Low-key, admirably layered made-for-TV drama. Sony Pictures' Choice Collection line of hard-to-find cult and library titles--probably the best one out there for recovering long-forgotten TV movie titles--has released Passions, the 1984 CBS made-for-TV movie starring Lindsay Wagner, Joanne Woodward, Richard Crenna, Mason Adams, Heather Langenkamp, John Considine, and Viveca Lindfors. Directed and co-written (along with Janet Greek and Robin Maxwell) by TV movie vet Sandor Stern, Passions eschews the usual overheated, facile histrionics that often plagued so many of the more sensationalistic MTV dramas from the 70s and 80s, presenting instead a carefully constructed, at times revealing portrait of love and betrayal...with no easy answers at the end. Solid performances from the heavyweight cast helps make Passions a nice mid-winter find for enthusiasts of this genre. No extras for this okay fullscreen transfer.
Wealthy California businessman Richard Kennerly (Richard Crenna) has it all...and then some. Married to loving wife Catherine (Joanna Woodward), a society matron involved in many charitable works, Richard's 20-year-old daughter, Beth (Heather Langenkamp), is also successful and happy, working on her law degree while finding love--and now live-in status--with her boyfriend...an arrangement viewed with uneasy acceptance by proper Catherine. Meanwhile, on the beaches of Malibu, Richard lives a second life, secret to Catherine: long-time lover (8 years and counting) of sculptress Nina Simon (Lindsay Wagner), with whom Richard shares a young son, Eric (R.J. Williams). Nina, a former model, is fully aware of Richard's "established" family; whatever time he can spend with her and his son, she...accepts. While Catherine may be unaware of Richard's long-term betrayal, Nina is unaware of a secret Richard keeps from her: he's subsidizing her sculpting "career," buying her art works and decorating his office--and home--with them. When Richard suffers an unexpected, debilitating illness, his double life is finally revealed, with everyone involved paying a heavy emotional price for his betrayal.
With so many made-for-TV movies coming out during that golden age of MTVs in the 1980s--and with no $500.00 VCR yet in sight for me in 1984--I'm not surprised I don't recall Passions when it premiered on CBS on October 1st, 1984. With cable networks' eventual dominance in the MTV genre still way off, a regular TV viewer could count on a couple of MTVs every week from the "Big Three" (indeed, just a week after Passions premiered, probably the most controversial and written-about MTV of the year premiered: Farrah Fawcett's The Burning Bed). So, I came to Passions "clean," not expecting any great shakes, particularly after reading the plot's synopsis on the back of the DVD case. A husband's secret life, after all, is a storyline as old as the hills, and considering how often these network "cheatin' husband" mellers from this time period were overblown and exploitive in an attempt to get a few hours' attention from those harried working women and bored housewives out there, with the exception of the pro cast, I didn't see how Passions was going to make much of an impression on me.
Co-written by future TV director Janet Greek (everything from St. Elsewhere to Melrose Place to Babylon 5) and Robin Maxwell, and directed by co-writer Sandor Stern (scripts for works like MTV classic, Where Have All the People Gone? and big screen efforts like Fastbreak and The Amityville Horror, while helming lots of MTVs of his own, including Woman on Trial: The Lawrencia Bembenek Story and The Stranger Beside Me), Passions deliberately avoids the sometimes lurid, pulpy tone of many of those 80s MTV melodramas to instead deliver an understated, deliberate exploration not of the husband Richard's reasons for leading a double life, but rather of the women's slowly realized understanding of their own motivations--some good, some flawed--for staying in a relationship with him. Passions takes its time in setting the dramatic stage, giving us the impression that, all in all, everyone is reasonably happy in their choices...or ignorance. Actor Richard Crenna makes Richard a compassionate, loving partner to both women (with some nice choices in his scenes with both actresses that indicate he's fully aware of his own hypocritical moral compass), while Wagner seems at peace with her election to share him with an oblivious Woodward, who's shown to be fully involved in her social life.
Slowly, though, the cracks in the seemingly placid facade are revealed. We slowly learn that Richard has often broken dinner dates and weekend visits with Wagner and his son when his "first" family has a more pressing crisis. We see Richard come home from a weekend with Wagner, clearly intent on not sleeping with a willing, eager Woodward, until she gently insists (how often has that happened in the past?). The story's major crisis comes in a surprising twist MAJOR SPOILER ALERT...ALTHOUGH IT'S ON THE BACK OF THE DVD COVER, SONY...THANKS FOR RUINING IT FOR ME when Richard suffers a cerebral hemorrage, eventually succumbing to it before the movie's half-way point. Wagner and Woodward unexpectedly meet at the hospital, and the floodgates of guilt and recriminations and anger are opened. To the movie's credit, the scripters refuse to give Richard a "heroic" bow-out; Crenna is reduced to monosyllabic grunting, unable to communicate, and he dies off-camera, with no "goodbye" to anyone (I'll be Crenna loved that). Passions isn't about "nice guy" Richard's feelings, but about the feelings of the women he betrayed. He's there one minute for the audience, and then he's gone...just like with his wife and mistress.
After this surprise departure, Passions continues to undercut the viewers' expectations. Woodward (in a complex, shaded performance), once Richard dies, comes off disagreeably harsh and vindictive when she demands from her lawyers that Wagner be kicked out of the Malibu beach house she knew nothing about...until more scenes reveal the level of betrayal Richard managed with her, including a history of routinely cheating on her with other women. Richard's daughter feels betrayed by her idolized father...but she won't hate him the way her mother wishes she would. Wagner's next-door-neighbor, Viveca Lindfors (in a typically accomplished performance), is kind and understanding of her young friend's plight, and we expect her to be a passionate ally in Wagner's fight against Woodward. But when pushed by Wagner for her opinion after Woodward attacks Wagner at the funeral, Lindfors expresses sympathy and understanding for Woodward, because her own husband cheated on her, as well (without anything overt in the script, the skilled Lindfors is able to let us know her character is fully aware of Wagner's plight--sympathetic to her loss...but also clear on Wagner's culpability in her precarious position now). Indeed, the expected "fight" over the beach house--which would have been a central point of a lesser MTV, complete, no doubt, with phony courtroom antics--is only a framework to get Woodward and Wagner together, where they both discover they're more alike than they may wish to know. Their love for Richard, and their inability to break with him (Woodward because he cheated all the time; Wagner because his many promises of marriage were empty), enabled the essentially indecisive Richard to continue his double life (we discover he couldn't even be bothered to update his will to include his young illegitimate son). Tellingly, the women's mutual understanding at the end of Passions--and Woodward's solution to their legal and moral entanglements--isn't played for martyred nobility or spurious, feel-good "women's melodrama." It's a believable conclusion, marked by uncomfortable compromise...with a note of inconclusiveness that characterizes this made-for-TV drama as a most welcome, surprising find.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.