The Red News Diaries

Stalinists between the sheets: Lillian Hellman (Judy Davis) and Dashiell Hammett (Sam Shepard) in A&E's Dash & Lilly

Communism in America is still an open wound. Memoirs continue to pour from the opened FBI and European archives as well as the second and third generations of red scare veterans, and even those old foes Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers are going at it once again. (Sam Tanenhaus's massive, well-received Chambers biography garnered critical raves two years back; Tony Hiss's memories of his father are set to appear next month.) Perhaps more surprising, all the old tricks of media manipulation have come into play as well: Apparently attempting to win our hearts and minds, ABC reportedly skewed coverage of crowd reactions to Elia Kazan's honorary Oscar so as to minimize the size of what was by many accounts a substantial protest. And let us not forget the letters column and the op-ed pages of our nation's newspapers, the last bastions for notions like "Red China" and "the Communist menace," where true believers can weigh in about America's need to stand firm. You thought the Cold War was over? Think again.

In light of all that, one must at the very least commend the courage of everyone associated with the A&E network's Dash & Lilly, which premieres May 31 at 7:00 p.m. Not since Reds has so much starpower gathered around a lefty topic capable of sending people raging back to their backyard bomb shelters. Compared with NBC's recent gutless miniseries on the '60s, which managed simultaneously to stroke every single item of precious boomer nostalgia and grant every neocon objection to the decade's excess, this film's refusal to kneel before the HUAC seems practically radical. But alas, it's not: Rather than Warren Beatty's self-aggrandizing Old Left fantasies (for him, John Reed and his cohorts were pop rebels, redefining art and sex in the same manner as the New Hollywood of the 1970s), we get surpassingly restrained and self-possessed filmmaking that can't escape its channel's genteel atmosphere. Directed by Kathy Bates and featuring Judy Davis and Sam Shepard in the title roles, along with a strong array of second-line talent, Dash & Lilly never loses its head or overdramatizes. Instead it prefers to nestle comfortably alongside Jane Austen and the Victorian social novelists who fill A&E's programming.

What the film needs is some of the director's own passion, the uncontrollable and unappeasable appetite for experience she exudes in front of the camera. But the dominant tone here is dark: small rooms, sharp words, thrown bottles. Davis and Shepard, turning in dour, repressed performances, capture the emotional essence of a world in which a smart remark meant far more than a fat royalty check. Shepard slides easily from the cowboys and loners he has long played to the man whose prose taught those men a lesson in emotional restraint (Hemingway learned as much from Hammett about measuring repression sentence by sentence as vice versa). He understands this '30s hero's flinty self-rule as well as the writer's often senseless obedience to his own standards of rectitude.

By all accounts a frustratingly inaccessible man, Hammett set his course by a compass no one else could see. Despite a wide variety of radical experiences in the '30s, he enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II at the age of 47 and served in the Aleutians throughout the conflict's duration. Later, a veteran of both wars, he was subpoenaed by the HUAC to turn over the Civil Rights Congress's donor list, which he did not in fact possess. He refused on principle, went to jail, and, a decade later, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery at his request. If in early scenes Shepard seems in danger of turning that self-will into mere sonority (Hammett as conscience/moral authority/voice of doom), by the end of the movie he has succeeded in the difficult task of inhabiting a man whose most salient characteristic may well have been absence. After completing The Thin Man in 1933, Hammett would not have another word published until his death in 1961.

Davis, meanwhile, has much the harder row to hoe. Lambasted since her famous squabble in the '70s with Mary McCarthy as a lying, mean-spirited harridan, (and, more recently, treated unflatteringly by writer and onetime valet Rosemary Mahoney) Hellman has yet to be rehabilitated. But Davis understands her Waspishness, the prickly quick wit--necessary armor in the brutal men's worlds of movies and theater through which she moved--that made her irresistible and hateful at once. She seems like an actual writer, someone devoted to and enslaved by a craft, rather than some screenwriter's self-projection saddled with a typewriter every so often so we don't forget what it is she supposedly does. Amazingly enough, Davis has made Hellman into a kind of heroine; her blend of devotion, feistiness, and self-protection seems the only logical means of staying with Hammett and maintaining her sanity at the same time.

But there's still that fundamental lack of passion here--a political as well as an aesthetic problem. Bebe Neuwirth, as Dorothy Parker, all-purpose gal pal and occasional source of dry wit, is wasted; David Paymer, as Hellman's first husband, has a hangdog slump to his shoulders in his first appearance. (Sure enough, he's dumped in the very next scene.) Yet if anything animated American radicals in the '30s, it was an abundance of passion: for international peace, for class and racial justice. Though Hammett was a corrosive ironist who diverged from the party line far too often for its organizers' pleasure, he also never stopped being the corrosive satirist whose Red Harvest is usually read as a savage indictment of capitalist social relations. That quality of belief, Hammett's fundamental faith in equality and fair play, gets less attention here than it deserves. He may not have been an orthodox radical, but he was fervently committed to everything from the legendary lefty tabloid PM to combating anti-Semitism; when the Republican Party became more Marxist than the CP in the late '40s, he told his daughters he would happily become a Republican.

Indeed, the only real failure in Dash & Lilly results from that timid engagement with politics. What should Hammett have done when called before the committee? The film doesn't presume to ask. Hellman's famous "I will not cut my conscience to fit this year's fashions" letter to the HUAC, a genuine act of political courage, is so underplayed here that you can't help thinking, What was the big deal? Too many questions are closed-captioned for the historically impaired: "You see, the Russians were our allies then. FDR wanted help promoting public support," Hellman clumsily explains when the patriotism of one of her wartime film scripts is called into question. Can anyone who tunes this in be unaware of that fact? As far as I can tell, the film has no politics at all--rather a strange choice when the book underpinning it, Joan Mellen's study of the couple's relationship, was itself red-baited when reviewed in the New York Times a mere two years ago (Terry Teachout called the couple "the Nick and Nora of the limousine left, the ultimate fun couple of a decade when martinis before breakfast were de rigueur and mass murder was politically correct so long as the K.G.B. was picking the victims"--and that in the first sentence). What does Kathy Bates think of their beliefs and their commitments? Dash & Lilly doesn't move past this question so much as evade it, evacuating a love story of the context that makes it more than just two writers who make engaging drunks.

Yet in the end, maybe the film's greatest gesture of respect lies in its refusal to psychoanalyze these characters. At no point is anyone's childhood ushered into the room to do the work of explication, nor are sexual traumas or any low-rent Freud hurried onstage. Both major characters are allotted the hard-shelled emotional integrity they would have wanted for themselves. "Why do you trash all the good things that come along in life?" an exasperated Hellman asks. "Ah, I don't know," Hammett replies. "Some people are just perverse." If not the act of political courage one might dream of, this film shows a resolute deference to the hidden bonds beneath its protagonists' 30-year combat--the greatest mystery of all in this case--that feels like a homage of its own.

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