When Wendy Wasserstein's play An American Daughter premiered in 1997, critics deemed it superficial, suggesting that Wasserstein had failed to do justice to the multitude of political issues she had raised. The criticism also holds true for the film version of An American Daughter, which was adapted by Wasserstein herself, and which airs this month on the Lifetime network. It's not that this version lacks intelligence or sophistication. In fact, for Lifetime, which bills itself as "television for women" and specializes in docudrama (as in films "based on a true story") and romance (as in Danielle Steel adaptations and films featuring former cast members of Charlie's Angels), any story that encompasses women in politics, gay conservatives, black Jewish feminists, and the role of the media in Washington--not to mention Wasserstein's trademark wit--comes as a breath of fresh air. But the scope of An American Daughter is too ambitious for a two-hour film, and as a consequence, character development is sacrificed to the weight of so many ideas. The result, in spite of clever dialogue, feels uncomfortably similar to the Lifetime docudrama, in which the characters are vessels for the message (my husband has another family, my daughter was kidnapped by bad people, or, in this case, my career was ruined by the media).
An American Daughter is the story of a critical moment in the life of Lyssa Dent Hughes (Christine Lahti), a descendant of Ulysses S. Grant, daughter of a conservative Indiana senator, wife of a liberal sociology professor (Tom Skerritt), loving mother of two boys--and a doctor who has dedicated her career to women's health issues and has been nominated to fill the position of surgeon general. It seems all too perfect, and, sure enough, it's about to explode.
Wasserstein was inspired to write An American Daughter by events of the early Clinton era--the "Nannygate" scandal, in which Zoë Baird and then Kimba Wood lost nominations for attorney general when the press learned they had employed illegal immigrants to care for their children. This was also when the media vilified Hillary Clinton for distancing herself from the cookie-baking housewives of America. For Wasserstein's Lyssa, the troubles begin when her husband offhandedly tells a reporter that she once ignored--or at least misplaced--a jury summons. Once the media grab hold of this transgression, nothing in Lyssa's life is private. Is she overprivileged and contemptuous of women who stay home with their families? Did she hate her mother? Is she too aggressive? And what does it mean that she's pro-choice?
The process of Lyssa's public undoing is one that has become increasingly familiar to us since Wasserstein's play was first produced. Only three years later, Lyssa's story feels oddly dated. "It has nothing to do with a damn slip of paper [the jury summons]," her husband tells her. "It's the women of America who are angry at you. You're pretty, you've got two great kids, you're successful, you're thin, and you have a great soul. Let's face it, doll, in the heartland that means you are one privileged, ungrateful-to-her-mother, conniving bitch." This does seem like one plausible explanation for Lyssa's treatment by the press and the public, and certainly a topic worthy of examination. And yet, in light of the media frenzy, partisan venom, and special prosecutor excesses that characterized the Clinton impeachment (and a slew of other investigations of mostly male public officials), this they-hate-me-because-I'm-beautiful analysis feels insufficient.
On the other hand, Wasserstein's outrage at the public's treatment of the woman who wants to "have it all" may fail to win us over simply because we never get to know Lyssa well enough to formulate any theories of our own about her. At the beginning of the film, we're told she's superwoman; as the story unfolds, we get at least a nagging feel-ing that she should have answered that jury summons. But our doubts--like our sympathies--stem not from the film's examination of her complexity as a character, but rather from our understanding that the press never does get the private story quite right. I found myself wondering if Lyssa's thinness as a character was intentional--if we weren't supposed to know what to make of her, just as the press doesn't know the real Lyssa Dent Hughes, just as we don't know as much about Zoë Baird or Hillary Clinton as we're led to believe we do. But this, too, would be unsatisfying.
After all, the appeal of a film--or a play--that deals with political issues is that it gives us the opportunity to examine issues through the lens of character rather than theory. Wasserstein did this powerfully in The Heidi Chronicles, in which she traced the developments of the women's movement through the life of one woman. When I saw The Heidi Chronicles in 1991 as a college senior, I left the theater thinking not about the rhetoric of women's lib, but about real life--my own--and how it would be affected by feminism. In An American Daughter, we are never allowed to connect with the characters enough to gain that kind of insight. Ultimately, we don't really care whether Lyssa is a victim of the media or actually arrogant enough in her assertion of privilege that we ought to resent her.
In spite of their valiant efforts, Lahti, who convincingly cornered the market on the complexity of feminism as Dr. Kate Austin on CBS's Chicago Hope, and Lynne Thigpen, who plays Kate's best friend, the black, Jewish, childless oncologist Judith Kaufman, are both defeated by a confining script. When Judith admits to Lyssa that she wants to die because she can't conceive a child, Lahti makes the strain on the resources of friendship palpable for a moment, but then we're rushed on to something else--just as we are when Lyssa confronts her husband about his adultery, or challenges the journalist who has broken her story. It may not matter to the media who Lyssa really is, but if I'm to care about her fate, it matters to me, and these underdeveloped relationships seem to hold the answers.
The most inadequately handled--and potentially interesting--of these is the relationship between Lyssa and her husband's former student, twenty-something feminist author Quincy Quince, who conveniently arrives on the scene and capitalizes on Lyssa's publicity to get some of her own. "Dr. Hughes is a prisoner of her gender... . The best intentions in females often become the seeds of their own destruction," Quincy says on the talk show circuit. One of Wasserstein's signature preoccupations is this clash between two generations of feminists, but where in The Heidi Chronicles she showed real differences between the early feminists who felt they had to choose between career and family, and those who followed, in An American Daughter the clash seems reduced to caricature. When, in classic Wasserstein style, Quincy describes herself as part of the generation who likes to come home "to a warm penis," and says to Lyssa, "I'll be having a wonderful life because of you," it is funny. Wasserstein is wonderful with sharp dialogue, and at moments like this, the broad strokes serve her. But surely there is more to get across than just the tired idea that the women of Lyssa's generation have struggled so that those of Quincy's can go on book tours.
The few times when the dialogue and the characters really do click left me wanting more. When Lyssa's stepmother Chubby (Cynthia Harris, the only actress who seems to be having fun in this film) says, "How can anyone be depressed when there are so many wonderful cheeses in the world?" or when Morrow, the gay conservative columnist, participates in a phone poll on whether the White House should have a cat or a dog, or when Lyssa is asked by a television interviewer why the women of America resent her, it is vintage Wasserstein.
"The women of America should concern themselves with the possibility of their reproductive rights being taken away from them," Lyssa answers with passion. "The women of America should concern themselves with the fact that their children are increasingly smoking, falling prey to drug addiction, and the rapid growth of teenage violence. The women of America should not concern themselves with my father's wives, my cooking, or my mother." As I listened to those words, I couldn't help wishing I could see the rest of that film and get to know those characters.
Toward the end of the play, the reporter who broke the story of the jury summons tells Lyssa to look on the bright side, that as per his "chaos theory of broadcasting," "whatever is happening this moment won't be happening three minutes later, so in the long run, how important is it?" Lyssa responds: "To the person it happened to, it's a lifetime. It's a whole memoir." Here, however, it wasn't.
Postscript: In February when I wrote about ABC's drama about grownups, Once and Again, I asked why television so regularly substitutes clichés for true moments of insight. Nonetheless, I stuck with Once and Again, curious to see what would come of it, and I was heartened by the quality of the season's final few episodes. Although the romantic leads (Sela Ward and Billy Campbell) remain too beautiful to believe, the supporting cast has blossomed, and the writing has become more subtle. Check it out when it returns in the fall. ¤
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