BARKIN'S PERSONAL BEST

There’s little doubt Ellen Barkin gives the performance of her career in the based-on-fact Before Women Had Wings. So raw a portrayal that at times you can’t watch her—you’re afraid of the flood of memories from your own battered childhood. How many lives have been affected by the belt? One of the facets of Barkin’s embittered boozed Glory Marie, a young penniless widow with two girls, is that she comes out of an American era of parental despotism—when fathers and mothers, via the silence of the government and courts, believed they had the unquestioned authority to punish their children even to the point of severe physical abuse, absent concern for corporal and emotional damage. It’s a shared shame: few, even close family members or friends, intervened to save children from the wrath of bad parenting. (More often than not, the exacerbating response was, “What did you do to deserve it?”) Watching Before Women, you not only feel your own deep-rooted resentments churn, you also feel the collective childhood of many generations becoming agitated; this movie could erupt dangerous latency. Therein the power of Barkin’s work; worried about creating a monster, she excavates the terrain of Glory Marie and uncovers the long-avoided rebuttal to the late 50s-early 60s sitcom morality and image of Harriet Nelson and June Cleaver. Barkin’s mother bitch is fully aware that she can’t abide her daughters’ needs because she’s afraid to admit they’re her own; her booze-saturated refusals to allow the girls moments of pleasure and friendship are attempts to insulate her from her own anguish, from the dread of knowing that while not responsible for her husband’s suicide, she didn’t do much to acquit herself as wife, or mother. Unlike, say, Faye Dunaway’s full throttle drama queen scenes as Mommie Dearest, which keep us from doing much other than howl and snicker, Barkin’s blowouts go for a bruising realism. Would be easy for Barkin to bray, to fly into theatrics as safety device, to remind us this is only a TV movie. If Oprah Winfrey’s first appearances remind us that it is, we’re soon back to Glory Marie’s shaky hands—barely containing her ever-present cig or drinking glass—and they’re Johnny-on-the-spot for slapping faces or grabbing for the belt. The sick mess she is doesn’t prevent her from springing into the promise to beat her youngest. This thrashing is the catalyst that brings forth Oprah’s angelesque intervention and, okay, it’s a relief for the audience. It’s also the movie’s one weakness—most kids in these kinds of situations don’t ever get this lucky—but you know why it’s there: Oprah’s unquestionably media’s Ann Landers, on an epic scale. And that’s her salvation: she’s one hellofva magnanimous healer. Catching yourself before your thoughts turn nasty about the roles she plays—she’s Ethel Waters’ weight-watcher proxy—you acknowledge she’s a proficient actress. Playing the abused daughters, Julia Stiles and Tina Majorino are irreproachable. Directed compassionately by Lloyd Kramer.

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