First of six telepics produced by Oprah Winfrey’s Harpo Films for ABC under the “Oprah Winfrey Presents” banner plays like an “Oprah” theme show that was intercepted by a film crew on the way to the studio. Relentlessly downbeat and depressing, “Before Women Had Wings” is flawlessly acted and boasts theatrical production values. On the downside, it promises far more than it delivers in the message department.
In depicting what must be America’s most dysfunctional trailer-trash family, Connie May Fowler’s script (adapted from her novel) appears to be driving home the point that no matter how badly your parents abuse you, heck, they’re still your parents. Gotta love ’em anyway. Next?
Set in the 1960s in an unnamed rural town in northern Florida, film stars Ellen Barkin as Glory Marie, the boozing wife of Billy (John Savage), a fellow drunk who rages through life beating his wife and griping about a country singing career that might have been. They have two daughters: troubled teenager Phoebe (Julia Stiles) and the spirited, resilient Bird (Tina Majorino), a 9-year-old of uncommon sensitivity. There is also grown-up son Hank (William Lee Scott), who has had the good sense to move away and visit rarely.
The girls’ lives are torn asunder when Billy takes his own life, pickled with alcohol and haunted by guilt over his latest severe beating of his wife. The women pick up and move to a trailer, where Mom, drinking more than ever, takes out her fury on her daughters, walloping them with implements and ripping into them verbally.
Entering to save the day is Miss Zora (Winfrey), a kindly, gentle recluse who bonds with the love-starved Bird and admits that, well, she wasn’t always this nice with kids.
Fowler’s script strikes the requisite melodramatic chords, and the performances are all terrif, from Barkin’s ferocious turn as the misguided Glory Marie to Majorino’s luminous believability as the innocent Bird to Winfrey’s unforced passion as the heroic Miss Zora. (Winfrey’s angelic character moved one critic to dub the film “Touched by a Talkshow Host.”)
Lloyd Kramer’s direction is spare and confident, allowing looks and gestures to convey as much as the words. Bleak vision of the story is augmented by its washed-out look. Clearly, this is a quality piece of work guided by caring hands.
Yet as powerful as it is, “Before Women Had Wings” is stifled by its pat implausibility, which is never more evident than at the end. No loose ends are tied up, and the audience is left hanging emotionally. In working to express the strength of familial ties, script infuses the characters with behavioral ambiguities that frustrate and confound.
In other words, “Before Women Had Wings” really is in many ways like “Oprah”: lots of tears, loads of compassion, mounds of sincerity and idealism — but when it’s all over, emptiness.
Tech credits are all first-rate, particularly the exceptional photography (from team headed by Ericson Core).