Saturday, January 11, 2014

Bo Derek Outshines Morgan Fairchild and Redeems "Fashion House"

A couple of years ago, during my last year of law school, I started noticing advertisements for a newly launched network called MyNetworkTV, which was comprised of former affiliates of the WB and UPN networks that did not join the successor network, The CW, that had consolidated the majority of affiliates from those two former television entities.  MyNetworkTV was planning to launch a series of low-budget, scripted programming inspired by Spanish-language "telenovelas," which would air 5 nights a week for 13 weeks, produce approximately 65 episodes, and would wrap up its storylines for good before eventually introducing a brand new telenovela to replace it in its timeslot.  In essence, even though these shows were directly inspired by the sort of programming Telemundo made popular, to American viewers these shows were essentially a melding of the 1980s prime time soap and miniseries genres.

I was intrigued when I heard about these shows and was, secretly, rooting for them to be a success even though I instinctively sensed that they were likely destined to fail.  With the short attention span of viewers who are now interested in reality television and personalities, it didn't seem likely that viewers would devote 5 nights a week to the same show even if it was only for 3 months.  I still wanted them to be a success because, as trashy as these shows promised to be, at least they were going to be hour-long scripted dramas that would provide an alternative to reality show nonsense.  Even though most of these shows hired actors, writers, and directors who, at that time, had limited experience, the success of the MyNetworkTV telenovelas still required a modicum of some talent, ability and creativity if they were to succeed.  These shows still needed to create and develop what they hoped would be compelling stories and characters, as opposed to merely turning the camera on human side show acts, and letting them go at each other, the way reality shows appear to operate. 

The most interesting of all of the MyNetworkTV telenovelas was their flagship drama "Fashion House."  Clearly inspired by the nighttime soap operas of the 1980s, "Fashion House" concerned itself with the intrigue and drama surrounding a beautiful and ruthless designer, her colleagues and associates who work for her renowned fashion design firm in Los Angeles, and her enemies who are out to destroy her and her empire.  "Fashion House" was a flawed, yet entertaining, show that managed to look glamorous and glossy despite what must have been an extremely low-budget and fast shooting schedule in order to produce nearly 65 episodes within about 4 or 5 months.  It was well photographed on Hi-Def and had some stylish sets and costumes which still look attractive today when watching clips of the show on YouTube.  (Only occasionally do you look closer and sense that the sets are cheaper and chintzier than they initially appear.)  The younger cast was comprised mostly of inexperienced, fledgling actors who were endearingly awkward, but whose acting ultimately improved over the course of the series.  (Mini Anden was particularly memorable as the self-destructive fashion model Tania Ford, who ultimately takes the fall for a murder that was planned by others.  Her final scene on the show, where she has completely lost her mind and begins to imagine she is in a fashion photo shoot while she's getting her mug shot taken by the police, was surprisingly poignant and effective, though still campy and ludicrous at the same time.)  It even created some surprisingly interesting characters and situations despite the show's propensity for going for the cheap and sensational.  Nevertheless, "Fashion House" turned out to be a ratings failure and a critical disaster even though it was arguably the most "successful" of all the MyNetworkTV" telenovelas that debuted during that time.

"Fashion House" will never be considered on the same level as other nighttime soaps like "Dallas," "Falcon Crest," "Knots Landing," "Dynasty," "Peyton Place," or even "Flamingo Road" because its purpose was clearly to provide low-cost programming to fill timeslots on MyNetworkTV affiliates and to fulfill the minimal requirements and expectations of its genre.  For the most part, it rarely tried to subvert, elevate, or transcend the genre, nor did it often allow itself time to let the actors find nuances to their scenes so that their characters and stories could be more than met the eye.  It also overindulged at times in a campy, cutesy, whimsical comedic tone at times that was annoying rather than endearing and detracted from its better storylines.  At times, it felt as if the writers were merely fulfilling a checklist of cliches that were borrowed from previous nighttime serials: catfights, beautiful women, glamorous settings, scandal, hunky heroes and lotharios, occasional pathos and tragedy.  It also needlessly overindulged in long flashback sequences of scenes from earlier episodes (either to pad out the running time or put things into context for viewers who didn't have time to devote themselves to the show 5 nights a week, or both), and also ended many scenes with an annoying visual device of an overexposed freeze frame shot that was supposed to emulate flashbulbs going off at a fashion photo shoot.  And yet, despite all of its shortcomings, there were occasional moments of inspiration on the show that demonstrated the scrappy skill and intelligence of the creative personnel involved that underscored how hard they worked to produce as good a show as possible within the limited framework they were provided.  I'm not arguing that "Fashion House" is an unheralded television masterpiece.  I am suggesting that it's not as worthless or dispensable as its detractors have alleged.

One of the my favorite characters on the series was Donna Feldman as the initially trashy, but ultimately sympathetic Gloria Thompson.  The Gloria character starts off trying to break up a marriage and has close ties to a small-time mobster Eddie Zarouvian (Jordi Vilasuso), who is also her son's father.  Eventually, we learn that Gloria is a loving mother to her young son Alec and is a devoted daughter to her mother Doris (Tippi Hedren) who is dying of cancer.  Gloria asks her mobster ex-boyfriend Eddie to arrange for a contract hit to eliminate her romantic rival Michelle (Natalie Martinez) who is still married to Lance (Mike Begovich), the man Gloria is infatuated with.  After her mother dies of cancer, Gloria realizes that she has to fulfill her mother's dying wish that she conduct her life with integrity and decency, and races against time to call off the hit, which causes her son Alec to be wounded accidentally.  Gloria stops being a bubble-headed idiot in life and later gets herself a decent job at the hospital, finds herself in a romantic relationship with an upstanding doctor, and again saves the life of her romantic rival, now friend, Michelle, when mobster Eddie kidnaps Michelle because he believes she has documents he is looking for that belonged to her husband Lance.  Despite the silliness of the storyline, I found the Gloria character compelling because she resembled the sort of foolish femme fatale bad girl from film noirs whose selfish and self-centered exteriors hide a streak of decency that simply need the right opportunity to mature and develop.  Her character's story arc reminded me slightly of another Gloria--Grahame--who was compelling playing former gangster moll Debby Marsh in Fritz Lang's classic "The Big Heat" (1953).  Over the course of the series you witness Donna Feldman gain confidence as an actress (she's particularly effective in her scenes with Tippi Hedren as her mother) so that the character she is playing, Gloria, also develops integrity and decency as an individual to such a degree that you really grow to like this character.  It's a genuine relief, at the end of "Fashion House," that the writers and producers show mercy to Gloria and give her the happy ending that she deserves.  

Nevertheless, the show's most important asset was undoubtedly the presence of Bo Derek in the lead role of ruthless fashion designer Maria Gianni.  In a word, Derek was a revelation in this role.  Even though I was a child of the 1980s, I was never particularly a fan of Derek's during her heyday when she was married to John Derek and known for her sexy roles in movies like "10" (1979) and "Tarzan the Ape Man" (1981), and "Bolero" (1984).  I did sense that Derek started to come into her own in later years when she became an admirable and vocal advocate on behalf of Veterans issues and developed a charming sense of humor about her prior image as a sex symbol in various interviews.  But none of these developments prepared me for how good she would be on this show.  Maria Gianni is clearly meant to be pastiche combination of prior prime time soap villainesses, such as Alexis Colby (Joan Collins) on "Dynasty" or Amanda Woodward (Heather Locklear) on "Melrose Place."  But Derek brings her own sense of ruthless determination, deadpan wit, and steely courage to the role that she never comes across as someone slavishly imitating someone else.  She creates a memorable character that was all her own.

The thing I like the most about Derek's work on this show is that she rarely succumbs to a cutesy-campy approach to her role.  Derek plays Maria Gianni with a dangerous, take-no-prisoners attitude that underscores why most of the characters on the show are afraid of her.  Derek still instills a sense of dry, dead pan wit to Maria to demonstrate to us that she's clearly relishing and enjoying this role, but it never undercuts or demeans Maria's sense of authority.  Derek's sense of humor on the show never winks at the camera the way other actresses might have, which maximizes the effectiveness of her sharp and brutal barbs.  Even though the Maria character is meant to be a shallow, one-dimensional antagonist on the series with little to recommend or redeem her, that doesn't mean Derek's performance is one note.  Derek is particularly good in scenes where Maria is having sessions with her unscrupulous psychiatrist Dr. Woods (Mark Totty).  In these sessions, Derek allows Maria moments of candor and vulnerability which suggest that Maria is completely aware of how destructive she really is, and that she has no conscience or ethics or hesitations about it.  She's evil because she chooses to be.  And, yet, we still like the Maria character better than almost everyone else on the series who earn our comparative contempt because they are too stupid or submissive to deal with Maria effectively.

One of Derek's best scenes on the show is when she is commiserating with her son Luke Gianni (Taylor Kinney) after she has been humiliated at the altar during her aborted wedding to William Chandler (Joel Berti).  At the wedding, William insults Maria and refuses to marry her, in front of her family and associates, and reveals that his seduction of her was part of an elaborate revenge plot between himself and his mother, Sophia Blakely (Morgan Fairchild), who still blame Maria for the death of William's father and Sophia's husband, Charles, after he left his family to be with Maria and later committed suicide when Maria left him to marry a rich man who could help set up her fashion empire.  Maria asks Luke to pour her another drink and begins to express her feelings of grief and sadness as she feels sorry for herself.  She hands her empty glass to her son and asks "Would you get me another?  They go down that fast they're medicinal.  This one will be for enjoyment."  Derek effectively conveys Maria's rare sense of self-pity in this candid moment of vulnerability.  As her son expresses his anger at what happened, and inadvertently reminds Maria that William Chandler and Sophia Blakley humiliated her publicly, Maria sardonically replies in a deadpan manner "Thanks for the pep talk."  Maria goes on to explain how "I don't think anybody can know how I feel.  Luke, I allowed myself to fall in love with that man.  I trusted him."

When Luke expresses aloud how he wishes he could understand why William humiliated Maria, she bitterly brushes back tears and responds "So do I.  William wooed me at every opportunity.  He showered me with expensive gifts.  He understood things about me that no man ever has."  When Luke asks his mother if she still loves William Chandler, Maria angrily tosses a pearl necklace given to her by William across the room and shouts with rage, "Damn him and that woman to Hell!  I'm Maria Gianni!  I've never been blindsided!  That b-stard and that b-tch ruined me in front of the world and I still have these stupid feelings for him!  I despise him for what he did to me.  But most of all I feel like a fool.  Like a very stupid fool."  I like how Derek effectively projects Maria's conflicted feelings over the situation, alternating between rage and hurt and frustration and confusion.  She hates William for what he did, but can't forget how much she loved him, which means that she will stop at nothing to get even with him and his mother for what they did to her.  She is able to demonstrate how, even though Maria has single-minded goals and purposes in life and has no empathy for others, she's not so coldblooded that she can't allow herself moments of vulnerability where she can easily be hurt.

Derek easily steals the show away from Morgan Fairchild, who plays her arch-rival Sophia Blakely. Fairchild, who I've never liked as an actress despite doing effective work occasionally on "Flamingo Road," plays Sophia in much too light-hearted a tone, considering how she's supposed to be the woman out for revenge because her family and marriage were destroyed by Maria.  Fairchild is not as effective as Derek simply because she condescends to the material by approaching it only as mere camp.  At times, she looks like she is auditioning for a guest role on the risible "Desperate Housewives" by playing Sophia in a mannered cutesy-whimsical tone that was the narcissistic hallmark of that overrated and misogynist series.  Fairchild is particularly bad and unconvincing during a scene later on in the series when she learns that the woman who is having an affair with her son William, and carrying her grandchild, has miscarried the baby.  Despite guest-starring as various mothers on sitcoms through the years, Fairchild has not one ounce of maternal warmth in her body, which makes it difficult for her to convincingly convey Sophia's grief at losing her first grandchild.  I know "Fashion House" is meant to be escapist entertainent, but since Fairchild doesn't take it seriously enough to bring the role some nuance or depth, we can't help but side with Bo Derek's obstensibly unsympathetic, but ultimately much more compelling and likeable, Maria Gianni.  From an objective viewpoint, we ought to like Sophia better than Maria, but we don't because Fairchild does nothing to demonstrate there are different layers to her character, while Derek maximizes this opportunity to make the most of showing us what Maria Gianni is made of.

Even though the catfights and rivalry between Maria and Sophia are meant to evoke the Joan Collins/Linda Evans rivalry on "Dynasty," it really reminds me more of the Angela Channing (Jane Wyman)/Jacqueline Perrault (Lana Turner) competitive relationship from the early years of "Falcon Crest."  Maria, similar to Angela Channing "Falcon Crest," is a despotic ruler of a business empire where she has her minions and colleagues cowering with fear.  Both women have complex/contentious relationships with their own children.  Both find themselves in situations where, suddenly out of the blue, they are faced with the arrival of a long-time romantic rival from decades ago who still resents them for being involved with the man that they loved.  In Angela's instance on "Falcon Crest," she was the wronged woman married to Douglas Channing (Stephen Elliott), who was having an affair with Jacqueline Perrault, the wife of Angela's brother Jason.  In Maria's instance on "Fashion House," she was the adulterer who stole Sophia's husband away from her and broke up her family.  In both Maria and Angela's case, there is a son born from these relationships whose parentage is clouded under a veil of subterfuge and secrecy:  Angela had her son Richard stolen from her at childbirth and falsely told by her doctors that he was stillborn, while Douglas and Jacqueline Perrault had him spirited away to Europe where he would be raised by others.  Later on, Jacqueline falsely assumes responsibility for being Richard's mother before the truth eventually comes out years later that he is really Angela's son.  In the backstory to "Fashion House," Maria lies to her future husband Antonio Gianni that she is carrying his baby when, in fact, Luke is the son that resulted from her affair with Charles Blakely, which makes Luke the half-brother of Maria's fiance William Chandler and the stepson of Sophia.  Sophia is unexpectedly sympathetic to Luke, even though he is the son of her archenemy Maria, which establishes a maternal-son bond between them, which is comparable to the way Richard on "Falcon Crest" found himself in a mother-son situation with both Jacqueline and Angela at different stages of that series.

"Fashion House" may be a forgotten footnote in television history, but I still think it was the best of the MyNetworkTV telenovelas.  It's certainly the one telenovela from that network that I would welcome seeing released on DVD, as I think people who missed it on its original run might find it entertaining if they give it a try.  I think it's too bad that the show was introduced in that telenovela, 5 nights a week for 13 weeks format because I think it would have turned out better had it been a regular weekly prime time soap with a less strenuous shooting schedule, less redundancy in its scripts and storylines, fewer flashbacks, fewer characters (it's overloaded with too many people at times that tend to overshadow the Maria/Sophia rivalry at the heart of the show), and a bigger budget to hire more experienced actors in the supporting cast.  Even with all of its flaws, the show is redeemed by Bo Derek's surprisingly compelling performance as ruthless Maria Gianni.  I think one reason why Derek is so sympathetic as Maria is because the show stacks the deck against her so that she doesn't always win and, at times, Sophia gets the best of her.  At one point in the series, Maria even ends up in jail and has to fend off brutal cellmates who are out to intimidate her.  During that vignette, Derek does a good job at projecting Maria's sense of fear and determination while trying to survive in such a treacherous environment.  Because Maria occasionally struggles, even with all her ruthlessness and prior success, we like her better than her adversaries because we have seen the extent to which she has to scratch and crawl to survive.  If "Fashion House" is remembered for anything, it should be because it allowed Bo Derek an opportunity to create a multi-faceted character who was charming and devious, and also allowed her a rare chance to demonstrate her dedication and rarely tapped potential as an actress that helped to bring out the best in this show. 

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