Putting HBO on the TV movie map

Oct 28, 2002  •  Post A Comment

“Shot in the Heart” may not have been much of a movie, but “Shot Through the Heart” was tough and powerful. Although “Citizen X” didn’t exactly sear itself into memory, “Citizen Cohn” proved a potent potboiler.
And although “Mussolini” flopped, “Stalin” won a decisive victory. You never know for sure what will work and what won’t-not even if you’re HBO and have one of the best track records for original production in all of television. In its early years, the network sold itself to cable subscribers as their first chance to see big Hollywood movies after they’d finished their theatrical runs, but now HBO makes a bigger selling point out of the movies it makes itself, along with such other original programming as sports events, kiddie shows and, of course, original dramatic series like “The Sopranos” and “Six Feet Under.”
With episodic television and with original movies, HBO has beaten the traditional networks at their own game. The slogan “It’s not TV, it’s HBO” may be overstating it, but “It’s like TV, only better” probably would not be.
HBO’s first original movie, “The Terry Fox Story,” in 1983, was a modest, low-budget and fairly standard TV movie, but it was still a breakthrough for the network. “Fox” was basically a biography-the story of a courageous young man’s determination to walk the width of Canada on one real and one prosthetic leg. It did well with critics and OK with HBO audiences.
Now, more than 100 movies and nearly 20 years later, biopics still dominate HBO’s made-for’s, but there’s almost no genre that the network hasn’t tried at least once, and the network’s track record as a moviemaker is the best in all of television.
Semi-fresh beginnings
When HBO began, as much as 95 percent of its schedule was made up of theatrical films getting their TV debuts-uncut and without commercial interruptions, of course. The “HBO” trumpeted on motel marquees basically meant movies semi-fresh from their theatrical runs. The network stuck its toe into the waters of original programming and waded in slowly, with most of its output confined to sports and variety shows-along with the occasional beguiling oddity like “Disco Beaver from Outer Space” and a meandering half-hour special that starred a young comic named David Letterman.
But once HBO began making its own movies instead of just recycling those that had played in theaters, the network got neck-deep in a big hurry. Two other films made in 1983, the first year of original production had casts that were nothing if not auspicious: Elizabeth Taylor and Carol Burnett in “Between Friends” and Bette Davis and James Stewart in “Right of Way.”
Budgets were smaller than those for comparable broadcast-network films (“Fox” may have cost no more than $1.5 million), but from the beginning HBO attracted writers, directors, producers and performers in search of a place for “special” projects that seemed to have no other viable venues. Though cantankerous and at times short-tempered, HBO Chairman Michael Fuchs was determined to put HBO on the movie-making map in a big way and he succeeded to a fabulous degree.
Successor Jeff Bewkes, who recently graduated to the upper ranks of AOL Time Warner management, carried on the tradition and widened the scope of HBO filmmaking. Awards poured in.
The network reached a breakthrough in 1984, only the second year of its career in original movies, with “The Far Pavilions,” technically a miniseries but one that marked a turning point for the industry: “Pavilions” was the first cable production to get a TV Guide cover.
Quality films
Only a few months later, HBO won plaudits galore with the dry but dignified docudrama “Sakharov,” with Jason Robards in the title role; the network earned an almost instant reputation for quality films, and top talent was lured by the promise of more creative freedom than broadcast networks would ever allow them.
Fuchs seemed to prefer real stories of real people, and so, over the years, HBO’s original films would recount the lives of the famous and the infamous: Nelson Mandela, Simon Wiesenthal, Josephine Baker (magnificently played by Lynn Whitfield), Dorothy Dandridge (Halle Berry in another memorable performance), James Brady, Roy Cohn, Jackie Presser, Mike Tyson, Don King, Harry Truman, Marilyn Monroe, John Gotti, Walter Winchell, Meyer Lansky, Patrice Lumumba and Edward R. Murrow. Slyly, “Murrow” served a double purpose, telling the legendary newsman’s life story and getting in a few pungent digs at CBS-and thus broadcast networks generally-for ultimately having failed Murrow and, implicitly, relaxing the high standards he had worked so hard to establish.
Nobody has the Midas touch all the time, not even HBO. “Mussolini” was so bad that star Bob Hoskins reportedly feared it would end his career; it didn’t. “RKO 281” was an insultingly simplistic account of how William Randolph Hearst tried to suppress Orson Welles’ first film, “Citizen Kane.” Celebrated writer Larry Gelbart, who flew high for HBO with “Barbarians at the Gate,” crash-landed with a later effort, “Weapons of Mass Distraction.”
And “The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains,” with Val Kilmer, was by no means as grittily powerful as “I Was A Fugitive from a Chain Gang,” a movie about the same ill-fated and mistreated prisoner that Warner Bros. made way back at the dawn of talkies. Paul Muni was unforgettable in the Warner Bros. film; Kilmer was quite forgettable in HBO’s.
Controversy sells
By far, the bold ventures have outnumbered the misguided clunkers. HBO taught the broadcast networks about the virtues, and marketability, of controversy, boldly tackling subjects and themes that had scared the other networks silly. “And the Band Played On” was sprawling and uneven, but it dared to look squarely at the politics behind America’s failure to control the AIDS epidemic. “If These Walls Could Talk” and its sequel, “If These Walls Could Talk 2,” explored the very volatile subjects of abortion and lesbianism. “Indictment: The McMartin Trial,” which still stands as one of the most gripping true-tale shockers ever made for television, told of a California family wrongly accused of molesting children at the day-care facility it operated.
“Late Shift” was an immensely entertaining account of the machinations that resulted in Jay Leno, rather than front-runner David Letterman, inheriting the “Tonight Show” chair from Johnny Carson. New York Times reporter Bill Carter, who co-authored the script, considerably improved on his own book-on which the movie was based.
The tradition of attracting top talent started early and continues now. This year’s Emmy winner “The Gathering Storm” was the kind of movie that could truly be called “towering,” and it featured a tremendously witty and moving performance by Albert Finney as Winston Churchill (and another, nearly as moving, by Vanessa Redgrave as the love of his life-next to England, of course). It is unlikely that a more polished and satisfying movie has been or will be made this year-for any screen of any size.
HBO movies tend to be made for adults while theatrical films tend to be made for teenagers.
The late John Frankenheimer was having a difficult time finding work in the early ’90s despite an inarguably distinguished directing career that began in the Golden Age of Broadcast Television and continued with such big-studio theatrical releases as “Birdman of Alcatraz” and “The Manchurian Candidate” in the ’60s. But starting in 1994, Frankenheimer flourished again at HBO, directing such acclaimed films as “Against the Wall,” “The Burning Season” and this year’s magnificent history lesson “Path to War,” the story of how Lyndon B. Johnson destroyed himself in the fateful quagmire of Vietnam.
Frankenheimer’s renown was restored (he also directed notable Civil War epics for TNT), and he returned to the big screen for the first-rate if old-fashioned thriller “Ronin,” filmed in Europe and starring Robert DeNiro. Frankenheimer told colleagues that HBO revived his career. Hollywood has a bad habit o
f turning its back even on its geniuses; Frankenheimer might have died forgotten. Instead he won huge acclaim for his final films.
Today, the ratio of original to theatrical films on HBO has changed considerably from the network’s beginnings. Roughly 30 percent of the movies shown are originals, up from zero percent at the outset and maybe 5 percent in the early years. As the popularity of the films has grown, the budgets and ambitions have increased as well. “And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself,” a $20 million historical epic written by Larry Gelbart and starring Antonio Banderas, is now shooting in Mexico for telecast on HBO as early as next May.
In addition, Mike Nichols, who directed Emma Thompson in the gripping HBO movie “Wit,” is now preparing a six-hour miniseries version of “Angels in America,” a play about AIDS that won the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Meryl Streep and Al Pacino join Thompson in this $50 million production.
There was anxiety and apprehension within HBO when that first original film, “The Terry Fox Story,” aired back in 1983. Now, HBO’s credentials as a movie studio are very much in order. It could even be said that as the overall quality of theatrical films has declined, the quality of HBO’s originals has gone up. There used to be a stigma attached to the term “made-for-TV movie,” but it has been virtually obliterated over the years, and HBO has been in the forefront of that obliteration.
Tom Shales is a regular columnist for Electronic Media. His latest book, “Live From New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live” co-written with James Andrew Miller, was published earlier this month by Little, Brown.