The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987)

Upon seeing “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” in 1987, I was hooked from the start and 20+ years later, it’s lost none of its zing.  Based on a true story, as are all Dominck Dunne novels, I find the movie far more entertaining than the book, which gets far too hung up Dunne’s precious society.  The movie gives Ann-Margaret one of her juiciest roles ever, but the bonus here, on top of great writing, acting and a frisky story, is Claudette Colbert, in her last role, not only still stunning, but stealing the movie!  Make no mistake, this is pure trash, pure romance, but dolled up so well that you hardly notice. 

From the credits, it even seems special.  Yes, the score is cheesy, but it’s elegantly cheese, courtesy of Marvin Hamlisch, with the names of the cast members (and an impressive list at that) set against a satin background.  It has all the hallmarks of a 1940s “women’s picture,” which is exactly what it’s trying to be.

The story is wisely told in flashback, with a prologue of Ann Grenville (Ann-Margaret) as she is now, aging and alone.  This will allow us to believe Ann far younger, twenty years earlier, in the middle of World War II.

Now we have Ann-Margaret in her full glory, dancing and singing into the ear of an Argentine partner, dripping with glamour, perfectly made up, dressed and coiffed.  Two soldiers arrive, John Rubinstein and Stephen Collins (playing Billy Grenville), who is smitten with Ann-Margaret immediately.  Ann coos “Speak Low” into his ear and if he weren’t completely madly in love with her already, he is now!  Forget the age difference between Ann-Margaret and Stephen Collins; yes, it’s there, but ignore it.

After this first real scene, we have had Marvin Hamlisch background music, Kurt Weill, Ann-Margaret in full fetch, what’s not to love?

And for her encore, she’s in a tiny robe having spent apparently days and nights in bed with Stephen.  The dialogue even makes fun of lesser movies of its ilk (all of the Dominick Dunne novels filmed).  Stephen wakes up hoping he’s dreaming and Ann says, “not original, but I’ll take it.”  It’s not until some pillow talk that she finds out he’s incredibly wealthy, from one of New York’s most fashionable families. 

Who should showgirl Ann-Margaret have as her showgirl pal?  Elizabeth Ashley, of course.  Brash and loud, she’s the perfect social climbing partner.  In fact, she has to educate Kansas-born Ann (the character is nee Ursula Merton) as to what the Social Register is, but Ann only loves the sweet officer she met.  And to add to the class factor?  Stephen picks Ann up at the theater one night and takes her to a nightclub where Michael Feinstein is manning the 88s.  This is where cynical John Rubinstein (as Bratsie) interrogates her, hoping to come up with a schemer and finding a genuine pearl instead. 

Unfortunately, Stephen’s mother and sisters would like to meet Ann.  Ann is naively thrilled.  Upon arriving at the Grenville manse, she’s stunned by the opulence, told by Stephen not to call it a mansion, but rather a “house” as his family does.  He warns her one last time before taking her in to meet the family.

That would be three sisters, Penny Fuller chief among them, and Claudette Colbert, a regal dream in her 80s (with a soft lens helping, but still looking fantastic). Claudette plays Mrs. Grenville initially as incredibly charming, adoring and helpful, despite a wealth of faux pas on Ann’s behalf.  That comes to a screeching halt when Ann admits to being an orphan and Claudette tells her she shows “very little respect for death” and that she herself mourns her parents still.  With Ann gone, Claudette and Penny tear her apart.  Penny says that Stephen will forget her when he goes back to the war, like he did with the last one.  “I could put the fear of God into K.K. Summerset, but not into this girl.”  The talons are out, though hidden behind needlepoint and a saccharine demeanor. 

Stephan proposes to Ann, who reluctantly accepts, but then he goes to a fortune teller who tells him he will die violently on May 5, 1955.  Even more dire is his mother’s reaction, who cares about “pride, respect, dignity” and not love.  “I don’t know what she’s told you in bed to get you to the altar,” our Maternal Minx says, “but I found out a few things about your Kansas chorus girl.  She has quite a past.”  I can’t imagine any other actress making trash sound so damn regal. 

The wedding is lively because only John and Elizabeth attend.  Naturally no Grenville’s would dream of being there.  Stephen goes back to war and Ann goes back to NYC as Mrs. Grenville, now pregnant (in real life, the Woodwards has two sons, both of whom committed suicide).  Elizabeth is in the middle of telling her to become a wife and not a mistress now when Claudette comes sweeping in.  Ann says she’s named her son after her father, and Claudette purrs out, “I’m sure we’ll all learn to accept that,” as if it’s not a smack in the face.  Ann tries to cut through the bullshit and asks why Claudette is being so helpful.  “Because you are my daughter-in-law.  That’s all.” 

Ann-Margaret turns into a social climber who uses a ladder with golden rungs, much to the annoyance of everyone, including her husband.  She’s mocked everywhere, tolerated by her mother-in-law and Stephen turns full-scale drunk.  But Annie’s got her gun.  She’s handy skeet shooting, because she and her father used to shoot rabbits, “until I got sick of rabbit pie.”  As her life becomes agonizing and her husband distant, John kills himself, leaving her with one less ally.  Stephen is even more upset than Ann over the death and pulls further away from her.  Both are having affairs and Stephen drinks constantly.  After rattling off a list of his amours, Ann holds out a bottle and says, “make love to THAT,” dropping it on the floor.  Come on, society juiciness doesn’t get better than this!  Dominick Dunne knew it and so do the creators of the miniseries. 

Temporarily, things improve when Stephen realizes he needs a change.  Ann all but steals his sister’s farm for him and he’s thrilled.  He even quits his dull bank job.  “He’s just like the man I married,” she tells Elizabeth Ashley.  She even plans him a birthday party without consulting her mother-in-law.  And they dance like they did years ago, with her singing in his ear, though his eyes are wandering.  All is perfect, at least on the surface. 

They are in London on May 5, 1955, the day he is supposed to die.  He pretends he’s scared and off to the hotel, though really he has a woman waiting for him.  “If I rang you at midnight and you didn’t answer, would that mean you were dead or in someone else’s bed?” Ann asks and tries to vamp him in the scantiest of an outfit (Ann-Margaret looks sinfully wonderful), but he begs off.  He’s had it already and intends to again with his girlfriend.  When May 6 rolls around, he’s off to the hoochie.  Ann finds out and Elizabeth advises her to get a lawyer to “scare the hell out of the Grenvilles.” 

She does, and Ann here gives an excellent performance when questioned by him.  She gets feistier with every scene, building up in both sympathy and greed.  She knows he’s off in Kansas buying a plane, but doesn’t know he’s also investigating her past.  He finds her ex-husband running a diner there.  He hasn’t seen her since he went off to war and she disappeared.  Oh, and they have never gotten divorced!  This gives her character an interesting twist.  She appeared so warm and winning, not at all a social climber when she met Stephen, at least not until she actually married him, but did she have designs all along?

They go to their country house and the caretaker tells them there has been a break-in on the property, as well as on other properties.  Stephen is concerned, (arming the guns) but not Ann.  She has a party to attend for the Duchess of Windsor and servants to order around (“I hate bottles on tables,” she barks).  On the way to the party, in pouring rain, Stephen mentions he’s been to Maplewood, Kansas.  They argue about each other’s affairs as he drinks and drives. 

At the party, British showtunes play in the background as the Grenvilles pay homage to the Duchess (Sian Phillips) and everyone gossips about Ann.  Lord So-and-so flirts with her, much to the delight of the assembled crowd and she has the piano player do “The Lady is a Tramp.”  That is nothing compared to the moment when she hears Stephen on the phone with his lover and she hurls a glass at him.  They fight and he slaps her as a crowd assembles.  “I think the curtain has come down on our showgirl,” one quips.  “Poor Alice,” the other says, referring to Claudette.  They are rough, these society ladies!

Back home, the two argue again.  She sets her terms for a divorce, but he brings up Maplewood again, this time noting the previous husband and telling her she has no right to anything if they divorce.  This is the first time sheer terror is written on Ann’s face as she fights to get out of his clutches (heard by the kid and the maid).  Stephen stops when he hears a noise, thinking it’s that prowler he’s so worried about. 

I don’t need to tell you what happens next.  You have all seen enough nighttime soap operas to know.  You can probably even guess at the howling wind, the thunder the rain, the dog, the kid and the maid seeing shadows, all of it.  Stephen checks out the property and then spits out a good night to Ann, who is, of course, too wound up to sleep.  She goes downstairs to get the gun Stephen prepared for her to ward off the prowler and then Stephen hears her howling in terror.  He rushes in from the shower and she shoots him point blank.  The maid finds her crying over the body and then Ann calls the police.  And also the slimy lawyer she had gone to see.  He coaches her on what to do when the police arrive. 

What happens next is done very well and cautiously.  We alternate between the fracas on Long Island and the Grenville house in the city.  Claudette has a private cry and then calls the Governor.  However, it’s going to take a lot of pull to blunt the fact that Ann tells the police “I shot him,” which her lawyer told her not to say, though she does make sure to howl that it was a prowler.  Lucky for her, the nurse sedates her and she can’t talk to the police.  With her daughters around her, Claudette takes care of hiring a doctor for Ann, getting her to the city and issuing all sorts of orders. 

With Ann in a hospital in the city, she can be watched and kept from the press.  Her only visitor is her lawyer, who tells her people are “just respecting your grief.”  She knows the truth: she’s been dropped. 

Claudette informs her daughters that they are to believe it was an accident and always support Ann, hoping that eventually another scandal will grab people’s attention.  They will fall in line and take her orders, down to what the maids are to wear to the funeral!  The police have no idea what they are up against as every single person they interview, down to the Duchess of Windsor, says Ann and Stephen were “an ideal couple.”  Claudette’s reach has assured all of society fall into line.  Her weapons are not subtle: she tells Millicent Hearst on the phone to tell reporters to stop or she won’t give any more money to various charities.  She dispatches daughter Penny Fuller to the hospital to deal with Ann.  She’s cagey with her information, calmly doing her needle point and whispering to Ann, all a-howl again, that the family thinks she’s guilty. 

Then comes the showdown.  Claudette arrives at the hospital.  She tells Ann she will “stand behind you until the day I die, as will my daughters.”  The room is dark, with lighting just on the faces of the ladies and they have a very civil conversation.  Ann realizes for the first time that Claudette has gone to extraordinary lengths to protect her, even though she thinks she’s guilty.  Ann sticks to her story that she’s innocent, but Claudette doesn’t really care.  She just wants the scandal to go away, and that means sticking by her.  Ann realizes she’s lost this war, and the terms from Claudette are complete silence forever and devoted widowhood. 

A grand jury is convened and it’s not great for Ann.  The police relate how she was sedated and whisked away.  The maid has memory problems.  The prowler changes his story.  And then Ann takes the stand, where she’s asking when her affairs started.  She remains a remarkable sang froid, admitting in her past she had slept around, but when Stephen showed up (cue “Speak Low” in the background), all of that was over.  It’s one of those classic witness stand weepers and Ann nails it.  The verdict is “death by accident,” as if it was going to go any other way. 

The only person who pays respects to Ann is loyal Elizabeth Ashley.  “What if they had found me guilty?” Ann asks.  “Darling, look around you, they have.”  In fact, two years go by and Ann remains a recluse until one day, out of the blue, Claudette sends for her.  Society’s collective jaw drops.  “That was quite an entrance,” Claudette says.  “I mean it, that took courage.”  “I’ve had worse audiences,” Ann snaps.  Claudette suggests that Ann leave the city, for the sake of her son.  It’s quite an impassioned plea and it works.  Ann is off to travel the world.  The narration tells us that her son felt deserted, but that seems a bit out of touch with the script. 

From there, Ann drinks and sleeps her way around, never entirely forgotten, but not by the right people.  She has her gigolo lovers and packs of cigarettes.  It’s in the middle of a session of both that she gets the call that her son has killed himself.  “Now you know how it feels to lose a son.  Do you know what day it was that he took his life?  Mother’s Day.  That was his final statement to you,” Claudette says at the graveside.  Ann admits defeat, but that’s not what Claudette wants.  They have all lost. 

It comes as no surprise that both of the leading ladies were nominates for Emmys and Claudette Colbert even won a Golden Globe.  These are two delicious performances.  Ann-Margaret certainly has more fun, getting to play the harpies and the society dame (as well as being in nearly every scene), and she tears into it like no other performance in her career.  But, Claudette, in a far smaller part, is every bit her competition, giving her final performance pitched where all of her classic performances were given, way above anyone else’s.  1987 was the perfect year for something like this.  The miniseries was still going strong (we haven’t hit the ice berg of “War and Remembrance” yet) and a story as juicy as this with the two stars, well, it’s television nirvana!  Everyone would have had to work triply as hard to ruin it, but luckily no one did and this one sits grandly atop the pile of romance miniseries about tough dames and murder.

Categories: Romance Miniseries

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