On a regular basis in antebellum Georgia, Sam Waterston and LisaGay Hamilton chat about plantation business. He owns the place. She keeps the books. Never mind that Sam is the master and LisaGay a slave; that he raped her when she was 14 years old; that the child of this seignorial privilege, Jennifer Beals, grew up thinking she was a perfect daughter of the Confederacy – until the truth came out when her fair-skinned hand was sought in marriage, after which she left home in a huff. Less like a practiced married couple than like an older brother and a younger sister, knowing the worst yet stuck with each other, Sam and LisaGay chat, and bicker, and stamp their feet, and bite their tongues.
Except, of course, we can’t “never mind” the violence and the servitude. A House Divided (Sunday, July 30; 8 to 10 p.m.; Showtime), based on an actual nineteenth-century court case, wants to be Shakespearean, with race as the tragic flaw. But it’s really psychotic. It’s more about those crazy chats than about who will inherit the Dickson plantation after the Civil War – the mundane as a screen for the monstrous. David Dickson (Waterston) seems to have loved his only child, Amanda (Beals). And perhaps decided that he also loved her mother, Julia (Hamilton). And surely knew he couldn’t leave his properties to a former chattel. And so probably sought to signify his true feelings with a last will and testament requiring an all-male, all-pale Georgia jury to meditate in the 1880s on the niceties of estate law rather than on the morality of the peculiar institution. But the trial we sit through on cable television, from the original court transcript, is as crazy as the master-servant chat – another screen.
What peasants they were, these landed gentry, drenched in perfume, an aristocracy every bit as fraudulent as the northern industrialists – those stock swindlers, price fixers, slumlords, copper kings, and union busters who specialized in horses and chorus girls and had to be taught to eat with a fork – they despised. See Sam slaver before he discovers scruple. It’s an amazing performance, and must also have been a relief after too many episodes of Law & Order in which he is asked to threaten perps with the needle in a bag and a strapping-down on gurneys. He is a rustic lunatic when he rapes LisaGay. He later on gave himself Agamemnon airs, as if just asking to get stabbed in the tub. He will wind up a tortured existentialist, although maybe this is intended to be Faulknerian, or even Jeffersonian. If you can’t speak the truth about yourself till you’re dead, you aren’t much of an improvement on the racist lawyer (Sean McCann) who tries to break your will in court.
Meanwhile, LisaGay is noble and reticent. Jennifer is lugubrious and unforgiving. Tim Daly, as her resourceful young lawyer, is callow but clever. Shirley Douglas, Sam’s mother in the movie and Kiefer Sutherland’s in real life, is all-knowing and not-saying, a Hefty bag of family secrets. John Kent Harrison directs (how else?) as if there were something sick about the Old South. And Paris Qualles’s screenplay, adapted from Kent Anderson Leslie’s biography Woman of Color, Daughter of Privilege: Amanda America Dickson, 1849-1893, seems to have consulted both Robert Penn Warren and, if not Edna Ferber in person, then Ava Gardner in the movie version of Show Boat. At least on this plantation, nobody sings till the closing credits.
For all its predictability, A House Divided has surprising power, and I think that power derives from what it doesn’t say behind its screens – those screams of denial. Steven Spielberg’s version of Amistad had something of this same reserve: Despite the bullying of its soundtrack, the kneeling camera’s excessive worship of Cinqué’s heroic postures, and the shameless hamming of Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, Amistad was also subversive. At that trial, too, they argued obscenities of contract law and property rights, the ownership of souls and sinew. The secret history went unspoken – shackled, gagged, or drowned; coded into sorrow songs.
Like the New York Times, I’ve always called him Mr. Loaf. And I am happy to report that the TV movie Meat Loaf: To Hell and Back (Wednesday, July 26; 9 to 11 p.m.; VH1), while not quite as compelling as the various Behind the Music and Storytellers documentaries on the same subject on the same cable channel, is conscientious enough to include a mention of his brief but indelible appearance in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and to include it so cleverly that I can’t tell whether the Loaf we see is Meat himself or W. Earl Brown superimposed like Zelig.
Anyway, Brown, who has been impressive in everything from Vampire in Brooklyn and Scream to There’s Something About Mary and Being John Malkovich, was born for the part of Pot Roast, for whom I harbor more affection than for almost any other over-the-hill male rocker with a sob story that I can think of. And he would actually seem to deserve someone as loyal as Dedee Pfeiffer’s Mrs. Loaf, even when she changes the color of her hair. And there is enough music in this biopic, from Hair to Jimmy Steinman (Zachary Throne), to make up for the sad fact that there’s not much story beyond the usual alcoholic father, the long hard road to a record contract and a Grammy, the substance abuse, the bankruptcy, and the triumphant comeback. It can’t be an accident that Jim McBride directs. He also made Dennis Quaid a lot more interesting than I would have thought possible, as Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire.
Finally, for those masochists among you, there is They Nest (Tuesday, July 25; 8 to 10 p.m.; USA). I will not claim that Thomas Calabro (Melrose Place) as the alcoholic surgeon who chooses to recover from the shakes and a divorce on an island off the coast of Maine, or Kristen Dalton (A Night at the Roxbury) as the conveniently single proprietor of a tackle-and-bait shop, or Dean Stockwell (Quantum Leap, Blue Velvet) as the unbelieving sheriff, or John Savage (Spike Lee’s Summer of Sam) as the noisiest of the moronic locals who don’t leave town in time to save themselves from paralyzing stings and egg infestation, is much to be preferred, certainly not in the acting department, to any one of the plague-killing African armadillo bugs that are so hard to distinguish from look-alike Madagascar cockroaches – but they are all of them equally creepy. Your move. And loath as I am to suggest anything big-screen instead of small, you’re better off seeing terrible things happen to Michelle Pfeiffer in What Lies Beneath.