Title doesn’t tell it all, but it’s a good reference point: Latest HBO Picture concerns not only that bizarre story of Texan Wanda Holloway and how she supposedly tried to hire a hitman to knock off another woman (already related in ABC’s 1992 “Willing to Kill”) but what happened when bidding for film, TV and print rights began flooding folks involved in the affair. Full of daffiness, greed and dark-hued humor, whole package is a hoot.
Wanda (Holly Hunter in an electrifying perf) starts off in a crisp white dress telling an unseen inter-viewer her views on what took place, and the vidpic flows back and forth in time.
Story, centering in Channelview, Texas, invokes Wanda’s fierce determination that offspring Shanna (Frankie Ingrassia) will snag a spot on the junior high cheerleader team instead of Amber (Megan Berwick), daughter of Verna Heath (Elizabeth Ruscio) — even if Wanda has to kill off Verna, and maybe Amber, to accomplish that.
Wanda’s ex-brother-in-law Terry Harper (Beau Bridges) is an ex-con trying to go straight; when he hears her idea, he’s afraid she’ll somehow drag him into the affair, and begs the police to take an interest.
Strapping a recorder on him, they let Wanda make her meandering pitch (authenticity and naturalism can get in the way of dramatic progress) to be rid of Verna, just as Lesley Ann Warren did playing Wanda in “Willing.”
Jane Anderson’s cunning script ricochets off that ABC entry in her complex version, which shows the fighting over rights and representation, thus bringing up the question of what’s truth and who owns it.
Anderson’s Wanda claims ex-husband Tony Harper (GreggHenry) sold his view to ABC, and scripter Anderson herself appears fleetingly to hear viewpoints. The vidpic doubles back on itself as the characters talk about who should play whom in the HBO televersion; the wheel takes an extra golden turn as Hunter’s Wanda spots actress Hunter stepping out of a limo in Houston preparing to play her.
Director Michael Ritchie slyly digs out the rich characters’ individualism. Their actions and reactions are valid, no matter how outlandish; fascinating saga, suggesting Lewis Carroll in Texas, thrives on its own vitality.
Ruscio’s Verna becomes a tough opponent and a formidable stage mom; Ingrassia’s Shane works magically as daughter becomes more and more like mother; Fred Koehler as Wanda’s neglected teenage son Shane, stands out as a forlorn, exiled creature not sure where he belongs — or if he belongs.
Bridge’s stubborn Terry Harper is terrif, and Swoosie Kurtz’s brilliant look at the badly disturbed Maria Harper, Terry’s wife, is a fitting, unsettling mixture of anger and disarrangement. Anderson creates distinct types without losing sight of their humanity; it’s a formidable achievement.
Lucy Simon’s original music backs up the telefilm’s witty conceit, and Stephen Hendrickson’s pragmatic designs stick close to the actual interiors. Most of the telepic was filmed around L.A., with second units recording Texas locales.
Richly produced, with credits top notch, telefilm may be called “The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Cheerleader-Murdering Mom,” with the suggestion that it’s the final word. But don’t count on it: There’s a musical in there somewhere, for sure.