By Steven Suskin
28 Jul 2013
excerpted from “Playbill“
This month’s column looks at the controversial 1993 miniseries “Tales of the City,” with said tales from San Francisco novelist Armistead Maupin; and two new Blu-rays from the Criterion Collection, Peter Brook’s 1963 “Lord of the Flies” and Gabriel Axel’s 1987 “Babette’s Feast.”
Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City [Acorn]—the 1993 miniseries, based on Maupin’s 1978 novel of the same name—was highly controversial when it premiered, so much that the UK network Channel Four couldn’t initially find a U.S. partner. They did eventually line up PBS, which broadcast the show with stern warnings about nudity, coarse language, drug use and sexual situations. “Tales of the City” took place in San Francisco, after all.
Watching the new 20th Anniversary Edition, the warnings can be pretty much discounted. The drama, though, remains very good. There are some who place this in a class with the best miniseries ever; I’ve not seen them all, so I’m no judge. But “Tales of the City” remains compellingly watchable and graced with an intriguing set of characters and storylines.
Sheltered young Mary Ann from Cleveland, finishing a San Francisco vacation, decides to quit her job and stay. She lands in an unconventional apartment complex on a steep hill run by the mysterious Mrs. Madrigal. Through her downstairs neighbor Mona and Mona’s platonic friend/roommate “Mouse,” Mary Ann finds a job and an interrelated set of friends and acquaintances that you might say cover the San Francisco scene of the time.
Since Mary Ann is played by Laura Linney and Madrigal is Olympia Dukakis, you might easily imagine that there is some high quality acting going on. An understatement, as it happens. Dukakis is especially good in a complicated role. Also on hand are Chloe Webb as the freewheeling Mona; Marcus D’Amico as the mouse on the prowl; Paul Gross as a hetero on the prowl; Billy Campbell as a gynecologist involved in multiple plotlines; and Donald Moffat as a middle-aged executive (and Mary Ann’s employer) who finds himself swept into a relationship with Madrigal. There are also brief but notable performances from the likes of Rod Steiger as a bookseller, Edie Adams as a healer, Michael Jeter as a gossip columnist and Janeane Garofalo as a girl at a bar who works for Frances Ford Coppola. Plus Ian McKellen sitting around a dining table making catty comments.
“Tales of the City” captures a time and a place and a dandy cast of characters, and does it well in six episodes. Acorn includes commentary on three on the episodes (from Linney, Dukakis and others) plus a 36-minute bonus including location and rehearsal footage. There is also an 8-page booklet offering illuminating background on the creation of the show in a repressed time.