It's not a good thing

NBC's Martha Stewart biopic presents Cybill Shepherd as a near-demonic entity. But the show ignores the weirdly masculine qualities that make Martha so appealing to so many women.

Published May 19, 2003 8:00PM (EDT)

Martha Stewart has been in serious hot water for the past year, which has rendered her flavorful and juicy, just right for a savory salad or a creamy puréed soup. If Martha is on the hot seat for long enough, she might even be tender enough for skewering and grilling with sprigs of rosemary, or marinating in a delightful wasabi dressing, the perfect appetizer for a patio dinner party on a warm spring night.

NBC, for one, is serving Martha cold with a zesty dollop of melodrama in the new made-for-TV movie "Martha Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart" (Monday, May 19, at 9 p.m.). This biopic starring Cybill Shepherd is delightfully cartoonish, but it fails to capture the reserved intensity and focus that make Martha Stewart her own invention -- and a wildly popular invention, at that.

The fun -- and the trouble -- starts with Cybill Shepherd. But before your mind races at the idea of Shepherd, rumored to be vainglorious, self-centered and difficult to work with, playing Stewart, rumored to be vainglorious, self-centered and difficult to work with, let the actress set the record straight. As she told "Entertainment Tonight," "I felt that I was the perfect person to play her because of my power, and a lot of my power has come in the past from anger. On 'Moonlighting' I played anger brilliantly, because I have a lot of anger. I felt that we were both blondes, we both started as models, and we were both desperate to get out of where we were raised and transform ourselves. Also, I feel as if we are two of the most famous women in the world. I know what it is like to be that famous. I know the loneliness of it. I know the feeling of the power, and I know what it's like to have it suddenly turn on you."

But humility isn't the only thing that Shepherd and Stewart have in common -- they also share a taste for the simple pleasures in life. Shepherd told CNBC, "I've tried out her recipes. I mean, I've had my cook [try them out,] because I have no time to cook. And they were very delicious."

If Shepherd went so far as to have one of her assistants give her cook copies of some of Stewart's recipes, you can only imagine the work that must have gone into preparing for this role! But by the time the press kit arrived, replete with a nutcracker and two walnuts -- perhaps a tribute to Martha's love of simple foods? -- I began to think that NBC's flick might offer a compassionate view of the much maligned homemaker turned media mogul.

That deluded thought set up the high comedy of the opening scenes rather nicely. Even if you generally shy away from dramatized celebrity stories and don't give an acorn squash about Martha Stewart, I have to strongly recommend the first absurd 20 minutes of "Martha Inc."

The first scene opens on Cybill-as-Martha speeding up to a New York curb in her SUV. She strides out of her car, looking intense and determined. Cut to the set of "Martha Stewart Living," where the staff screams at each other, "All right, people, she's in the building! Let's go!" and "I've got Bosc and Bartlett, which one do you think she'd like?" The response: "Whichever one we don't choose!"

Cybill-as-Martha busts in the door, chirping, "Hello, everyone! Did you get the ginger from Morocco and the cinnamon from Sri Lanka?" and "My limo driver was late -- get a new one!" and "I just want it done correctly! It's a food show. I get it, why don't they?" Action! Cybill's face melts into a calm, soothing Martha demeanor, smiling Cheshire-like into the camera. "Hi, I'm Martha Stewart. And today, on 'Martha Stewart Living,' we are going to poach pears in red wine. The results are really delicious."

Cut! Cybill-as-Martha glares at the wine bottles in front of her. "Who opened three bottles of wine? Do you know how much a good bottle of red wine costs? And for God's sake, did I not ask for Merlot?!"

At this point I'm wondering how NBC has the nerve to take on a woman who allegedly pinned landscaper Matthew Munnich against a pole with her Jeep Cherokee, then sued the National Enquirer for publishing a psychologist's opinion that she had a "borderline personality" -- and won a settlement from the tabloid.

But there's no time for such flights of fancy. Suddenly, "Martha Inc." transports us back in time, to when Martha was 9. Remember Nellie on "Little House on the Prairie"? That's Martha. A perfectionist and a competitive brat, she purposefully gives her friend a bad cake recipe and then sells her own cake to the girl's customer instead. "I'm going to be famous!" she screeches.

Remember when Nellie pretended she couldn't walk, and Laura pushed her down a steep hill in her wheelchair? Sadly, nothing like that happens. Martha flounces away in her blond braids, a lifetime of fabric swatches and heirloom tomatoes in her sights.

Next, we meet up with Martha when she's in high school. Remember Reese Witherspoon's character in "Election"? That's Martha. She's prissy and overzealous and stays up late at night sewing exact replicas of the clothing she spots on the rich girls at school. Now, I don't know about you, but where I'm from, ultra-hot, stylish blond girls are not generally unpopular. Martha must have grown up in the same town as Britney Spears' bodacious but unpopular character in "Crossroads."

In the next scene, we meet Martha's father, Eddie Kostyra. The first thing he says to Martha is "Where the hell have you been?" and it's all downhill from there.

This is when I started wondering who wrote this version of events in Martha's life. Luckily, the publicist had included a copy of Christopher Byron's bestselling book, on which the biopic is based. Let's peruse a passage from this even-handed portrayal, shall we?

"Those who knew Eddie Kostyra recall him as a braggart and a bully, who couldn't hold a job, who drank too much, and who would stagger around the house, yelling at anyone who came near him ... By contrast, Martha's mother, for whom she was named, was a coldly disengaged housewife ... Together, the two made the perfect couple for a lifetime of abuse: Eddie, the aggressive, stern husband angry at the world and ever on the lookout for a dog to kick ... and Martha Sr., the resentful, sullen, peasantlike wife..."

Can you imagine having your family described by an author who has no problem stating that a person is "ever on the lookout for a dog to kick"? Passages like those can almost make you feel sorry for Martha.

Eventually, of course, Martha screws business partners, blows off her family for work, and manipulates her way into riches. In one scene, she simultaneously alienates her business partner, Norma, and her husband, Andy.

Norma: "I think we're doing fine as we are."

Martha: "Well, we are doing fine, but since when is fine good enough? We could be running this town!"

Andy: "What can I eat here, huh?"

Martha: "Nothing! Stop it! That's for the clients!"

Andy: "So what are Lexi and I supposed to eat?"

Martha: "Maybe you could order a pizza."

Later, Martha shows up at a Time office filled with men in suits with a check for $85 million, then we cut straight to her on the set of her show, saying to the camera, "You know, nutcracking is not as difficult as it seems ... It's actually very simple." That explains the walnuts and nutcracker, anyway. While her move to raise so much money by rallying investors around a public offering was actually groundbreaking and courageous, her acumen is undercut with the implication, campy though it is, that a woman who fights for power in a man's world is somehow a direct threat to masculinity.

Shepherd doesn't help matters much by playing Stewart with the same shrieky, foot-stomping subtlety she brought to "Moonlighting." Not only is Shepherd far too recognizable as herself to call Martha Stewart to mind in any serious way, she plays the role with the showy, bratty, melodramatic anger of a spoiled actress, not the intimidating, deep-throated self-confidence of a businesswoman who whisks obstacles out of the way without much fanfare. The Martha we've come to know, and ever so slightly fear, the Martha of Kmart commercials and the magazine and the CBS show, doesn't seem like the sort of diva who enjoys calling attention to herself. In fact, she seems very reserved and slightly cold, but only in a way that suggests she loves chows and petunias a little bit more passionately than people.

True, there is something chilling about the way she rips the gills out of softshell crabs while they're still alive, as she did on a recent show, murmuring instructions in that calm, deep voice of hers. "Take a pair of kitchen shears like this, and first thing you do is cut off this part of the crab." Um, you mean its face, Martha? But even when she's interrupting her guests and barely making eye contact with them, that's part of her appeal. If she had the syrupy demeanor of, say, Kathie Lee Gifford, it would be harder to take her or her projects quite as seriously.

In fact, Martha's understated, almost masculine affectations -- and her no-nonsense attitude, which always hints that she'd rather be winterizing her garden than chatting pointlessly with you -- are completely lost on Shepherd and the creators of "Martha Inc.," yet theyre one of the greatest strengths of her brand. While Kmart executives may have worried that Martha's divorce would scar her so-called family image, devoted fans and viewers recognize something focused and passionate in Martha, some flavor of intensity that makes husbands and children entirely beside the point. This is a woman whose devotion to hard work is an essential to her character, and whose ability to set everything aside and concentrate on the task at hand, to forget the small talk and spruce up the flower arrangement and make sure the mint tea is icy cold, is central to her allure. After all, what is Martha selling but an escape into the little details of life? Housewives with difficult marriages or challenging relationships with their children need not become sullen and sad, trudging around the house in sweatpants. Salvation is possible, via découpage boxes and gingham seat-cushion covers and daffodil bulbs.

Needless to say, when you prefer Depression-era glass to your fellow human beings, you pay a price. But tune in to Martha on CBS one morning to see how she's handling it. Do you imagine this woman riding along in her SUV, listening to the talk-radio hosts slander her good name and weeping piteously, as she does in "Martha Inc."? The duality that Shepherd presents -- bossy, mean Martha versus fake, calm Martha -- doesn't hold up. Martha is quite clearly low-key and snippy and impatient at the same time on her show. She doesn't wear a lot of makeup or smile in a fake way. She's charmingly nonchalant and abrupt. She knows what she wants, she wants it exactly how she wants it, and her exacting standards show in the clean lines and colors of her magazine, her show and her designs, most of which have been copied a million times over.

Do we really believe that everyone at her dinner party, where she served Japanese eggplant and set out irises in big vases, showed up in blue and purple hues? Do we imagine that a woman with that much focus on the details wouldn't have unnervingly high expectations and standards? Is it shocking that she might have been too focused on the little things to look at the big picture, that she might have neglected her daughter or acted on an insider tip?

It's almost as if Martha's crime is excelling in homemaking skills while lacking all the warm, maternal urges that make many really good mothers not so good homemakers. It's almost as if we hate her for becoming such an excellent man -- albeit one who can craft a lovely wreath from straw and laurel branches. Fun as it is to make fun of Martha's perfect world of masochistically difficult hors d'oeuvres and antique chairs that are re-covered on a weekly basis, Martha the woman, like Martha the brand, is an original, and her popularity is a reflection of that originality.

At the end of the movie, as Shepherd's hysterical Martha unravels and lashes out, the biopic seems to pose the question: Will Martha's popularity rebound, like that of the embroidered table linen, the flared-leg pant or the goat-cheese canapé? Or will she one day be seen as a flash in the pan and go the way of the rat tail, the suntan-colored hose or the monogrammed tea cozy? Will she come to symbolize the excesses of the late '90s and spend the balance of her days lying about the house, rejected and disheveled, like a tangled clump of mustard-yellow rickrack?

In the last scene, though, she is surrounded by fans, and the message is clear: Like stain-resistant reversible place mats or a hardy flowering perennial, Martha is bound to withstand the test of time.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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