The Buffalo News (Buffalo, NY)
December 10, 1993 | Alan Pergament


A COUPLE OF powerful women with flagging movie careers control television this weekend. Bette Midler plays the 2,000-pound gorilla and Daryl Hannah, the 50-foot woman.

First, let’s address Midler’s three-hour project, “Gypsy” (8 p.m. Sunday, Channel 4). Like the 2,000-pound gorilla, Midler can get anything she wants from television executives.

That’s why CBS is presenting “Gypsy,” a movie about the life of a stripper and her vulgar and pushy mother, as — get this — a holiday special.

Not that the vaudeville and burlesque life of Gypsy Rose Lee and her stage mother is all that racy in this project, which has the same script as the 1959 Broadway musical that starred Ethel Merman.

The subsequent 1962 movie version of “Gypsy” starring Rosalind Russell as Mama Rose was one of the first flicks I ever attended with a date. Perhaps that’s why I still remember it. I recall Mama Rose kept telling Gypsy and the daughter she believed had more talent that she had a dream. Mama Rose’s dreams usually ended with a cow telling her something important.

Near the end of the movie — after getting yet another message from that cow — Mama Rose asked her girls if she could predict what the animal said. A voice from the rear of the theater beat them to it.

“Moooooooooo,” said the voice. The bored crowd erupted in laughter.

To put it mildly, the Russell version of “Gypsy” was a dog. That’s probably one of the reasons that CBS is reprising it. It is easy to top.

At a July interview in Los Angeles conducted shortly after the new version was finished and before her recent successful tour, Midler said doing “Gypsy” was her lifelong dream. It was the dream of the authors to have Midler star in it. It also was the dream of producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron. I suspect it was the dream of That Cow, too.

The new “Gypsy” should primarily appeal to anyone who can’t get enough of Midler. The broad role of the ultimate stage mother is perfect for Midler, who doesn’t have to display an ounce of subtlety and doesn’t worry about being likable as she delivers wisecracks.

Midler is in terrific voice, the musical has some strong numbers (“Let Me Entertain You,” “Together,” “Rose’s Turn” and “Everything Is Coming Up Roses”), and you don’t see anything like this on TV anymore. That is a plus and a minus. Teen-agers in the 1960s might have made “Gypsy” a date movie. But it is probably too broad and old-fashioned to sell in the 1990s.

In an attempt to attract the typical television viewer, several TV actors including Ed Asner, Michael Jeter and Andrea Martin show up in a scene or two.

Peter Riegert, the University at Buffalo graduate, has a big role as Mama Rose’s love interest, Herbie, who also is the girls’ agent. The low-key Riegert seems to take the advice of Jack Klugman, who told him that he let Merman take care of the singing while he took care of the acting. There is one other Buffalo angle. Gypsy’s sister leaves the sister act after a stop in Buffalo.

Cynthia Gibb (“The Karen Carpenter Story“) has more than a passing resemblance to Natalie Wood, who was Gypsy in the 1962 movie.

But Midler so overwhelms “Gypsy” that the other actors are barely noticeable, even when they wear G-strings. This is Midler’s show and she makes it worth watching. She hopes it shows young people what musicals are all about.

“Show tunes are such a peculiar thing in American life because most people are interested in rock ‘n’ roll or popular music or rhythm and blues music, they don’t want anyone to know that they’re closet show tune listeners,” said Midler. “But I am.

“I feel bad that the whole nation doesn’t get to celebrate this tradition more often, because it is valuable and it is well-crafted and it is something that we should be proud of. Yet we seem to throw the magical things that we’ve made aside or tear them down and tramp on them. Maybe it’s because we’re constantly reinventing ourselves. But personally, I think it’s a real waste.”

Speaking of a real waste, let’s turn to Hannah’s “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” (8 p.m. Saturday, HBO). Joseph Dougherty, a writer on “thirty- something,” has attempted to update the 1958 low-budget classic by giving it a feminist spin.

Hannah plays Nancy Archer, who is exploited by her philandering husband (Daniel Baldwin, the heavy Baldwin brother) and her callous father (William Windom).

Visitors from outer space convince her to stand up for herself. And what a stand-up act it is. She grows to 50 feet, which raises her self-esteem.

The special effects are routine, the script tries to be funny this time and falls flat, and the feminist story line will seem original only to someone who has been on Mars the past decade.

Ratings: “Gypsy”: 31/2 stars out of 5.

“50-Foot Woman”: 1 star.

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