Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Betty Ford Story, The (1987) TV Movie


Published: March 2, 1987

''The Betty Ford Story,'' on ABC tonight at 9, is one of those sui-generis television presentations that command attention more for their subject matter than their artistic merit. As a portrait of alcohol and prescription-drug addiction, the film is carefully subdued and, despite its messy subject, insistently tasteful. But as a glimpse into the private life of a former and very much admired First Lady of the United States, ''The Betty Ford Story'' is genuinely compelling and an unusual profile in courage. Holding it together, powerfully yet sensitively, is the performance of Gena Rowlands in the title role.

Based on Mrs. Ford's 1978 autobiography and on subsequent interviews with the Ford family, Karen Hall's script limits the television scenario to the last chapter of the book. The film opens in 1978 as Mrs. Ford enters the alcoholic rehabilitation center of a naval medical center in California. Shaken and wary, she still insists that she does not have a drinking problem. The scene returns to 1974, a time when Betty Ford was urging Vice President Gerald Ford (Josef Sommer) to retire from politics, only to be frustrated by the unfolding Watergate scandal. After Richard Nixon's resignation, Gerald Ford would be President and his family would be pushed further into the public glare. During the next four years, Mrs. Ford, already taking ''so many pills for so many aches,'' would sink gradually into serious addiction.

Along with Robert Papazian, David L. Wolper (''Roots'') is an executive producer. His son, Mark Wolper, is the producer. And the distinguished television veteran David Greene (''Friendly Fire,'' ''Fatal Vision'') is the director.

Care has clearly been taken. The underlying candor is modulated with an understandable respect for the woman concerned. Passing references are made to her earlier years, especially to her dancing ambitions. She obviously is a wife who has trouble adapting to the fact that, because of his career, her husband is required to devote enormous time away from home. When Mr. Ford decides to run for the Presidency in 1976, his wife complains: ''What am I going to do? Ask you not to run? You wouldn't bow out and you know it.''

In addition to suffering from arthritis, Mrs. Ford discovers she has breast cancer and has to undergo a mastectomy. Later, she will have to cope with two assassination attempts on her husband. Worn out by the demands of campaigning in yet another election, she finally begins retreating more into her own silent, alcohol-supported world. Her family is stunned to find merely human the woman they had always taken for granted as the gracious and unshakeable center of their world. Accepting that something has gone terribly wrong, they gather as a group and, with professional help in what is called an intervention process, bluntly insist that she seek help.

There are no ''Lost Weekend'' horrors in this depiction of an alcoholic. Mrs. Ford becomes noticeably haggard-looking and grows testy about criticism. We see her momentarily being clumsy or nodding off discreetly at public functions. But the more embarrassing incidents take place off camera. Her children talk of finding her passed out, or of her chipping a tooth in a fall. There is no doubt, however, about the seriousness of her problem, and when Mr. Ford does face the fact, the scene is tremendously moving as Ms. Rowlands, back to the camera, simply breaks into piercingly painful sobbing.

At the end of the film, Betty Ford appears herself, delivering a ''message of hope'' to those who may have similar problems and advising them to call Alcoholics Anonymous or the National Council on Alcoholism. Mrs. Ford, Gerald Ford and their family deserve unstinting respect for their courage, decency and exemplary concern for others.

The Betty Ford Story (1987) TV Movie
Cast: Gena Rowlands, Josef Sommer, Nan Woods, Concetta Tomei, Jack Radar, Joan McMurtrey, Kenneth Tigar, Laura Leigh Hughes, Daniel McDonald, Brian McNamara, Bradley Whitford, Michael Greene, Stanley Grover

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