Sugar and Spice

Television biographies are somewhat specious undertakings. If the subject is alive, the spin is almost always a gosh-things-were-bad-but-ain't-life-grand-now. If the subject is dead, it gets worse. There are BravoProfiles, a marginally arty series, Lifetime's Intimate Portraits, invariably about women, VH1's rocking Legends and Behind the Scenes, and the granddaddy of them all, A&E's Biography.

My officemate Marjorie sniffed about Biography one day when I was going on about it. "Who are some of these people and why should they be profiled?" Good question; maybe some shouldn't. Most people probably have little interest in Doris Duke, but I found the truly eccentric heiress fascinating -- a golden girl of the Thirties and tobacco scion who found pleasure in singing in Harlem choirs as well as adopting adults as children. You don't get much more outré than that.

If truth in advertising were applied here, the word "voyeur" would be replacing "biography." We all know from school that "biography" suggests tedious recitation of dry events. In the world of television, the word has come to mean a one-hour slice of life with all the juicy parts. These biography shows usually produce a warm, well-rounded picture of the subject with an attendant hint of scandal. What they seldom do is probe any deeper than the surface interest. They also tend to play fast and loose with footage and photographs, using them illustratively out of context, creating a confusing image of the star's life. Stock footage is often mixed in for added detail, but as my young niece asked me, "How did they know to have the cameras around?" How indeed. It was tough to explain.

None of this deters me from watching these shows. A fan of biographies since I learned to read, my voyeuristic appetite is well-fed by their proliferation. On Biography, A&E features "Showbiz Sweethearts" week, October 18-23, with a lineup of female television and screen stars whose perky or seductive images became synonymous with their names.

Doris Day: Misunderstood and more talented than she gets credit for.

This series begins with Doris Day: It's Magic (10/18, 9pm and 11pm; 10/19, 1am), for a two-hour episode. The effervescent singer moved from singing with big bands to playing a perennial virgin in fluffy screen comedies to starring on television and promoting animal rights. (If you can't place Day as a singer, try "Que Sera Sera.") Along the way, marriages fell apart, financés went awry, and the IRS came knocking. It's Day's own story, but it is one that will be repeated too often in subsequent segments by different women.

Women like Dinah Shore (10/19, 7pm and 11pm), for example. Though best remembered as one of the first women to successfully host a variety show, Dinah was also something of a back-porch feminist. She wrote cookbooks, was a single mother, supported numerous charities, and was a major figure in raising the profile of women's golf. Not bad for someone who is sometimes dismissed as Burt Reynolds' former squeeze. (Anyone else remember her singing, "See the yooou-S-A in your Chevrolet"?) Shore was a classic Southern gal with more gumption that she's been given credit for.

It's taken Ann-Margret (10/20, 7pm, 11pm) most of her life to recoup her early, girly image but she's done it with considerable aplomb and kept her marriage intact. She was groomed for stardom in the old Las Vegas style of big hair and cheesecake photos. Unfortunately, just as she began to hit her stride as an entertainer, times changed and Ann-Margret's sultry brand of peek-a-boo sexiness was wildly out of step with the Swinging Sixties. Not until Mike Nichols cast her in Carnal Knowledge in 1971 did her career turn around, even though she was about to face her most difficult decade. In retrospect, Ann-Margret's vibrant screen presence is undeniable in any decade. Weezer and I watch Viva Las Vegas at least twice a year and each time we are knocked out by her energy and charisma. Weezer likes a couple of other things about her too, but that's Weezer.

Although I never "got" Debbie Reynolds(10/21, 7pm, 11pm), I will make a confession. I am -- inexplicably -- a secret fan of the "Tammy" movies, both Reynolds' and the Sandra Dee ones. That, plus reading about Hollywood in the Fifties lately has given me a new respect for Reynolds and her indominatible and, well, unsinkable spirit. She has weathered scandal, divorce, and bankruptcy with grace and humor. (When prying reporters appeared at her doorstep after husband Eddie Fisher left her for Elizabeth Taylor, she showed up holding baby Carrie Fisher and with diaper pins on her shirt. That's chutzpah.) Go, Debbie!

Mary, Mary, Mary Tyler Moore (10/22, 7pm, 11pm) hardly requires introduction. Of all the women profiled, her life has been played out on television so much she seems like one of the neighbors or a loved co-worker. Divorce, death, diabetes, and the inability to recoup her Seventies television success have plagued Moore's last couple of decades, though she perseveres.

Finally, Donna Reed (10/23, 7pm, 11pm) was another actress whose shampoo-clean image as a TV mom belied her intelligence, talent (she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in From Here To Eternity) and political commitment (she was "Another Mother for Peace" in the Vietnam era). She was a pioneer in television as one of the first women to have her own production company. The Donna Reed Show enjoyed a successful run from 1958-1966, and when she was later unceremoniously dumped from Dallas, she sued and won.

Finally, Connie Francis (10/25) and Carol Burnett (10/29) are profiled the following week on Biography. They're not listed as "Showbiz Sweethearts," but like the six women above, both have life stories that are quite different from their public personas. Isn't that what you wanted to know?

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