Review: ‘Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story’

Vid bio of TV anchorwoman Jessica Savitch struggles deciding whether to be sympathetic, settling on a compromise. With a blond Sela Ward limning Savitch, "Almost Golden" skates across the surface.

Vid bio of TV anchorwoman Jessica Savitch struggles deciding whether to be sympathetic, settling on a compromise. With a blond Sela Ward limning Savitch, “Almost Golden” skates across the surface.

The telefilm, written by Linda Bergman, starts off promisingly enough under Peter Werner’s efficient direction with a sipping, weepy Savitch watching home movies of herself as a little girl cavorting with her adored father. As a child, she and her two younger sisters had talked world events at the dinner table with their parents. Dad died when Jessica was 12, and the kids weren’t allowed to go to the funeral or to grieve; that’s been diagnosed in some quarters as a major element of Jessica’s pain.

After working on a local radio show at 14, she landed a job as deejay “Honey Bee” on a Rochester, N.Y. station. Her TV career takes off as a reporter in Houston, where she meets TV reporter Ron Kershaw (Ron Silver), with whom she begins an on-again-off-again lifetime affair. Swearing to all sorts of affection , Jessica double-crosses Ron by accepting a better job in Philly at KYW-TV, where she becomes co-anchor with Mort Krim (in the vidpic, he’s “Richard Taylor, ” played by Barry Flatman). That’s nearer her goal: a net job in NYC.

Ron appears and reappears, but she marries a wealthy, older man, Mel Korn (Jeffrey DeMunn), whom she drops when he drops his bundle. The breakup wasn’t as neat as scripter Bergman would have it, but you can’t have everything. Savitch marries divorced Dr. Donald Payne (William Converse-Roberts), whom she was already seeing, and for the first and only time she tries becoming a caretaker of somebody else.

Terrible to co-workers, ruthless, ambitious and unforgiving, Jessica still looks angelic when she hits the airwaves. But Savitch is indulging in drugs, booze and off-camera rages. Fellow workers gloat over a tape they’ve made of her while she’s throwing a tantrum at the Philly TV station. The tape, abetted by Khachaturian’s frenzied “Sword Dance,” makes the rounds of other TV newsrooms enough to alert future bosses and fellow workers.

Moving to NBC in New York and Washington, becoming one of the first women anchors, she also hosts PBS'”Frontline.” In 1982 in a nationwide poll she’s rated up there with Koppel, Kuralt, Brokaw and Jennings.

Her fall comes when she appears on a news break in 1983 either drunk or on drugs; in any case, what has never before been seen on camera is now a public item. What lies ahead are her husband’s unexplored suicide and her own sad drowning with a N.Y. Post exec and with Chewy in an auto accident in 1984.

But understanding Jessica Savitch is another story. And it doesn’t help to change names in several important instances, or to funnel several characters into one representing people who touched Savitch’s life.

Ward’s interp is OK, but that electricity Savitch generated when she hit the tube doesn’t ignite here. And the teleplay does little to find any softer side to Savitch, to explore her sense of humor or explain her hardness. It’s an odd, unbalanced assessment. Silver, not even slightly resembling the original Kershaw , is capable, and DeMunn’s first husband, constantly kind, suffices. Judith Ivey plays Jessica’s friend Laura McCormick, and Converse-Roberts limns a Payne whose own problems are only hinted at.

Already a bitter TV movie, “Almost Golden” skips Savitch’s abortions, her motivations, her internal demons. The key’s there, in her childhood, but it isn’t given enough weight in the vidpic; it should have been dramatized. Meanwhile, Miss Savitch has been done in.

Production itself is sharp looking, with camerawork satisfactory, editing exemplary.

“Intimate Portrait: Jessica Savitch,” one-hour docu produced by Grinning Dog Pictures Inc., follows the two-hour drama. Savitch’s sister Stephanie, Linda Ellerbee, Mort Krim and author Alanna Nash speak forthrightly on the late newscaster. Her youngest sister, Lori Savitch, is consulting producer. The docu’s more than worth its time.

Almost Golden: The Jessica Savitch Story

Lifetime, Mon. Sept. 4, 8 p.m.

Production

Filmed on location in Toronto and at the Baton Studios, Toronto, by Sofronski Prods. and ABC Prods. Executive producer, Bernard Sofronski; producer, Adam Haight; co-producer, Donna Carolan; director, Peter Werner; writer, Linda Bergman; based on the book "Almost Golden" by Gwenda Blair.

Crew

Camera, Neil Roach; editor, Martin Nicholson; production designer, David Moe; art director, Terry Wareham; sound, Erv Copestake; music, David Shire.2 HOURS

With

Cast: Sela Ward, Ron Silver, Judith Ivey, Jeffrey DeMunn, William Converse-Roberts, Sean McCann, Randy Means, Jason Blicker, Chuck Shamata, Maruska Stankova, Jeff Pustil, Lawrence Dane, Dini Petty, John Bolger, Damir Andrei, Kathryn Skatula, Ashton Manis, Ashley Taylor, Nichole St. Pierre, Carol Purvis, Larry Mannell, Barry Flatman, Brett Halsey.
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