Ernest Thompson serves up a well-scripted adaptation of his play, buoyed by strong perfs, good character development and well-crafted dialogue. But telefilm suffers from a lack of uniqueness, with none of the actors stretching far from characters they’ve played in the past; though the familiarity may be welcomed by some viewers, most are likely to think they’re watching a holiday season rerun.
Story focuses on Margaret Mary Elderdice (Shirley MacLaine), an intelligent and talented widow, reeling from the recent passing of her best friend. Elderdice keeps most of her neighbors at arm’s length, often ignoring the row of yentas seated in the lobby as she passes them on the way to her apartment.
Only exception is Cara Varnum (Liza Minnelli), with whom she can engage in verbal sparring matches. Varnum, a violin player, often spends late afternoons playing the classics with the ivory-tinkling Elderdice, using the get-togethers to wedge her way into Elderdice’s life.
In declining health, Elderdice decides to take on a boarder for companionship and assistance, so she posts a notice for a live-in companion on the bulletin board of a local bookstore. The note yields Robin Ouiseau (Jennifer Grey), an aspiring actress lacking refinement, but oozing spunk.
Ouiseau’s confidence also needs boosting, and Elderdice takes it upon herself to prep the budding but inexperienced star for the big time. She offers her services as an acting coach as part of the boarding arrangement.
Telepic’s emotional turf is mowed by a testing of the trio’s friendship, when Ouiseau falls in love with Sookie Cerullo (Robert Pastorelli), an unwashed, gregarious entrepreneur from her old neighborhood.
Add to the mix some colorful characters, such as Mr. Goo (Kathy Bates), an obnoxious yet coherent street urchin; Jonno (Hal Williams), a gruff bookstore owner who offers Elderdice ’90s-era bon-mots about life in the big city; and Serge (August Schellenberg) the building super, whose Russian-accented pidgin English is as annoying as his ill-fitting toupee. The telefilm covers all the bases in the exposition of quirky behavior.
Minnelli and MacLaine tread familiar territory, with the Z-lady getting the vidpic’s make-up and wardrobe departments to add a few pounds to her frame and give weight to her role as the zaftig, meddling neighbor.
MacLaine is seamless as the cultured yet vulnerable pianist, a sort of Madame Sousatzka with one-liners; Grey does her best Marisa Tomei impression to make the gum-cracking, nasal actress interesting.
Thompson’s stage play, starring Katharine Hepburn, Dorothy Loudon and Regina Bass, ran at the Ahmanson Theater in January 1981 and went to Broadway 10 months later. Directing his own adaptation, Thompson does well by his experienced cast, who succeed in turning the piece into an enjoyable, fairly brisk telefilm — familiarity notwithstanding.