Whatever happened to that basic cable equivalent of Old Faithful known as the Lifetime Original Movie? Once upon a time, the network was a reliable source for campy, crazy and compulsive watchable television movies with melodramatic titles like My Baby is Missing, Mom at Sixteen and While the Children Sleep. Boasting C-list stars, shamelessly manipulative storytelling and subject matter that ranged from murder and sex to kidnapping and body issues (and sometimes all of the above), these telefilms provided countless hours of entertainment to housewives (and househusbands), bored college students and snarky entertainment journalists looking for something to make fun of...while secretly enjoying.
In the past year, though, the Lifetime Original Movie has fallen on hard times and, as is so often the case, Lindsay Lohan is to blame. In 2013, the network made headlines by casting the former child star and trouble magnet as Elizabeth Taylor and millions (though, to be fair, many less millions than Lifetime anticipated) tuned in to watch the ensuing train wreck. Sadly, Liz & Dick turned out to be as bland and boring as its title, with whatever craziness the star brought to the set kept off-camera. That was followed by a tedious Anna Nicole Smith biopic that was as restrained and buttoned up as its subject was gauche and busting out all over. Lifetime's latest offerings, Flowers in the Attic (which premiered last week) and Lizzie Borden Took an Axe (which stars Christina Ricci in the title role of the 19th century alleged murderess and airs on Saturday, January 25), disappoint in the same way, taking material that is just dripping with camp potential and then playing it in the most pedestrian way possible. As they plan their next batch of flicks, here are a few modest suggestions we have to save the Lifetime Original Movie as we knew and loved it.
Embrace the Excess
Elizabeth Taylor, Anna Nicole Smith and Lizzie Borden all led outrageous, extravagant lives, but you'd never know that from watching the Lifetime version of their respective histories, which instead strain to present their subjects as ordinary, relatable people… the very last thing we want to see them as. At least on Lifetime, anyway. Meanwhile, few books are kookier than Flowers in the Attic, the V.C. Andrews-penned masterpiece of florid fiction that generation upon generation of junior high students have passed around under the mistaken impression that they're reading something bold and transgressive. (Or just because there's lots of sex in it, particularly of the incestuous variety.) But the Lifetime film version somehow managed the difficult feat of taking that novel seriously -- something we all get over when we turn 15 -- and the result was painful to watch. Somewhere along the way, the network that once made a movie called Baby For Sale decided that maybe they should be more restrained going forward, perhaps so people would stop making fun of them all the time or maybe under the mistaken impression that they might somehow land an award nomination or two. (Hey, stranger things have happened. Jacqueline Bisset winning a Golden Globe for a BBC series nobody in America saw, for example.) Problem is, they keep picking material that is inherently over the top. Rather than try to have it both ways, they should just unapologetically go big so that their bored viewership doesn't feel the urge to quit watching and go home.
Maybe Avoid Biopics
True crime,like Taken in Broad Daylight? Yes. True-life inspirational tales (like their upcoming Gabby Douglas movie? Okay. But celebrity-centric biopics? Those don't appear to be in Lifetime's wheelhouse, at least judging by Anna Nicole and Liz & Dick. Really, Lizzie Borden should have worked because it commingles true crime with celebrity (albeit, a 19th century celebrity), but part of the problem with the movie is that it can't decide which aspect of Borden's life it wants to focus on: her life and relationship with her family -- particularly her sister (Clea DuVall) -- or the case itself. As a result, it starts off as a stiff domestic drama and then morphs into an even stiffer courtroom procedural midway through. Face it, Lifetime: your specialty lies in sensationalizing already-sensationalized crime, not telling a person's life story.
Forget Christina Ricci, Rehire Tori Spelling
Perhaps because of their experience with Lohan -- which earned them bad ratings to go along with all the bad press -- Lifetime has tried to creep up the acting scale from C-listers to B-listers, tapping onetime indie film darling Agnes Bruckner to play Anna Nicole Smith, Oscar winner Ellen Burstyn and critical darling Kiernan Shipka to play tyrannical grandmother and virginal granddaughter respectively in Flowers in the Attic and fading, but still-respectable star Christina Ricci as Lizzie Borden. With the exception of Burstyn, though -- who seemed to understand what movie she was acting in, even if the rest of the cast, as well as the director, didn't -- all of these actresses have been reluctant to really go for the gusto, preferring to underplay their outsized roles. That's an approach that can pay off on serious-minded shows like Mad Men or movies like Buffalo '66, but it renders them as stiff and awkward in a Lifetime setting. In contrast, an "actress" and media personality like Tori Spelling is hopeless at nuance and subtlety, but let her loose on some overripe melodrama with plenty of room to emote and watch the fireworks that result. Here's the movie Lifetime should be making next: Bethenny Frankel is Mary Ann Cotton. Royalty check, please.
Paging Ryan Murphy
I'll give some credit to Lizzie Borden director Nick Gomez, a onetime indie film darling (his early credits include Laws of Gravity and New Jersey Drive) who has since migrated to television: before the movie gets bogged down in the courtroom morass, he does try to lend it a certain degree of style, staging some dreamlike sequences that are heavily cribbed from David Lynch. That's far more interesting than the pedestrian camerawork seen in Flowers in the Attic or Anna Nicole, the latter of which was helmed by Mary Harron, whose film version of American Psycho is packed with visual wit and inventiveness. What Lifetime really needs, though, is a content creator who lives and breathes camp, a person for whom phrases like "realism" and "low-key" are four-letter words. And that person, of course, is FX's favorite son, Ryan Murphy, whose American Horror Story franchise is currently the purveyor of the finest televised cheese around. Better still, he's able to hire genuinely terrific actresses (Jessica Lange, Lily Rabe, Kathy Bates, etc.) and convince them to surrender all their inhibitions in the name of high-quality low art. That's the kind of spirit that's gone missing from Lifetime's original movies division. Whaddya say, Ryan? Now that Lange is opting out of AHS after the next edition, why don't you two bring your crazy to a network that really needs it?
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