Scripter Cindy Myers seemingly straddles the fence between Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey’s epistolary novel “A Woman of Independent Means” and the glowing stage version adapted by Hailey in which Barbara Rush in a solo perf triumphed as the unsinkable Bess Steed Garner (based on Hailey’s maternal grandmother). Exec producer Sally Field, picking up the role, plays it out for six throbbing hours; it’s a woman’s pic, all right: Field’s.
Story begins in 1899 Texas as fourth-grader Bess Forsythe reads a note in voiceover (not that convincingly) to Rob Steed about how she’s gotten them into the spelling bee together — and the rest of the six-hour miniseries is a demonstration of how she arranges peoples’ lives to suit her.
Inheriting a bundle from her mother, she eventually marries Rob (Tony Goldwyn) and they pass through the Great War. Rob, after fathering three children and building a life insurance company, dies of influenza.
Bess falls out with her mother-in-law, formidable Mother Steed (Brenda Fricker), while Bess’ own family consists of her dad (Charles Durning), who occasionally drops in. While she’s obsessively involved with her children, romances loom, grief visits, eras pass and she marries wealthy Sam (Jack Thompson).
It’s Bess’ (and Field’s) show as she suffers, triumphs, pushes and cajoles. Backed by Robert Greenwald’s beautiful production, Field, aging from young woman to a widow in her 80s, works fervently to establish Bess.
Despite annoying mannerisms and the character’s maddening intrusiveness and ambitions, Field’s calculating, sometimes irritating Bess is believable, effective, even memorable.
The story waltzes through the ’20s, the Depression, World War II and subsequent years in a series of scenes of Christmas and Valentine’s Day (Bess’ fave). An anachronism or two crops up, as when a doctor in the early ’20s tells Bess her son has “just a little virus, that’s all!” (an unheard-of medical term in that period), and Bess manages to take indoor snapshots without considering lighting. But most of the accoutrements and dialogue are on target.
Greenwald, with the reminiscing Bess as his constant object, directs Field and the large cast with admirable skill.
Aussie actor Thompson, as Bess’ second husband, and Fricker, as her severe mother-in-law, are terrif. Goldwyn is a decided asset as first husband Rob, displaying a strong leading-man impresh. Ron Silver offers an orderly study as Bess’ longtime friend Arthur, and Durning is particularly touching as Bess’ father.
Stephen Marsh’s striking designs transform Houston and Galveston into surefire period sites as the vidpic rolls forward in time. But while Bess’ stays in St. Louis, New York and New England look fine, her European jaunt with Sam runs into problems in the processing of live action and backdrop scenery of Venice, and the Paris maison is unconvincing.
Julie Weiss, who created 2,000 costumes — Bess alone has 170 changes — brings off the challenge with elan.
Steven Shaw’s admirable lensing captures flavor of the vidpic’s periods, and editor Eva Gardos effectively uses quick cuts to conclude scenes. Laura Karpman’s joyous score (cunningly incorporating “You Tell Me Your Dream”) is a pleasure, and other tech credits are superior.
Even though it harks back to 1930s-’40s Redbook-like material, telefilm is an astute NBC sweeps bet. One thing’s certain: Field makes sure nobody’ll forget this Bess.