Published: Monday, January 4, 1988
ANN JILLIAN has kept a tight rein on "The Ann Jillian Story," the television movie on NBC at 9 this evening. A year or more of skirmishing took place before Ms. Jillian settled on a teleplay by Audrey Davis Levin. Corey Allen is the director. And Ms. Jillian plays herself. The result is admirable in some ways, puzzling in others.
The film focuses on two key events in Ms. Jillian's life: her marriage to Andy Murcia, a Chicago policeman who eventually became her manager; and her battle with breast cancer, for which she had a double mastectomy in 1985. Ms. Jillian is obviously a determined woman. Since her widely publicized operation, she has returned to performing and is active in various cancer prevention programs.
The puzzling part of "The Ann Jillian Story" has to do with the performer's career. We see her in the first scenes as a kind of show-business gypsy, traveling wherever a song-and-dance gig can be found. But she is not, apparently, your ordinary chorine. She stays in luxury hotels, even when she is down to her last couple of dollars and eating nothing but pizza. When she finally sings for Sergeant Murcia, played by Tony Lo Bianco in what looks like an homage to Tony Danza, Ms. Jillian appears to be a kind of nightclub chanteuse, in the manner of Hildegard or Edith Piaf.
Later, she gets her big break in both the road and Broadway productions of 1979's "Sugar Babies," starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, who aren't even mentioned here. The show was, of course, an exuberant tribute to the irrepressible vulgarity of vaudeville and Ms. Jillian's success stemmed as much from her statuesque figure as from her ability to sing and dance. Not long after, however, she would quite capably play the lead in television's "Mae West Story." But that movie, another celebration of pop vulgarity, isn't mentioned here either. Instead, we get, at appropriate intervals, Ms. Jillian as elegant singing star. The casual viewer is likely to come away with the impression that she was the 1980's answer to Barbra Streisand.
Otherwise, "The Ann Jillian Story" fits neatly into the special television genre specializing in uplift and inspiration. The courtship of Ann and Andy is sometimes a bit stormy but always cute. They scream a lot but are clearly meant for each other. And she has other supports, most notably her Roman Catholic religion and her Lithuanian family. Her mother is especially protective, warning Andy that he had better be good to her baby. Giving the film an extra fillip, Mom is played by Viveca Lindfors, who makes sure she steals every scene in her immediate vicinity.
The subject of breast cancer is treated with admirable candor, from the initial discovery of suspicious lumps to the painful postoperative adjustments. Warmly, even ferociously supported by husband and family, Ms. Jillian survives the ordeal admirably. But there is another element in her recovery - her driving ambition. Fearing the loss of a job, she tells her doctors that she must get back to work 11 days after the cancer operation. She tells her television bosses, "Don't let me go to surgery without knowing that I have work to come back to." A good deal of the same determination can be sensed in the way she has shaped this film. In any event, she looks healthy and glamorous and turns in a remarkably gritty performance.
A version of this review appeared in print on Monday, January 4, 1988, on section C page 18 of the New York edition.
The Ann Jillian Story (1988) TV Movie
Cast: Ann Jillian, Tony Lo Bianco, Viveca Lindfors