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TV Review: Perfect marriage of actress and role: Cybill Shepherd as Martha Stewart

Sunday, May 18, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

You don't need me to tell you that NBC's "Martha Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart" (9 p.m. tomorrow) is junk. The subject matter and genre -- unauthorized, gossipy, tabloid biopic -- ensures it will further damage the reputation of TV movies, already a wasteland of trash culture (see: last week's "Three's Company" tell-all, from the same director as this "Martha" movie).


"Martha Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart"
When: 9 p.m. tomorrow on NBC.
Starring: Cybill Shepherd


But here's the more important question: Even though it's one more for the scrap heap of pop culture detritus, is it a guilty pleasure? Occasionally. There are some so-bad-they're-good lines in the script by Suzette Couture, based on the book "Martha Inc." by Christopher Byron.

For the real Stewart, this is decidedly not a good thing.

Cybill Shepherd plays Stewart as a raving egoist, although she attempts to affect the patented Stewart cadence only in scenes where Stewart is filming episodes of her syndicated television show. Usually, she just plays the domestic diva as a demanding, shrill, high-strung control freak.

"What's all this crap?" Stewart asks, standing in the aisle at Kmart, where executives introduce the first products to bear her name. The bed sheets have an insufficient thread count.

"I hate touching this, let alone lying on it," she says. "Just because Kmart sells inexpensive products doesn't mean they can't be beautiful. That's why I'm here, not to sink to your level, but to raise you to mine."

Too bad that kind of juicy dialogue is so infrequent.

Generally, the film tries to explore what makes Martha tick, blaming her demanding father for making her the she-devil she's become. "Martha Inc." shows her to be so business savvy, she introduces two Time Warner executives to the concept of synergy.

"The series is meant to prop up my brand," Stewart tells a TV distributor.

The film acknowledges how that brand has been tarnished of late, and although it does indict her, it doesn't convict her of illegal activity in her stock dealings. Instead, it just shows her having a nightmare about being in jail.

Shepherd, who gained her own reputation as a troublemaking actress during her years on "Moonlighting" and "Cybill," is an appropriate choice for the title role. She certainly thinks so.

"I felt I was the perfect person to play her because of my power, and a lot of that power came in the past from anger," Shepherd said in a recent teleconference with reporters. "On 'Moonlighting,' I played rage brilliantly because I had a lot of anger. We're both blond, both started as models, we were both desperate to get out of where we were raised and transformed ourselves. I also feel we are two of the most famous women in the world, and I know what it's like to be that famous. I know the loneliness of it."

Shepherd called Stewart "a genius with frailties and problems and demons to dance with, as we all do. I admire her tremendously. ... She's a very complicated character. I have a lot of sympathy for her. She has this incredible career, and yet she loses everything."

Shepherd met Stewart about seven years ago, and she said the domestic diva "has a very regal bearing.

"When I thought about playing her, I imagined myself as Queen Elizabeth I, you know, 'Off with your head.' "

Though it seems unlikely, Shepherd said she hopes viewers of "Martha Inc." will come away from it with a sympathetic take on Stewart.

"I think it shows a lot of vulnerability," Shepherd said. "Yes, she snaps at people, she has a temper," but she said those are traits found in varying degrees in everyone.

Shepherd bristles at press accounts of Stewart's insider trading allegations.

"She's been described as being trussed up and roasted like a partridge," she said. "They didn't do that to Kenneth Lay [of Enron] or the criminals at ImClone."

Never mind that Lay is not known for cooking and decorating, so there would be no reason to make such allusions. Nevertheless, Shepherd found some Stewart coverage to be humiliating and denigrating.

"I love the press, but the press can't love you all the time," she said. "I've had lies printed about me. Let's put it this way, on 'Moonlighting,' Bruce Willis did much worse things than I was doing and I was branded the difficult one!"

At this point in the interview, I had to agree: Shepherd is the perfect person to play Martha Stewart.

You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to TV Forum.

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