#44: The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom
(USA, 1993; dir. Michael Ritchie; cin. Gerry Fisher; with Holly Hunter, Beau Bridges, Swoosie Kurtz, Elizabeth Ruscio, Frankie Ingrassia, Gregg Henry, Eddie Jones, Matt Frewer, Megan Berwick, Andy Richter)
IMDb // My Full Review

"That's really the title?" someone chuckles underneath the HBO Films opening credit roll at the outset of The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom. Yes, it's really the title, with "Texas" and "Mom" exploded to screen-busting font; the title isn't just long, it's loud.

"That's really on this list?" someone titters at the outset of this entry, and yes, it's really on this list. Is it possible to love a movie as dearly as I do this one and still always be tempted to switch it off around the halfway point? It's a bit exhausting, and its structual conceits entail a comedown in tone and energy after its biting and gloriously disreputable first impressions. I do like the whole movie in the abstract, and back when I first saw it in 1994, I loved the whole thing. I felt thoroughly grateful for the daring, playfulness, and tart intelligence of screenwriter Jane Anderson, who pushes her script to lampoon the news media and the faux-sincerity of gotcha, Current Affair-type news just as much as it satirizes the tawdry, headscratching tabloid saga of Wanda Holloway, the mother of two from Channelview, Texas, who commissioned a hit on the life of one of her daughter's rivals for the high-school cheerleading squad. Or maybe the hit was on the rival's mother. Or maybe Wanda didn't actually commission the murder but bandied the possibility about so enthusiastically with someone she identified as a trafficker in felonious circles that it sure seemed like she was ordering up a killing. But maybe this man, who annually writes and annually breaks a new five-year plan to clean up his life and quell his addictions is too unreliable and hypertense a character for us to accept as a serious witness-denouncer of Wanda, who also happens to be his slickster brother's spendthrifty ex-wife. I don't think anyone quite had the details nailed down even in 1991 when the story broke, clawing its way toward the mastheads of national newspapers even as Saddam marched into Kuwait and Bush the elder rallied the troops. Positively True Adventures peeps at a lot of these newspapers, ultimately indistinguishable as mock-ups or ginuwine artifacts, and it's generally on surer ground with these kinds of nation-scaled jokes at the entire culture's expense than it is with the broader, ruder, and frankly condescending way it keeps trying to nail its cartoon version of Texan provincialism to the wall. Not that I'm above a snicker at its plaintive parodies of songs about dogs that get run over by cars, or its imputation that Wanda's choice in congregations is as garishly cynical as a tittering, secular-liberal, cable-TV audience might have wanted to see it in 1993. (She's a Missionary Baptist, entailing absolute salvation and evacuating the need for good deeds.) I like all this stuff. I've even got time, usually, for the purposely sludgy, airless fifteen minutes when the movie makes clear just how inert and gratuitous a courtroom becomes when a case this tacky comes home to roost among witless defense teams, impervious jurors, and caustic court illustrators who pencil-draw Wanda like she's Sycorax, or a rattlesnake.

Wanda is played by Holly Hunter, and her appointed nemesis, Verna Heath, is shrewdly played by Elizabeth Ruscio as Bála Károlyi in the gymnasium and Bambi everywhere else. I like that director Michael Ritchie has found a related mix of parental advocacy, steely opportunism, and "who, me?" denials of complicity in both women, even though Wanda's is in many obvious ways the crazier, more distorted version. Both women know what to do with the media's sudden if short-lived solicitude: Wanda starts calling the shots around the set for her own interview ("What are those, like, jail bars or sump'm?") and hauling her stultified daughter Shanna onto the Phil Donahue show; Verna gets a journalist to drive over to Taco Bell to pick up some chow for her whole peckish brood, because it would just be so sweet if you could do that for us. If I cotton more to Wanda than to Verna, it's probably for the same reason I had an unreasonable soft spot for the desperate, conscienceless, ring-grabbing vulgarity of Tonya Harding, as against the dainty princess act of Nancy Kerrigan, who was as bland on the ice as Tonya was excitingly brutish, incongruous, and transfixing, getting her double-axel on to the themes from Jurassic Park while everyone else went for Carmen or Saint-Saëns. Wanda also makes a better joke at her own expense, that the eventual TV movie of her life will probably star "Barbara Eden or somebody like 'at," then Verna does when she proposes Susan Lucci for Wanda.

If you've seen the movie, you know that Verna suggests Lucci as a corrective measure to Jane Anderson, playing herself, confessing that she's writing the film with Holly Hunter in mind. Verna's trailing-off "Nooo..." is a joke on one of our gamest actresses, but especially after seeing the movie, all anyone can do is scream "YES!" with or without pompoms. I'm sure I didn't fool you when I buried the lead, but Hunter's performance, full of lowbrow gusto but handled everywhere with Carnegie Mellon discipline and specificity, is an astonishing feat of caricature, not least because she pounces so enthusiastically on the crudities of the character without ever stumbling into unsympathy, to say nothing of the surprising compassion, sunny and then tremulous, with which she delivers her last two scenes. The actress and the crew clearly had fun with the cosmetic armature of the big-shouldered blouse, the "sophisticated" frosted hairdo, the pancakey white makeup, and the thin, ferocious slash of lipstick; sometimes Wanda's mouth looks like a fresh, angry papercut. But Hunter finds a real character here, no matter how slap-happy she lets herself get with Wanda's uproariously slurred consonants, her weaponlike Super Big Gulp, her hilariously misplaced nods at what she perceives as decorum (studiously pushing in her dining-room chair before the police haul her off to jail), and the rapid-fire enunciations of her anger ("Out! OUT! I don't wanna look atchoo right now" takes about one second to pronounce). Hunter's Wanda is plenty confrontational, to the audience and to the other characters, even though she and Beau Bridges have clearly done careful, mutually generous work to show off her performance without short-shrifting his. But even as she whips her head repeatedly in one of her signature 180° turns, even as she explains to her sweet but toadish husband that Shanna "getting cheerleader" is a sure-shot preface to a comfy retirement for the two of them (does she actually think this?), she emits careful Morse-code signals of Wanda's insecurities and resentments. And to the extent that it's far from a naturalized performance, she lets us see how scared she, Holly, is of Wanda, but also what a saucy, dangerous, exuberant thrill ride it is to fill these shoes. My favorite moment in this outlandishly talky performance is the long, glowering, gravestone silence that Wanda adopts when the offscreen interviewer implies some oblique censure of Wanda's upbringing; it's as withering a glare as any in The Piano, and it's as necessary as it is inevitable to reiterate one's disbelief that Hunter assembled Ada McGrath and Wanda Holloway within the same calendar year. I am trying not to let this countdown turn into the parade of actressy encomiums that regular readers have every reason to expect, but when you're as pungent and funny and steely and still somehow as fair as Hunter is in this movie, and you're so eminently quotable besides ("I'll put her on right now and you can tell her yourself how much you just don't care!"), my heart is already won. The rest of the movie has to work triple-time just to compete with the delirious, crackling horror show of our first 45 minutes with Wanda, which are the scenes that keep me coming back again and again. It's Holly's Madeline Kahn performance, cast in iron and fried in butter, with a cackle and a switchblade both within reach at all times. Whatever Clue or Young Frankenstein or The Big Lebowski is to you, Positively True Adventures is to me.

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