, The Children’s Hour and Toys in the Attic. If he doesn’t buy into the usual feminist reading of their relationship (she wasted herself on a man who would pull the whole world down with him into his alcoholism, his writer’s block, and his self-loathing), neither will he endorse the anti-Hellman animus of, say, Joan Mellen’s dual biography, Hellman and Hammett (besides being ugly, she was a succubus who drained him of his talent and his testosterone). And because he ends with Hammett’s unlikely burial at Arlington, after which Lilly lived another 23 party-girl years, the screenplay never gets into her score-settling memoirs, nor the counterattack on her reputation by Mary McCarthy, Diana Trilling, and, most ludicrously, Norman Podhoretz.

So Dash and Lilly, intending itself as a difficult romance, neglects both as writers – what Hammett, in Red Harvest, The Dain Curse, and The Glass Key, accomplished in inventing a radical American novel; and how Hellman, after several so-so plays, re-created herself in An Unfinished Woman, Pentimento, and Scoundrel Time. (That in these memoirs she didn’t exactly tell the truth shouldn’t come as a shock to readers of Speak, Memory; Six Crises; Making It; Casanova; and Ben Franklin. Like most writers, she cut her conscience to fit her literary ambitions.) What we get, besides a corrective to that amnesia about the blacklist that permitted an Oscar to celebrate an Elia Kazan, is domestic violence dressed up as grand passion. We may choose to wallow in their bedroom lives as something dreamy and doomed. But really, one promiscuous drunk found another to reciprocate. As their lips locked, so did their wounds.

Becoming Legends