The painful rise of The Great One from childhood to star of “The Honeymooners” is chronicled in CBS’ “Gleason.” Focusing on the icon’s boozing, womanizing and brazen determination, Brad Garrett delivers a top-notch performance, believable in his bombast and his tenderness, that salvages “Gleason” from its moments of melodrama and cliche. Few could fill the shoes of Gleason or any of his “Honeymooners” cast — a point made obvious at the telepic’s conclusion when they sprint through several of the show’s well-known routines — but Garrett reminds consistently how sweet Gleason’s comedy really was.
Neil Roach’s camera is consistently on Garrett, fresh off an Emmy win for “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The further the telepic goes into revealing the private side of the public figure, the better it works — of course, pic is too short and superficial to provide any real depth. It lacks a tagline at pic’s end to suggest Gleason’s brilliance and genius; as much as “The Honeymooners” was a crowning achievement and Ralph Kramden was one of TV’s most enduring characters, there’s no acknowledgement of his triumphs in film, on the Broadway stage and in pool halls or how he lived a life on nobody’s terms but his own. It’s a snapshot in which only half the picture is developed.
Show opens with a Gleason interview late in his life and jumps back to 1955, when Gleason is preparing to start his career at the Eye network. Pic makes a nice transition from stage door to his childhood home, where mother Mae (Paula Jean Hixson) and father Herb (Jack Langedijk) spend their days drinking and fighting. Herb, with a pint in his coat pocket, and young Jackie (Jake Brockman) slip away to a vaudeville show where the kid is turned on by the applause and cheers; pic lingers on Jackie’s delight as it heavy-handedly suggests that the only love Gleason will ever accept comes from an aud’s positive response. For added emphasis, Herb walks out on Mae and Jackie.
As a struggling comedian, Gleason is presented as a pool shark and Dixieland jazz fan, smitten with ballet dancer Genevieve Halford (Gretchen Egolf). From their courtship through their marriage and the birth of two daughters, the Gen ‘n’ Jackie show is all fireworks and overwrought drama. Script by Rick Podell and Michael Preminger uses their romance as an emotional punching bag, with Gleason bullying his wife and Gen, played at fever pitch by Egolf, working through abandonment issues. As if her rising voice isn’t enough, every scene with the kids has them screaming, too.
Gleason’s other significant supporter-foil is manager Bullets Durgom (Saul Rubinek). Durgom prods and recoils, taking Gleason’s guff when he feels it necessary and getting him to shut up when the thesp is about to crush a potentially valuable deal. Durgom glides Gleason through his dealings with Jack Warner (Jack Daniel Wells) and CBS honcho Bill Paley (Shawn Lawrence) and gets Gleason to embrace Audrey Meadows (Kristen Dalton) as the new Alice Kramden.
Stretching credibility is Gleason’s scene with his writers in which he comes up with “The Honeymooners” — it’s hard to believe he would have surrounded himself with nincompoops who weren’t on the same page. Finale mangles “Honeymooners” episode in which Alice demands a television set, heading straight for the great punchline of “I want to watch Liberace” without the equally ingenious setup. An odd scene toward the end with Gen sitting in a room of roses goes unexplained, while Gleason receiving mailed photos of his father that had been removed from a scrapbook is too forced to elicit any honest emotions. Show completely ignores Gleason’s starring stint on “The Life of Riley.”
Howard Deutch’s direction is at its best when showcasing Gleason on and around the TV stage, going overboard as he posits the idea that drinking is both a refuge from and a source of his problems. Jean-Baptiste Tard’s production design is quietly consistent, but backlot outdoor scenes ring phony. Music during the opening segs is the best of the lot, but it only works for viewers aware of the fact that Gleason released albums of booming easy-listening music in the 1950s and ’60s.