Triumph of the Wills


Martha Stewart and Adolf Hitler have surface similarities: perfectionists with an eye for detail, driven by ambition and notoriously heartless. Martha’s ruthlessness has been limited to her staff, relatives, and business associates, whereas Hitler—well, you know. But thanks to the cultural relativism of television, it’s hard to tell who was the more despicable character. Biopics are the great levelers, squeezing world-historical monsters and business mavens into the same flat frame. This week both are commemorated by TV movies: Hitler: The Rise of Evil and Martha, Inc. The only hint that Hitler might deserve more weighty treatment? His life story is spread over two nights, while Stewart’s gets just one.

As any faithful viewer of A&E’s Biography knows, successful people’s lives can be sculpted into a stock narrative arc: They suffer through rotten childhoods, redeem themselves through fame, endure turbulent personal problems triggered by aforementioned fame, and eventually attain clarity late in life (usually at the exact moment their popularity is ebbing away). Based on the unauthorized bio by Christopher Byron, Martha, Inc. stays within this formula, but has some fun along the way. The result is fruity and self-mocking—a miniature Mommie Dearest for the media set. The youthful Martha reminds me of Reese Witherspoon’s hyperactive striver in Election. Cybill Shepherd, in the role of mature Martha, never disappears into her character—she doesn’t make any effort to master Stewart’s freakishly crisp accent—but she plays the role with a campy twinkle in her eye.

The movie opens with Stewart in all her control-freakish glory, striding onto her TV set. As a security guard mutters into his collar (“She’s in”), an army of minions skitter around the faux kitchen trying to anticipate her every wish. Stewart mows them down with orders: “Did you get the ginger from Morocco and the cinnamon from Sri Lanka? . . . I need birch bark! . . . For God’s sake, did I not ask for MERLOT?” Byron called his book “the story of a little girl who never got over what life never gave her and wound up inventing for herself a past she had never known.” And so we’re presented with humorous tableaux of Martha’s early years as a shark-in-training: as a steely kid in blond braids, sabotaging a friend in order to solidify her own neighborhood cake-baking business; as a young stockbroker, knowingly recommending a bad investment to a friend.

Martha, Inc. analyzes Stewart’s personality with typical biopic efficiency and concludes that Martha owes her career to her tyrannical father, pictured drilling his kids in the proper way to pot plants and make old-fashioned root beer. Surprisingly, the TV movie leaves out some of the book’s more scurrilous anecdotes, soft-pedals on her 25-year marriage, and barely mentions her daughter. Instead, it concentrates on her success in the business world and takes a certain glee in pulling the hand-knotted rug out from under her bossy feet as she faces the ongoing investigation into securities fraud. In the end, its message is one of twisted triumph: Stewart as a remarkable woman with an unshakable will to power.

Hitler‘s downfall is that it doesn’t follow the biopic formula closely enough. It almost entirely omits the formative, character-deforming years, bar a few scenes of papa taunting and beating little Adolf. Instead it starts in the middle of the story, and stops short on the eve of WW II. The cast looks impressive on the face of it: Scottish actor Robert Carlyle as Hitler, with co-stars Liev Schreiber, Stockard Channing, and Peter O’Toole. Yet they manage to make some of the most momentous and grotesque events of the 20th century seem as dull and leaden as a school play. Essentially reprising his role as the psychotic thug in Trainspotting, Carlyle spends most of his screen time speechifying at top volume, either chewing out subordinates or rallying supporters. The other sides of Hitler—the fastidious vegetarian, the sentimentalist, the wannabe aesthete—are all neglected.

Hitler is just as blurry on the man’s interpersonal life, with only vague allusions to his unwholesome affairs—particularly the odd relationship with his young niece Geli (Jena Malone), who eventually kills herself to escape from her uncle’s sweaty clutches. Instead of burrowing deeper into Hitler’s psyche, the series spreads itself wafer-thin, following minor historical figures like Helena and Ernst Hanfstaengl (Julianna Margulies and Schreiber), an aristocratic couple caught up in Hitler’s inner circle for a time, and Fritz Gerlich (Matthew Modine), a German journalist who opposed the Nazis. You’d think that a 21st-century TV miniseries on Hitler would have a controversial angle to peddle—some new scandal, insight, or revisionist theory. But you’d be wrong. It’s the great-man theory of history, without any sense of what made the man or what social forces allowed him to connect with his times in such a devastating way.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer leaves the air this week, and I haven’t felt so sad to see a series end since my childhood, when the finales of MASH and The Mary Tyler Moore Show had my friends and me weeping our farewells. The only good thing about the demise of Buffy (and the likely cancellation of its nearly as endearing spin-off Angel) is that I’ll no longer feel compelled to convince nonbelievers of its virtues. I understand why people wrote it off as a cult geek-show: low-budget sets, B-movie ghouls, and hot teenage chicks kung-fu fighting in graveyards do not usually signify top-notch drama. Despite the cheesy trappings, Buffy was not only one of the funniest, smartest, and sassiest shows on television in the last decade—it was also the most mournful.

From the beginning, Buffy was gripped by loneliness. Surrounded by a faithful band of friends, she remained a fundamentally solitary character. “Being the Slayer made me different, but it’s my fault I stayed that way,” she admitted to her hapless paramour Spike in a recent episode. “People are always trying to connect to me, and I just slip away.” Over its seven-year run, the show has exquisitely teased out this theme—how much can friendship and community lessen the feeling of being ill at ease in the world? Sometimes it did so in narratives that paralleled ordinary experiences: One season dealt with the transition from adolescence to adulthood, as the gang watched one another mature and grow apart. Other times the storyline took on a more supernatural tinge, like the time Willow’s grief for a lost love turned her into a vengeful witch, or when Buffy’s pals yanked her out of Heaven; for months afterward she walked the earth like a failed suicide, her every look and gesture conveying horror and estrangement from the world.

What made all this bearable was Buffy‘s effervescence—the show was accessorized with cartoony monsters that looked like Star Trek rejects and was bathed in irony and pop-culture references. (Oxford University Press is even publishing a lexicon of Buffy slang this summer.) Underneath all the wit and slayage, though, human emotions whirred and shuddered. Buffy struck a chord that’s incredibly rare on TV, and it will be missed.

If you’d prefer a glimpse of a real-life community where the only demons are psychological, there’s The Collector of Bedford Street, an Academy award-nominated documentary being shown on Cinemax this month. Alice Elliott’s moving, personal film tells the story of Larry Selman, a sociable, developmentally disabled man who’s befriended dozens of his neighbors on his West Village street over the last 30 years. Worried about Selman’s tenuous future (he’s impoverished, lonely, and depressive), his block association comes together to establish a trust fund for him, effectively creating an ad hoc family in a corner of mean old Manhattan.