LOUELLA PARSONS and Hedda Hopper, once the gossiping terrors of Hollywood, are being given the screen biographies they deserve. Less than an inch deep, ”Malice in Wonderland,” on CBS-TV at 9 P.M. on Sunday, is as silly as any of their newspaper columns.
Jay Benson, the producer for ITC Productions, has decided to play the once formidable ladies mostly for laughs and, with time as a buffer, that approach captures at least the dizziness that was ”legendary” Hollywood.
The casting is suitably unreal. ”Lolly” Parsons, a pudgy and somewhat dumpy woman, is played by Elizabeth Taylor, the ”new” Elizabeth Taylor who has lost weight and is looking very glamorous again. And Hedda Hopper, a rather goofy type partial to outrageous hats, is portrayed by Jane Alexander, an actress of unconcealable intelligence. Both Miss Taylor and Miss Alexander tackle their parts with verve and, in the process, have a good deal of infectious fun.
The Jacqueline Feather-David Seidler script, based on George Eells’s book ”Hedda and Louella,” uses the familiar Hollywood device of a showdown, this one held in a restaurant corral named Romanoff’s. The year is 1944, and although there is presumably a World War raging, everyone in Los Angeles seems preoccupied with the fact that Louella and Hedda are meeting face-to-face for lunch. A tall pitcher of martinis arrives, and Louella observes that the world is ”waiting for us to stone each other with olive pits.”
Flashing back to 1928, the story shows Louella arriving in Hollywood as a reporter for William Randolph Hearst. In addition to championing Hearst’s ”protegee,” Marion Davies, Lolly is purported to know something about the skeletons in the publisher’s closet.
With the help of her husband (Jon Cypher), a doctor who obtains medical information on the stars for her, Louella becomes the gossip queen of tinseltown, demanding 48-hour exclusives and punishing those who don’t comply.
The studio producers, led by a scheming Louis B. Mayer (Richard Dysart), are furious. ”We run the studios that make movies that make people think what they think,” they cry, ”and here we are, scared of this dame.” Louella just goes right on, stacking up expensive gifts under her Christmas tree every year.
Hedda is an actress whose bit parts keep getting smaller. She turns to gossip out of desperation and finally gets Mr. Mayer to support her as competition to Louella. But this ploy, instead of making Louella weaker, creates two gossip monsters, one more vicious than the other in the race for readers and, later, radio listeners. Hedda can point to her new luxury and quip cheerfully that ”this is the house that fear built.” Her right-wing Red-baiting is so excessive that she accuses John Wayne of being soft on Communism.
Directed by Gus Trikonis with a hard-edged feeling for the period and the period’s movie styles, ”Malice in Wonderland” keeps dropping fairly broad hints as to how really dreadful Louella and Hedda really were, but the film’s overall tone is kept as light as the average 30’s comedy.
Miss Taylor clearly gets a great deal of pleasure from her nifty impersonation of the whining Lolly, and Miss Alexander is marvelous at making Hedda something more than dotty. This is an entertaining glimpse of one side of the Hedda and Louella story, the one that ends with a wink.
A movie-music note: Tomorrow, ”Live From Lincoln Center,” on Channel 13 at 8 P.M., will be offering the audience at home something different. While Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic are playing the Prokofiev cantata ”Alexander Nevsky,” John Goberman, the television producer, will broadcast coordinated footage from the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film for which the original music was composed. Those who may find pictures distracting can listen to the music alone on a WQXR-FM simulcast.