An Inconvenient Woman (1991)

The master of the roman a clef, Dominick Dunne, was not always well-represented via the miniseries.  “People Like Us” is an awful chore, but “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” is spot-on perfect.

“An Inconvenient Woman” is in the middle.  It has some of the latter’s class and the former’s trash.  The story, roughly based on Reagan pals Arthur and Betsy Bloomingdale, boasts an extremely impressive cast and the vets have a grand time sinking their dentures into the goo.  They guarantee we will have a great time: Roddy McDowell, Alex Rocco, Elaine Stritch, Jo Bologna.  But, in order to get some serious work done: Jason Robards, Jill Eikenberry, Rebecca DeMornay.

“When people talk about destiny,” narrator Peter Gallagher tells us over the credits, “they usually mean something bad…For Jules Mendelson (the Jason Robards character) it was connected, by circumstance, to a head of yellow hair.”  That’s the opening line of the whole movie!  Delicious!

The yellow hair belongs to waitress Rebecca DeMornay who serves billionaire Jason Robards.  His way of flirting with her is to tell her to change her name to something that has the ring of waitressness to it, so naturally, she goes with Flo.  Just don’t tell Alice Flo once again stole her thunder.

Rebecca’s diner is apparently THE in place for the elite to eat, as if the elite eat in diners.  Gossip columnist Roddy McDowell eats there, snapping that Jason’s wife Jill Eikenberry, “that bitch,” as he calls her, never invites him to her parties.  All of this is told to us via a recording Rebecca has left for writer Peter Gallagher to use in his writing (more on that later).

You see, Rebecca isn’t actually a waitress.  Unlike other Flo-named food service representatives, she has aspirations.  “Stardom,” Jason wonders, hanging around for another cup of java.  “I’d settle for less.  Second lead in a TV series.  The best friend of the star so the whole show wouldn’t rest on my shoulders and when the series gets canceled after 13 weeks, I wouldn’t be blamed, I could just go onto other series,” she says, her surface white trashiness shining through.

As noted, Jason is married to socialite Jill Eikenberry, 23 years and introduced by the Van Degans (I mention that reference only because Babette Van Degan is a major character in Dunne’s “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles,” where she was played with miniseries relish by Elizabeth Ashley).  Peter Gallagher narrates to us that they no longer sleep together.  She’s frigid and he’s old, so that’s news?

Jason and Rebecca take their diner flirting to a new level when he offers her a ride in his Bentley.  It’s there that he stares at her legs as she’s telling him that her mother died in a hospital wing named for him.  Rebecca realizes that means he’s married and she’s not that kind of girl!

Completing the rich family is Chad Lowe, playing Jill’s son from a previous marriage, who is sent with a boatload of cash out of the country to avoid a drug rap (I was hoping it was to get the pony tail chopped  off, but whatever).  Jason doesn’t like his stepson, but he does like Rebecca.  He buys her a piece of jewelry, which she gives back to him, telling him to take “it back to the discount counter and shove it.”  She really isn’t very bright.  Do you think he’s ever been to a discount counter?  Even his hired lackey wouldn’t be caught dead at a discount counter.  Those are real jewels, you yutz! He doesn’t give up on trying to impress her, so he sends her a gorgeous fur that actually matches her moussed hair.  Jason takes her to Paris, but “we stayed at different hotels so no one would suspect.”  Paris is just the gift she needs to finally give up the goods and right as they are in the middle of the goods, a fire breaks out in the hotel.  Jason grabs his raincoat and Rebecca her fur…only to be snapped by photographers outside the hotel.

Well, this is TOO juicy for Roddy to resist.  With relish, he calls pal Paxton Whitehead, and then sends Jill the article, in an anonymous envelope.  They are all such good friends!

Rebecca even gets a house of her own where Jason can make love to her and correct her grammar whenever he wants (“samich,” she calls the things with meat and cheese between two pieces of bread).  To make him proud, she wants to be “classy and elegant” just like his wife.  She hires a decorator, reads books, wears power suites and “the famous Pookie did my hair.”

So, just who is Peter Gallagher?  He tells us he’s something of a shady character, who would have been played by Allan Ladd in the movies (there’s a reference folks in 1991 are going to relate to), but his “past isn’t mysterious, just dirty.”  He shows up at a party to celebrate Jason’s appointment as Ambassador to Belgium.  Lucky for us, Peter is seated next to Elaine Stritch (Emmy-nominated for this), who whines, “live by the place card, die by the place card” very loud so that everyone will know she was supposed to have a better seat.  Peter asks the lady on the other side of him who the hell this broad is.  An old friend of Jill’s who “had an affair with Jack Kennedy in the Lincoln bedroom.”  Why not just ask Elaine?  She would have proudly told that story!  The lovely lady is Chelsea Field, who has read one of Peter’s books and belongs to Jill’s club of exclusive people who are too rich and famous even to make the newspapers.  They seem to get along–she’s a widow and he loves the ladies.  “Looking at her, I just had to cross my legs,” he narrates.  Wow, that’s class.

Without the pony tail, but hair still long enough for it, Chad is nabbed at the airport for drugs and he goes to dealer Joseph Bologna for help.  Joe isn’t subtle.  He discusses matters with Chad while cleaning a gun.  Joe will help him if he can get a dinner invite to one of Jill’s party.  Joe is not the type who would ever be invited, so this will be good!

During the dinner, Peter wanders into a room to admire a Van Gogh where Jill is on the phone with Chad, denying him the money he needs to get out of his current situation.  “We don’t see many of the movie people,” Jill tells him when he says he’s in LA to write a screenplay.  Peter and Chelsea leave the party to have sex.  “There was an innocence somewhere underneath all that money that I found pretty hard to resist,” Peter narrates, as if it’s her innocence he’s after.  He also learns that she’s Paxton’s niece and that she always wears pearls during sex as a tribute to him, since he wears them under his outfits.

Paxton himself leaves the party for a gay bar to meet a man named “Lonny Who-the-hell-should-I-know,” as his pimp tells him.  He asks cattily if the woman singing is a real woman or a drag queen.  Paxton is particularly unlucky with his trick that night, because he might be the man who shot him to death.  Whoever it is, the killer also kicked Paxton’s little dog!  Shooting a rich old man is one thing, but kicking a dog?  When Paxton’s body is discovered, the note he’s written with the name of the killer is carefully hidden.  Peter is with Chelsea when Jason calls her to with news of Uncle Paxton is dead.  The writer in Peter wants to know how Jason found out before Chelsea, Uncle Paxton’s only living relative.

The next day, Peter is at an AA meeting where he meets Rebecca, who sees that he’s reading about Paxton’s death, and notes that there is something weird about the whole death.  She has a theory that Paxton left the big party and when to a gay bar.

The funeral is held at “Our Lady of the Cadillacs because the only poor people are the rich people’s maids,” Peter tells us, an event color-coordinated by Elaine and held with the approval of Jill, who was Paxton’s best friend.  Paxton’s gay friends are there and Peter hears a snippet of their gossip, but before he can process that, he hears that the eulogy that Paxton committed suicide, the story that has been invented to keep the truth hidden.  Jason and Rebecca meet at the funeral, much to the interest of Peter and Roddy and Elaine and everyone else.

Peter’s director is Alex Rocco, doing a great stereotype as the ridiculous Hollywood director, gaudy, with a toupee and a nice healthy cocaine problem.  He’s been through a rough patch lately and needs a hit movie.  Alex’s major domo is Jeffrey Alan Chandler, who was at the funeral with the gay guys.  Peter runs the suicide-as-a-fake story by him and Jeffrey gives him some hints.  Paxton’s death makes Jason extra horny, “like a prize fighter punching his way to the mat,” Rebecca says, which would make most lose their lunch.  That sounds horny and then some!  Of course, Rebecca feeds it by telling him she likes his fat stomach because “there’s more of you to love,” the kind of thing only a mistress can say without laughing.  Peter and Rebecca meet again at AA and he wants to take her to the gay bar where he thinks something happened.  She says “women are not welcome there…but you better be careful…you’ll get swept off your feet.”

The looks on Jason and Jill’s faces when Chad tells them are invited to Alex’s party and Joe will be there and worse, that they have to go.

Peter is pretty inept at the gay bar, seeking out the bar’s owner, the guy “with hair like Ann Miller,” the man who found Lonny for Paxton.  He not only denies knowing Paxton well, but that Paxton never came in that night.  The bartender gives him the hooker’s address.  Grant Cramer (Lonny) “make more in an hour” than he can ever dream of, and surprises Grant coming out of the shower.  Buff Grant, sporting a Fabio hairdo, thinks Peter is a client, and isn’t thrilled to answer his questions once he finds out he’s not.  Peter leaves because Grant’s next client, Roddy, bearing cupcakes, arrives.

The next we see of Rebecca, she’s backing her car into Jill’s.  Jill sneers, “it was only an accident,” and remembers she saw Rebecca at Paxton’s funeral.  Lucky for Jill, Peter is at Alex’s party, where she’s not at all happy.  She hates movie people.  Alex thinks there’s a “terrific movie” in the whole idea of the European Union, “one big happy family coming together” and then sneezes all over him.  Roddy is there as well, following Jill everywhere she goes.  Finally, Jason and Joe have a private meeting, the whole reason they were invited.  Joe rattles off a list of Jason’s past deeds, which are basically a list of every society faux pas of the last few decades (bootlegger’s relative, woman falling out of a hotel window, etc.).  He even knows about Rebecca.  That detail causes Jason to ask what the hell Joe really wants.  Joe barely gets Chad’s name out when Jill insists on leaving, having had enough of Alex’s ridiculous antics.

“I will do anything to keep from losing you,” Jason tells Jill, who has put the pieces together about Rebecca.  “I’ve smelled her on you,” she hisses, as if that were the detail that did it.  The newspaper clipping?  The funeral?  A thousand other things, but Jill is only bright when she wants to be.  The threat of divorce lingers over the conversation, so Jill decides to take Chad and go visit her father (who must be 174 years old).  Divorce would mean losing everything, and Jason can’t risk it.

The next time Jason comes to visit Rebecca, he tells her about his life, as a storm rages outside (of course it does).  He tells her about the woman who fell out of the window, all sorts of things he would never have told his wife.  “I had started to fall in love with him,” Rebecca coos on tape.  Wait, spilling secrets did that.  It wasn’t the fur, the house, the books?  Remember that the next time you’re trying to bag a hottie.

He takes her to dinner, in “the Valley, no one will recognize us.”  Over a discussion of Marilyn Monroe’s death, she hints that she thinks there is a conspiracy afoot and that pisses off Jason.  That Valley restaurant isn’t so secret, because Elaine Stritch shows up, in a fur on crutches.  Jason pretends he’s there with his lawyer, but Elaine knows exactly what’s going on, making sure that she gets a ton of close-ups so her prune face can brilliantly overact each reaction.

Infuriated that Jason introduces her as his lawyer’s secretary, Rebecca takes a cab to go visit Peter.  “We’re in the same jalopy,” she says, meaning that they are both outsiders to the powerful people around them.  Well, I assume that’s what she means, because she never really explains it before he goes into a rant about his alcoholic mother that adds nothing to the story.  What does is when they start to kiss like heated teens.  A very worried Jason hurries to Rebecca’s house and of course doesn’t find her, only Paxton’s dog, who always hates when Jason stops by (hmmmm, a clue?).  Jason, using all of that fine O’Neill acting he’s amassed over the years, one of America’s greatest actors ever, loses his mind and trashes the place in a hissy fit worthy of nothing more than a daytime soap opera.  Catching his breath, he notices a blood-stain on a pillow and calls someone to rage that there were supposed to be nothing left of “certain events” (hmmmm, a clue?).

When Rebecca returns, a clearly overcome Jason slaps her to the floor.  “Is that what happened to the girl who fell out the window?” she snaps.  He’s now apologetic (or apoplectic, I can’t figure it out).  In bed, Rebecca asks to see his house.  “I just want to walk through the rooms…I could be a business meeting,” she tells Jason during afterglow.  She has a whole fantasy worked out and they play the game.  In a business suit, Rebecca actually looks like a…well…a mistress in a business suit.  She ain’t foolin’ anyone, but remember, Jill is with her father and son, so it’s safe enough for Rebecca to sneak around.  “I gotta give it to Mrs. M, she was right up there when it came to putting a house together,” Rebecca remarks on tape as we see her wandering through the rooms like it’s a museum opened for one person’s visit.  Guess who calls while Rebecca is dancing through the rooms?  Jill, of course, who knows there is someone there, and thus raises her eyebrow three inches higher.

Speaking of eyebrows, though thick, not raised, Peter is fired from writing the movie because he’s on a list of known associates of Rebecca’s and Jason cannot bear that.  As if that’s not enough stress, Joe keeps trying to make time with Jason, who puts him off.  Joe makes good on his threats and evidence of past misdeeds is sent to the people who are in charge of making big decisions.  He can’t head the Delegation to the This of That in Such a Country.  The only person not pecking at hime is Rebecca, who, and folks, you need to watch this scene twice, dresses up in all black, gloves and all, and does a Marilyn Monroe striptease, down to frilly negligee.  This has to be one of the most unappealing scenes in miniseries history, watching Jason get all hot for Rebecca-as-Marilyn.

The striptease makes me a little queasy, but it gives Jason a big old heart attack.  The EMT who picks him up calls Roddy before the ambulance even leaves!  Of course Rebecca can’t ride in the ambulance, so she takes Jason’s car, dressed in an overcoat to hide her naughty negligee, and runs over poor Astrid, the dog that had survived Paxton’s death.  Wait until you see Rebecca cradling a dead dog in her arms begging it not to die.  It explainsn why the 90s weren’t kinder to her.  Limping from a fall, in her outfit, she rushes to the hospital, going through red lights and hospital barriers in his Bentley.  She delivers another hysterically awful crying scene at the hospital, where she pretends to be Jason’s daughter in order to get to his room.  Roddy overhears this and a media frenzy is awaiting Jill when she arrives at the hospital.  All Jill does is shoot a withering look at Roddy when he expresses sympathy.  When Jill gets to Jason’s room, Rebecca is there.  “I would like to be alone with my husband,” she says tartly.  “The plane was hours late.  Father says hello,” is the way Jill greets her machine-infused husband.  Not touching, nothing.  It’s a hoot!  When Jill finds out Rebecca is passing herself off as her daughter, she has harsh words, so Rebecca, and I can’t believe I’m going to write this, has to dress up as a nurse to get to his room!

Now really, no one but Dominick Dunne could have come up with caviar-coated crap like this!  Rebecca, dressed as a nurse, kissing Jason-in-a-coma and telling him about her relationship with her father.  It’s yet another irrelevant conversation, but meant to show how much Rebecca loves him.  Jill is so furious about Rebecca’s insistent presence at the hospital that she has him brought home, against medical advice, and with a fortune in bills to keep him away from Rebecca.

With Jason not able to make any decisions, he’s also not able to pay any of her bills.  She brazenly shows up at Jason’s office, but is dismissed by his efficient secretary.  The ringing of the phone causes Rebecca to break into heaving tears, but luckily the maid from next door, who has become Rebecca’s friend, knows the guy who shaves Jason every morning and they pass a note to him that way.  Rebecca to maid to barber to Jason.  If only there were text messaging!  They could have burn phones and no one would know.

Ailing, Jason is literally scooped up by a male nurse and deposited at Rebecca’s house with his lawyer, Roy Thinnes.  “I wasn’t sure you would be friendly,” she says when introduced to Roy.  Bubbling innocent charm, Rebecca couldn’t be more innocent.  Roy and Jason have drawn up a contract that makes her “an heiress,” giving her the house and a monthly allowance.  While Rebecca goes to retrieve a burning soufle, Jason has another heart attack.  Rebecca wants to call the hospital, but Roy nixes that.  “She’ll have a fit if she knows he had an attack at this place,” Roy cautions.  So, into the Bentley he’s put and off to home, where he can safely have a heart attack without his wife pitching a fit.  It’s nice to have options.

Jill throws one of her brilliant dinner parties.  Peter is there with Chelsea, with whom he has been fighting.  Jason is not allowed out of bed, but some European prince and Elaine Stritch are there.  The nurse summons Jill from the party, pissed as hell, to tell her “I don’t think he has long.”  Unmoved, Jill asks to be alone with Jason and then goes into her clipped bitchy mode.  “I’m dyin’…no tears, I see,” he says to her.  Jill picks up the phone to call the nurse and hears Roy on the line talking about Rebecca, but there’s a bigger secret Jason has to share with Jill: it was her son Chad who killed Paxton because he needed money and his family wouldn’t give it to him.  He has the proof in his safe, the note in Paxton’s blood.  “You did this for me,” Jill says, finally crying for once.  He dies and she recites an Our Father.  Wait, this WASP queen is a Catholic?  Why does that seem soooooo unlikely?  Dispensing with tears, she goes to the safe, finds the note and promptly burns it.

She would be going right back to her dinner party, but Peter finds her in the library.  She says Jason is only sleeping and Peter tells her he knows Paxton did not commit suicide.  Peter says he doesn’t want her to get hurt, and Jill snaps that if there’s one thing her husband taught her, “it’s not to get hurt.”  Then she finally goes back to the party.

When Chad gets home and hugs his mother, who probably doesn’t do hugs on a good day, let alone after her cheating dead husband named her son as her friend’s murderer, and therefore acts like a wall when Chad even tries, tells Chad she knows the truth and he says, “and you just forgot it.”

The funeral is a small affair, attending just by Jill, Chad, Roy, Elaine, Peter, Chelsea…and Rebecca arriving late.  Jill storms up the aisle and rages at full voice for Rebecca to leave.  Rebecca tries to argue, but there’s no arguing with Jill when she’s in a mood.  Jill makes life even worse for Rebecca by contesting the supposedly iron-clad will he made the day he died, saying it was written with “undue pressure.”  When Roy breaks the news to her, he does in the most curious way…by offering himself as a replacement sugar daddy.  You know, in real life, that might actually work for a dame as desperate as this, but since Rebecca is our heroine, instead of agreeing, she merely has a drink, breaking her sobriety.  A far better choice!  Peter comes to comfort her and she tells him, “don’t blow my load.”  I think that means something like “don’t be a buzz kill,” but I’ve lost my “Inconvenient Woman” dictionary and haven’t been able to figure out half of what the hell she’s been saying.

Going to buy more wine, Rebecca runs into Grant at the convenience store.  Grant has just been reading about her in Roddy’s column and he tells her that he knows Chad killed Paxton, because he showed up when the session was over.  “That’s when it all made sense to me.”

But it doens’t make any sense to anyone watching.

We find out that on the night of the murder, Jason brought Chad to Rebecca’s house, his finger bitten by a dog and his blood the blood on pillow that Jason so angrily found when he was having his trash-the-house scene.

Now it makes sense to anyone watching.

Rebecca insists on having a meeting with Jill to insist she get the money that was promised to her, because she knows the truth of Paxton’s murder.  That shuts Jill and Roy up.  “I’m not asking for much…you can afford it,” Rebecca says, about to fall into another crying fit.  Jill refuses and Rebecca goes to her old coffee shop for some comfort.  That’s when Roddy accosts her.  He proposes that she dictate a book about the whole sordid affair and he will write it.  It will solve her financial problems.  Once she finishes the tapes, he has her put them in a safety deposit box to which only she and he have keys to.

An excited Roddy puts something in his column daily about the impending book, but someone high up and made it impossible, so the book and movie deal die.  Roddy has another idea when he and Rebecca are watching Oprah.  Yup, Oprah.  Obviously, she doesn’t remember she gave a clip to this movie or the whole existence of this movie would have long died (and because I have a copy, I would die too, so if I die…someone call my mother…oh, and Gayle).  They book Rebecca for a talk show appearance, but just after having her make-up done, the segment is canceled.  “Somebody made a call.  Somebody made a call,” she whispers to Roddy.

When she gets home, there’s a typed note in a gift box that says “put it in your mouth before we do.”  Further unwrapping reveals a gun (what, did you think it was an expensive spoon from Jill?  Or a wire retainer with a threatening note from the Orthodondist?), which she fires at the window.  She places the tapes in the safety deposit box.

Roddy finally gets to see Jill’s house, though not from the inside because “you are not welcome in my home,” so they have to talk in the garden.  Roddy, playing both sides, wants Jill to know that “for a price, I could turn the tapes over to you,” the tapes that Rebecca has been recording.  He reminds her the tapes include a lot of details, which fill up about three minutes of screen time when it’s taken us nearly two hours to get through it.  Just as Roddy is telling the story of what went on the night Chad was at Paxton’s, a bee flies into his mouth and stings him.

You read that correctly.

Just as Roddy is telling the story of what went on that night Chad was at Paxton’s, a bee flies into his mouth and stings him.

You read that correctly again.

As Roddy is dying in the garden from his “wasp allergy,” Jill talks of roses and then, just as he breathes his lasat, says, “I hope it hurts” as she snaps the head off a rose.  Jill calls Roy, asking him to call Joe and have him sack Rebecca’s house for the tapes because “he’s on them too.”  Seems like a good idea, I suppose.  As someone is breaking into her house, she calls Grant to come stay with her.  “I have a customer right now,” he says, but promises to come over afterwards.  He does, but he’s not much help, falling asleep on the couch.  So, Rebecca finds Peter outside an AA meeting as she informs him she’s leaving town.  “Can’t tell you where I’m going,” she says.  She hands him a box (the tapes) but he is not allowed to open them until Christmas.  “You don’t have to worry about me anymore,” she says, but he does worry about her.  “You are the most fragile tough girl I ever knew.”

Our friend Grant is out jogging in very short shorts, with a Walkman, when Joe pulls him into his limousine.  Grant thinks he’s a client, but Joe reveals he wants Grant to leave the door unlocked and take the gun from Rebecca’s house so a goon can go in and get the tapes everyone thinks are there.  For cash, Grant sells out his friend.  But, it’s Rebecca’s bad luck to want to stay in that night.  Grant tries to urge her to go out with him, knowing bad men are on the way, but she wants to stay in, at least for a few hours.

Asleep on the couch that night, she’s awoken by the noise of someone rifling ther her packed boxes.  The guy has a mask on and she knows he’s about to kill her with a piece of bric-a-brac.  “It’s Ming, one of the dynasties,” she says, as if that’s going to stop a crook from killing her?  She’s beaten dead with the Ming artifact, and right in the middle of Hail Mary (she’s Catholic too!).

“It’s over,” Roy calls and reports to Jill.  Jill marries the German Prince and moves to London.  Poor Grant went into another limo and then disappeared.  Peter, “long before Chrstimas,” found out Rebecca had given him the tapes.  He listens to them and somehow becomes close with Chelsea again.

Now that’s how you do roman a clef!  You bring rich people together, make them ultra ridiculous and then toss in people who don’t match.  The non-matching people make the rich people look insane, and then someone has to die.  Granted, guns and poison should be fine, but hey, but death-by-wasp can’t be traced back to anyone, so it’s pretty safe.  I’m just saying…

Categories: Romance Miniseries

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