Okay, I’ll say it: The Passion of Ayn Rand (Sunday, May 30; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime) is as delicious as it is dumbfounding, as mirthful as it is misbegotten. That the Russian-émigré philosopher (of “Objectivism”) and novelist (of claptrap) should fall in soulful lust for her most devoted male student – 25 years her junior but equally capable of rationalizing absolutely any behavior at all that suited his urgent needs and career aspirations – and that they should secure the consent of their bewildered spouses for them to meet each week for an afternoon of orgasmic ecstasy, while she is otherwise writing Atlas Shrugged and he is simultaneously psychologizing lovely losers about their self-esteem and lecturing the brain-dead on transcendental selfishness, should come as no surprise. Why expect either Ayn Rand, a.k.a. Alice Rosenbaum, or Nathaniel Branden, “my intellectual heir,” to be any less self-indulgent or self-justifying than any other bunch of goat-faced Bolsheviks, Village bohemians, Partisan Reviewers, polymorphous perverts, beatniks, or Brat Packers? Heavy typing! Kinky sex! Free love! Free enterprise!
What does surprise is that a production company should decide to tell this story from the point of view of Barbara Branden, who lost her husband first to the philosopher and then to one of the lovely losers. (Naturally, Nathaniel comes off looking like a pompous jerk.) And what astounds is that Helen Mirren should have agreed to star – to vamp! – as Rand. (She darkens her eyes and hair, waves her cigarette holder like a wizard’s wand, and coarsens her whole body to burrow into intimate chats like a white mole into a potato bin.) Never mind Eric Stoltz as Nathaniel, with his oddly inchoate arrogance, his weedy grandiosity. Never mind Julie Delpy as his young wife, Barbara, who “degrades” him by actually contemplating an affair of her own. Never even mind Peter Fonda, who, as Rand’s hapless, heavy-drinking husband, Frank O’Connor, takes everything lying down, a lapsed helix of recumbent DNA. Mirren’s the shameless marvel: sacred monster, dippy diva, Serpent of the Volga, Invisible Hand of the Erotics Trade.
Except that she was an atheist, I’d almost expect Ayn Rand to make a comeback in today’s giddy market even after having been so memorably hooted at in essays by Whittaker Chambers, in National Review, and by Nora Ephron, in the New York Times. But she’s never been so risible as in this TV movie, and I wonder if it even knows how much subversive fun it’s made of her.