Picks and Pans Review: 'Night, Mother

updated 09/15/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/15/1986 01:00AM

It's hard criticizing this earnest screen version of Marsha Norman's 1983 Pulitzer-prize-winning play about a mother's futile 11th-hour attempt to keep her daughter from suicide. In a scant 90 minutes onstage, the blazingly intense acting duo of Kathy Bates and Anne Pitoniak laid two lives bare in a small-town living room and left audiences reeling. But what soared onstage sinks onscreen with a resounding thud. Screenwriter Norman decided to stick to two characters on one set in transposing her play to film. That forced first-time feature director Tom Moore (who staged the Broadway original) to compensate by racing his camera around the small house like a kid at an Easter egg hunt. The effect is more intrusive than energizing. A worse problem is the miscasting. Sissy Spacek, Oscar winner for Coal Miner's Daughter, is one of our ablest actresses. Without her early commitment to do the role, the movie might never have been made. But she's all wrong for the character. The daughter is an epileptic whose handicap has made her ashamed and bitterly antisocial. Abandoned by her husband and delinquent son, she lives with her wheedling, widowed mother. Kathy Bates, who created the daughter role and whose performance ranks with the theater's greatest, showed us an overweight, pasty-faced house flower with a no-bull intelligence. That characterization made believable her arguments to end her own misery. Outdoorsy to her toes, Spacek is so cuddly cute that you ache to save her, which defeats the daughter's case and the play's point. As the mother, Anne Bancroft is surprisingly effective at first. She offsets her striking lack of resemblance to Spacek by adopting a near-flawless match for Sissy's down-home twang. And she gets laughs. Searching her mind for something cheerful (revealingly, more for her own sake than her daughter's), she suggests, "Let's call a taxi and go to the A&P." Bancroft's vigorous emoting may well win an Oscar nomination, but she seems unwilling to play the mother's cruel, clutching side. Eyes flashing fire, she wants to be Mother Courage. The result is only half a performance in a movie that's merely a pale shadow of a powerhouse play. (PG-13)

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