Evergreen (1985)

I must admit I’m biased when it comes to “Evergreen” because I watched it three times when it originally aired.  A ban on watching television during the week in my household did not include taping programs and watching them on the weekends or holidays.  And thus, for some reason, I really connected to “Evergreen.”

However, that doesn’t mean it’s a perfect miniseries.  It just means it grabbed me at the time, but of course, I was a lot younger then.  Let’s see how I feel as an adult.
The biggest asset in “Evergreen” is, of course, its leading lady, Lesley Ann Warren.  She had already survived both “Beulah Land” and “Pearl,” two incredibly stupid miniseries, though through no fault of her own.  In fact, she’s the highlight of the latter, the only one who bothered to act.  It’s also three years after her greatest performance, that of Norma in the film “Victor/Victoria.”  Indomitable and believable, Lesley Ann Warren can survive anything with class and finesse, as proven through six hours of “Evergreen.”

Here is an interesting case of a miniseries that had the option to go full-on romance or mix it with a lot of history.  The novel on which it’s based hedges a great deal, but the miniseries opts for simple fluff.  Unfortunately, with three nights of air time, that’s not always enough.  Lesley and co-star Armand Assante are fantastic, but as the hours wear on, they become less and less important; the other generations simply are not interesting (think Jane Seymour in “East of Eden”–once she disappears from being in nearly every scene, the Bottoms brothers aren’t quite up to her level of contribution).

This saga (based on the Belva Plain novel) begins in 1909, where a baffled Lesley has just arrived in America from Poland, plopped onto the Lower East Side by a woman who tries to steal her purse and is then crammed into a relative’s apartment.  She practices her English at her sewing machine in a factory and her cousin wants to marry her off a year after her arrival.  All of this happens in the first five minutes or so without much exposition because, as miniseries fans, we have of course been down this road many times.  Immigrant stories, poor like this one or rich like “Zoya” always follow the same course, so let’s be thankful the creators here gave us a break and raced through this part.  Stereotyping hits us over the head here like a cement block, but we had to expect that.
Not the first man I would pick to play a poor Jew is Armand Assante, having survived “Rage of Angels” (the actor, not his character, who met a grisly death there).  Lesley’s cousin has set them up on a date but didn’t tell Lesley, who is shy.  “I almost didn’t show,” he says, “they try to marry me off to every girl who gets off a boat.”  Jeez, that’s a lot of women and I can’t imagine they all look like Lesley, so be thankful, both of you!  “Evergreen” employs only the direst looking extras, so pairing up the only two pretty people we’ve met yet is a big deal!
It’s here that Lesley finally admits her reason for not wanting to be married, and though it’s a lovely speech, it comes down to this: vanity.  She doesn’t want to age prematurely because she’s caring for a family and working herself into middle age at 30 or so like her haggard cousin.  “Come, let me introduce you to the other America,” Armand says, finding out she’s never seen any of the city but the Lower East Side (not that the rest of Manhattan in 1909 was at all indicative of America, but point taken).They get awfully personal very quickly.  Somehow a discussion of his job comes up and suddenly he’s doing an ad for American patriotism, saying, “I have faith in America, I have faith in God…” Is he the first Jewish televangelist?  They walk all the way to Central Park, which is quite a hike from the Lower East Side, but they are both so very interested in each other.  Armand promises Lesley “one day I will take you to dinner” at the Plaza and they merrily pass the mansions of the super wealthy.

CHARACTER FLAW ALERT: Armand seems like a very nice man and he’s liking Lesley, but he promises one day he’ll be as rich as the people who own the mansions, though there’s a wrinkle in that he’s Jewish.  As we all know, once a character show base ambition for something like money, there’s trouble a-brewin’.

Lesley is more practical and decides to apply for a job at the mansions doing menial work.  When she’s hired, Lesley can’t believe that she’s living in a room with electric lights and a bathtub.  The Jewish owner of the manse is Ian McShane, who is awfully kind to Lesley, at least partly because he’s a horn dog.

He strikes up a conversation with her over breakfast and tells her to cancel a date with Armand because he wants to take her out.  As expected, he picks the most glamorous establishment and Lesley, in the same outfit she’s worn the whole time, is dazzled and doesn’t know how to behave.  While licking everything she can from the fork, she tells Ian that her parents and sisters are all dead.  As for Ian, “everything has been done for me,” explaining his silver spoon syndrome.  Ian lays it on thicker than tar, not only in the restaurant, but back at home when he shows Lesley a painting he claims his mother says looks like Lesley.

And up swell the violins, the whole damn string section, in fact, so Ian can plant a very chaste kiss on her.  She likes it, but knows she can’t go further.  This makes her time with Armand a bit stilted.  Then again, he brings news of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, a surefire mood killer.  Lesley winces for a moment, but then goes off into a fantasy about seeing Italy, because she’s read about it in Ian’s book.  Armand is livid when he hears this since he’s permanently chip-on-shoulderish when it comes to the rich.  But, a scene later, any romantic notions Lesley possesses about Ian are shattered when it’s announced he’s about to be married.

This means that Lesley has to marry Armand.  Well, it’s doesn’t exactly mean that, but the vagaries of romance novels and epics teach us it does.  You never saw a less enthusiastic bride than Lesley, who stares blankly beyond Armand, who is unsettled to see this look in her eyes.  Armand may have the beginnings of a capitalist prick, but he clearly adores his wife and she claims to be happy with him.  We then go right to Lesley feeling her baby kick to the kid being five.

Armand has a money making scheme and wants Lesley to ask her former employers for a loan.  She refuses, not explaining why, but he insists.  When she gets there, Ian is the only one around since the rest, servants and all, are in the country.  She wants only to ask Ian’s mother, but Ian insists on doing the lending.  “It would give me pleasure to do something for you,” Ian notes and Lesley, suddenly a banking expert, explains the terms of the loan and Ian writes out a check.  He confesses his longtime love for her, claiming to think about her every day.  Romantic that she is, Lesley dashes across the room, the string section even busier than before, to kiss him.  They have sex and Lesley feels terribly guilty.

For someone who used to be so anti-money, Armand is awfully excited to have some to start a real estate venture, but he’s also confused as to why Ian wrote out of the check and not his mother.  He questions why Ian would simply write out a check, though he doesn’t pursue it because the check isn’t rubber.

Cue pregnancy.  Oh, come on, you aren’t really surprised, are you?  This happens in every similar tale.  She tells the doctor it wasn’t planned.  “Some people call that an accident,” he says, as if she’s 11 years old, “I call it a miracle.”  Pro-life before such a thing existed, the doctor reminds her that “every child brings its own good fortune.”  As she walks home gloomily, Armand honks at her from his brand new car!  “That’s a baby and a motorcar on the same day!” Armand exclaims in delight when Lesley coyly tells him of her pregnancy (thank goodness Maury Povich and his incessant DNA tests are 100 or so years in the future).  Hopefully, the excitement is in that order.

By 1928, things are booming for Lesley and Armand.  They have bought an enormous house, Lesley wears a fox stole, the kids are enrolled in private school and they even have a cook!  There is a supremely awkward moment at the daughter’s birthday party where Lesley’s cousin says, “you don’t look like your mother, you don’t look like your father, whose child are you?”  Thankfully, everyone else is chattering and no one hears.  AWKWARD!  But, if she notices, it shouldn’t be too long before others notice too.  To make it even worse, at least for the viewers since we know the truth, Armand delivers a lengthy speech about the bond between fathers and daughters.  DOUBLE AWKWARD!

After gooey sweetness like that, it’s about time for some angst, wouldn’t you say?  Right on cue, the son  decides he’s bored with synagogue and doesn’t want to go one particular Saturday so he can play with his friends.  “None of my other friend have to go to shul,” he whines.  “None of your other friends are my son,” Armand rages in return.  Are you absolutely sure?  After all, you’re not really your daughter’s father, but that’s a plot point for way down the road.

Lesley and her daughter bump into Ian and his mother, the latter chirping to the daughter, “you don’t look like your mother, you must look like your father” and then Ian joins them, staring at the girl.

A real corker of a scene follows.  While the bratty daughter is practicing piano (badly), Armand sees in the paper that Ian’s mother has died, but Lesley refuses to go to the funeral.  Armand thinks it’s because she’s “risen too far in the world” and reminds her what that family did for them.  True, but of course we know there’s far more to it than that!  Incidentally, so does her daughter, though not exactly what.  “You wish I’d never been born!” she snaps as Lesley brushes her hair.  “I’m not pretty, I’m plain,” the girl says, ending the scene with a dippy non-sequiter.

As if this night can’t get any sadder, Lesley’s cousin’s husband, Ron Rifkin, comes to borrow money and Armand refuses him, not willing to “put my family in danger.”  So, Ron does what a lot of people did after the bottom fell out of the stock market, he jumps.  Armand is guilt-stricken big and bad when he gets the call.  Also ruined is Armand’s business partner, Brian Dennehey and, in fact Armand’s whole real estate business.  Bad news comes in threes, so when Armand gets home, he’s greeted by the news that Ron had no life insurance.

To cut down on the pathos for a bit, Ian shows up to see Lesley, but is greeted instead by the surly daughter.  He leaves a big box, which happens to contain the painting from his house his mother always swore reminded her of Lesley.  Dour daughter suggests selling the painting, but Lesley mandates, “nobody is selling this painting.”  Ian pays another visit, this time to make sure the daughter is his and Lesley is forced to admit it.  He then decides to take Lesley and the daughter away so they can all be together.  Oh, yeah, that’s going to go over well with Armand!  She admits she loves Ian, but can’t leave her husband.  He begs her to consider his proposal, giving her until 4pm the next day to deliver an answer.  Lesley does her best thinking in a negligee that evening, and goes to the rendezvous spot at 4pm the next day.  “I cannot leave him,” she tells a crestfallen Ian.

The first of “Evergreen’s” three parts ends here (with more cascading violins).  In roughly two hours, we have wedged in everything but the slumming vet (and WWI which slipped by unnoticed).  Torn between two lovers, paternity questions, humble beginnings, death, bratty children and a brave heroine to tie it all together.

Part Two begins on a high note.  Lesley’s grown son, Tony Soper, has gotten into Yale and his little sister (who hasn’t aged, even though there’s a new actor playing the son) has knitted him a big sweater.  Even more, Armand and Brian have gotten a big loan to expand their business.  When the son makes a toast, he lays on the schmaltz.  “To my mother, who is a goddess.  To my growing-up sister, who is not a little devil, who is an angel, and to my father, who gives me a lot of trouble sometimes, but who is truly a king among men.”

At Yale, the new freshman meets WASP drunk Boyd Gaines (giving an over-ripe performance that would not anticipate his 147 Tony Awards).  The matriarch of the family is Betty Buckley (bingo, now we have the slumming vet, who actually had a Tony by this point).  The problem is that Boyd’s family hates Jews, well, except daughter Kate Burton, who falls in love with him.  Romeo and Juliet have arrived, as they always do in a romance miniseries.  “It won’t be easy for me, being in love with a Jew,” Kate chirps.  “Don’t worry, I love a good challenge,” Tony laughs.  Boyd is not in a joking mood when he warns Tony to stay away from his sister.  Not only is Armand displeased, he throws the persecution of Jews in Germany into the conversation!  “I won’t change,” Tony promises.  “Cut off my right arm,” is the reply to that, before Armand decrees that they will get over their supposed love and find people of similar religions to marry.  “Don’t bring the unthinkable to pass,” Armand says as he hugs his son, sounding more like John Gotti than a Jewish real estate mogul.

With Armand and Lesley upset over Tony’s decision, their daughter grows up to be Joan Allen, who can’t get her parents’ attention, and growls at them because of it.  She is told her brother “will not be sitting here again.”  He married secretly the day before and both families have cut them off.

If Tony and Kate are Romeo and Juliet, Lesley, who hasn’t been around much, is Lady Macbeth, mopping a perfectly clean floor at 3am.  She gets one of those yowling explosions that every actress in a miniseries has (Lesley’s experience in a musical version of “Gone With the Wind” about a decade earlier must have helped greatly), beating her husband and then crumpling into his arms.  It only lasts a few moments so we can return to Tony and Kate getting smashed on a bottle of wine because he’s gotten a job selling kids shoes.  Zzzzzzzzzzz. This is the downside of generational sagas.  Not all of the generations are interesting.  Take this moment: Tony comes home and Kate is knitting.  We know what that means immediately, but it takes what seems like an hour for Kate to tell Tony.  Paint by numbers, this whole section of the miniseries is without any surprises.  “Little babies don’t cost that much,” Kate says.  That’s a humdinger of a line, a scene-ender, no less!

Joan defies her father and visits her brother, though Armand says he wants to hear no mention of it.  When Joan returns, Lesley is thrilled to hear she’ll be a grandmother, news they decide to lay on Armand.  “This is not my grandchild, because my grandchild is a Jew.  [Tony’s] child is nothing.  He’s a nothing,” is all he cares to say on the matter.

Let’s see how the other family reacts?  Kate goes to see her folks.  Betty is in the garden, gardening gloves on and holding a cigarette while the gardener does the actual work.  “I don’t think your father is going to be very happy to hear this news,” Betty says, stifling a smile because she’s actually thrilled.  Papa is Robert Vaughn, wheelchair bound and crabby as all hell.  “You’re a fool,” he chastises her, but it’s obvious he wants to crack and get his daughter back.

That went better than expected, so Lesley is the next to crumble, going to see Tony at the shoe store.  From there, she goes to Armand and Brian’s office.  Brian takes the news of a male grandchild to be of great importance, but Armand sticks to his policy.  “When did you become unforgiving?” Brian snarls and Armand tells Lesley she can have the family over for dinner.  “Don’t expect me to say a word the whole night.  I can’t get involved,” Armand adds, though not very believably.  In fact, Tony and Kate get invites from both families.

Check your rulebooks.  You know when people achieve sublime happiness in a miniseries, not only the rug, but the whole floor is about to pulled from under them.  Joan answers the phone call from Boyd saying Tony and Kate have been killed in a car accident, but the baby is alive.  Armand is there and then they have to tell Lesley.  All she needs to do is see their faces to know.

It’s time for a trial.  You knew one had to pop up eventually.  Which grandparents should have custody of the baby?  Well, Brian actually has an interesting take, grumbling that “the Catholics and the Jews should write the laws.  No one else understands about family.”  That’s not particularly helpful, but it’s said with conviction.  We are actually spared court theatrics, just told that the judge granted custody to Kate’s parents.  Armand feels guilty.  “I killed him,” he says, referring to both Ron, the jumper, and Tony, hit by a truck.  “I cannot help.  I am empty,” Lesley says, unable to give him the sympathy or forgiveness he needs.

In case you care, and I’m absolutely positive I don’t, Ian is still around.  He and Lesley meet for lunch at the very same restaurant they went to all those years ago (which has the same decor and all).  After lunch, they go up to a cozy lodge in the mountains, swim, dance and talk about Joan before, well, we have to guess as the darkness overtakes everything.

By 1946, the grandkid is wheeling around Robert Vaughn, giving him a lesson in civics, telling the kid it’s wrong for Jews to be moving into the neighborhood.  “Colored with coloreds, Americans with Americans,” Robert says.  “David Freidman thinks he’s an American,” the kid replies.  “Well, he’s misinformed.”  Egad, that’s awfully strong dialogue for marshmallow stickiness like “Evergreen!”  It seems that Robert and Betty haven’t told the kid the truth about half his family.  Armand and Lesley are moving out to the suburbs to a big house of their own.

Into their lives comes Jan Triska, a Plastic Surgeon who outran the Nazis and managed to get to America.  Everyone wants to set him up with Joan.  As he tickles the ivories, they have a very deep conversation, perhaps the deepest so far, but it’s way too late and far too stilted to pull in yet another mysterious new character.  His proposal is rather clumsy, but she accepts anyway.  Lesley and Armand are happy in bed knowing their daughter’s future is secure.

Uh huh, until it’s not.

And that brings the second portion to a close, and a rather happy one.

And just for that, the final portion of the miniseries starts as sadly as possible.  We’re told that Robert Vaughn has already died (after less than six minutes of screen time total) and Betty Buckley is sporting bad make-up, so when she tells her little grandson, “I’m going to die soon,” he shouldn’t really be surprised.  Understandably, the kid wonders where he’s to go, and though Boyd says he wants him, Betty feels it would be best if this little blond kid went with “your father’s people.”  The kid definitely isn’t pleased to hear the new people are Jewish and trots out Robert’s ethnic slurs before cozying up to the Jewish kid in school.  That doesn’t go well.

The day of the hand-off arrives and, true to form, Lesley has more food than twenty people could eat, living up to at least one stereotype.  The whole episode is very awkward, with only Lesley able to manage a chipper demeanor.  Armand is scared and the kid is just petulant, though he softens a bit when seeing a picture of his father.  Even more bizarre is the conversation between Lesley and Boyd, who removes enough luggage from the car to clothe 12 kids.  Lesley says she personally knows what it’s like to be “uprooted” at a young age and they talk about how Tom and Boyd met.  “A young man falls off his bike and so many lives are changed,” opines Lesley.

The kid runs away and is brought back by the police, and Lesley begs Armand to stay out of this particular conversation.  She’s rewarded with his loyalty.

With that settled, Lesley turns her attention to Joan, who speaks in riddles about her marriage.  “Sometimes I think I love him too much,” is one such line.  What does it mean?  Beats me.

For his birthday, the kid wants to join the local club, but they don’t allow Jews.  Armand has matured in his thinking somewhat and tells him he can be Jewish, Christian, whatever he wants, and if he wants to join the club, to do it.  This means the kid has some thinking to do.

At a fancy banquet for a building Armand and Brian have created, Ian shows up to be introduced around and Armand reminds everyone that it was Ian who gave him the first seed money they ever received.  A round of picture taking leaves Ian alone at the table with Joan and her husband.  “Are you a father…you seem like someone who should have children,” Joan notes, with Ian fumbling and lying that he’s not.  Then Ian and Lesley get some time together to catch up on 18 years.  Ian invites her to dance and Lesley smiles, saying, “I suppose there is no harm in two people dancing.”  Not in real life, no, but this is a miniseries, where worlds are changed by a look or a mistaken gesture.

There’s an inside joke on the dance floor that I had to stop and share with you.  Ian wants to meet Lesley the next day, but she says no, she’s going to a matinee of “The King and I.”  The dance ends and Lesley’s son-in-law asks her to dance, leaving Ian and Joan to wait uncomfortably until deciding to dance together.  Once they start, the take over the floor, the music swells and everyone else stops.  The inside joke, of course, is that it very much resembles the climactic moment in “Shall We Dance?” in “The King and I.”  Do with that information what you please.

Ian shows up at the theater when it lets out, spotted by Armand, who sees the two of them together (neither the theater nor the marquee are correct, FYI).  The car ride home is uncomfortable for both, though it’s not until they get home that Armand tears into Lesley.  Armand upends a table, but Lesley plays it well, sticking to the truth, though of course holding back the historical details surrounding it.  Just when it seems she’s calmed him, he slaps her hard across the face.

Let’s jump ahead to 1959 (and pray lesley has no desire to see “The Sound of Music”).  The kid is now grown up Mark Keyloun.  He has been approached by Uncle Boyd to work in the oil business in the Middle East, which he claims makes Armand’s building business seem “dull.”  Aunt Joan gives him some good advice and to do what he wants, not what Grandpa or Uncle Boyd wants.  That leads him to worry about going to anti-Semetic Iran with Boyd.

Unexpectedly, we veer from the main characters long enough to dispense with Brian Dennehey, who develops an ulcer and decides to move to New Mexico.  Just so you know.

Before starting work, Mark decides he wants to see Israel, which of course thrills his grandparents.  A kindly bus driver, who use to drive a cab in Brooklyn, tells Mark that one must “walk into Jerusalem” the first time one goes, so as the faux Jewish music goes into overdrive, Mark rushes to see the Holy City.

With her cousin in the hospital, Lesley is already tired and worn out, but Joan finds out Jan is having an affair and needs her mother’s sympathy.  After all, Lesley is still the glue of the family.  Lesley’s advice is to “do nothing,” and Joan can’t understand why, but accepts it.

Enter Cecile Callan, a perky Dutch girl who works on a Kibbutz after having come to Israel simply for “SCUBA diving and boogying,” but stayed to volunteer, even though she’s not Jewish.  Ah, how “history repeats itself” of them!  The ominous music starts when we move over to Syria, where naturally the bad guys reside, spying on Cecile’s Kibbutz and attempting to blow up a tractor.  The Kibbutz residents are ready, having plans ready for such occurrences.  This would be the exact moment Mark picks to arrive looking for Cecile.  Mark takes to Kibbutz work like an old pro, skipping around and generally spreading mirth.  He ten gets a shower scene during a Hebrew lesson.  That’s the first attempt at ANY sexuality in this entire miniseries.  A scene later it gets even more hubba-hubba when Mark and Cecile go skinny dipping.

Mark also befriends a, well, friendless kid, a tough little boy who keeps watch in an abandoned water tower with a broom for a gun.  They are both orphans, always a convenient bonding device.  The three make a nice insta-family.

Armand gets a letter saying Mark is getting married, so he and Lesley rush off to Israel to try to get him to return.  They do not want him staying in scary Israel.  Neither looks excited when Armand says, “Israel…homeland” on the plane (where Lesley has a super-comfy middle seat, and of course does not dream of complaining).

This time, the Syrians hit the tractor and kill a man.  That sends the Israelis into war mode (and the movie into a ton of repeat footage).  Mark’s lithe pal takes up his spot in the old water tower while kooky supporting characters get mowed down.  Mark saves him just before the tower is blown up, but the next bomb hits them.

Armand and Lesley are waiting at the hotel for Mark’s arrival, having no idea what has happened.  It’s left to Cecile to deliver the bad news.  The kid survived, protected by Mark’s body.  Joan is worried about Armand, who has remained totally silent, but Lesley sends them all home.  The pain kills Armand, whose funeral is next.

The only good news is Cecile calling, saying she wants to see Lesley, and of course we know something is up before Lesley does.  Cecile, alas, is not pregnant, but only because she’s already given birth to Mark’s daughter.

And there you have it, everything is neatly wrapped up and ti…oh, wait, no it’s not.  There’s another character we forgot (no, not Joan, who has gotten short shrift since birth).  Yup, Ian.  He comes for lunch, but arrives hours early to see the love of his life.  He announces he’s moving to Italy, and naturally, that has been a connection of theirs for what, 800 years?  Now the whole damn orchestra booms its last and the miniseries ends.

I must admit, “Evergreen” isn’t quite as spectacular as I remembered, but I was younger then.  I don’t think it was ever a great piece, but it’s not terrible either.  With Lesley Ann Warren at the helm, that would be utterly impossible.  She’s the heart of the movie and she does it beautifully.  It’s only a shame she can’t be in every scene.  Able assist comes from Armand Assante, who knows his way around these pieces as well as she does, but his character is created as the heavy, so he doesn’t have as much chance to delight as Lesley, who glows being the loving wonderful centerpiece.

Categories: Romance Miniseries

4 Comments to “Evergreen (1985)”

  1. candace 24 August 2016 at 10:41 pm #

    I would like to watch the mini series of Evergreen or

    • Bj Kirschner 12 November 2016 at 1:05 pm #

      It’s one of my personal favorites. 🙂

  2. June Carlsen 2 July 2017 at 8:58 pm #

    Does anyone know if I can get hold of EVERGREEN DVD S
    other than the USA ..as I am concerned that USA. DVDs cannot be shown ?or do not work in Europe….

    • Bj Kirschner 8 July 2017 at 3:54 pm #

      Unfortunately, “Evergreen” was only ever released on VHS in the US. It’s never been on DVD. From time to time it pops up on YouTube, but I don’t see the full version there right now.