Despite everything Martha Stewart has done to help us all live more tasteful, stylish lives, she still can’t get any respect. In her reign as the matron of all things domestic, she has been flambéed and fricasseed by every late night comedy show and talk show host in need of an easy target. Everyone from Letterman to Leno, Saturday Night Live to Mad TV, has goofed on her. She’s even had the crap beat out of her by Sandra Bernhard on Celebrity Deathmatch. Dissing Martha is, apparently, a good thing.
But there is no wrong Martha Stewart could have committed to deserve the dreary, downright nasty NBC biopic, Martha, Inc.: The Martha Stewart Story. Cheap, rude, and catty, Martha, Inc. starts with Martha bellowing at her staff and ends with her facing financial ruin.
In between, we get one scene after another of Martha stepping on a lot of toes as she rises from Connecticut housewife to billionaire head of a do-it-yourself empire that goes by the imposing name of Martha Stewart Omnimedia. These are intercut with the obligatory flashback sequences, to show that even as a little girl, Martha Stewart wasn’t nice. We see that the 9-year-old Martha (Toni Grossett) is already competing against her friends. While baking cakes for sale, Martha slips one of her friends a bad recipe. The friend’s cake is a disaster and up pops Martha at the customer’s door with the perfect cake. “Years from now this won’t matter,” Martha tells the friend. “You’ll be just anybody, but I’m going to be famous.”
The one thing Martha, Inc. has going for it is a full-throttle performance from Cybill Shepherd. Like Stewart, Shepherd has done time as the media’s punching bag. Her temper tantrums on the set of Moonlighting are the stuff of TV legend, as are the fights between Shepherd and her Cybill co-star Christine Baranski. Maybe that’s why she tears into this role with such obvious glee. Barking at employees, family members and corporate bigwigs, Shepherd chews up lines like “We’re making root beer next week! I need root bark!” Switching from patronizing smile to icy glare without raising an eyebrow, she’s Mommie Dearest with a dash of Cruella DeVille.
Unfortunately, all of Shepherd’s bluster is for naught, as she’s saddled with a cliché-ridden script by Suzette Couture and uninspired direction from Jason Ensler. One would hope that Ensler might have recognized the folly in filming the straight-ahead life story of an allegedly unpleasant person and go the satirical route that made his Behind the Camera: The Unauthorized Story of Three’s Company so much fun. But that never happens, so we’re left with two hours of Martha being very, very unpleasant.
Based very loosely on financial columnist Christopher Byron’s best-selling book on the rise of Stewart’s financial empire and its fall in the wake of the ImClone stock scandal, Couture’s teleplay couldn’t be bothered with all of that business stuff. Indeed, the details of Stewart’s involvement in insider trading are only vaguely touched upon and the film, to its credit, doesn’t attempt to determine guilt or innocence. Instead, it focuses on Martha the Bitch, Martha the Shrew, Martha the Unloving Wife and Mother, and Martha the Unscrupulous Businessperson.
What’s missing here is Martha the Person. Despite all Shepherd’s scene-chewing, Stewart comes across as one-dimensional and soulless, the same success-obsessed egomaniac from beginning to end. We do learn that her drive for success was fueled by her domineering, perfectionist father (nicely played by 24‘s Jude Ciccolella), she failed at a career in modeling, she sometimes feels actual remorse (especially after giving an old friend bad stock advice), and her husband published the book that was responsible for the gnome craze of the mid-‘90s. But by the time this two-hour hate-a-thon has ended, we have learned no more about the woman than what the rumor mill and the tabloids have been telling us for years.
With this focus, we never get a grasp of how her brand became so wildly popular. How did her creations strike such a chord? What genius does she possess that is so different from the tens of thousands of other decorators and caterers seeking similar success? This and other questions about her life are never answered, because the film is itself so obsessed with showing her as an insufferable overachiever rather than acknowledging her creative process.
Martha, Inc. struck a nerve with both Stewart fans and detractors, scoring the highest ratings amongst adults 18-49 of any telefilm this season, averaging 14 million viewers and a 5.2 rating/12 share in the demographic (and inspiring NBC to re-air it on Sunday, 1 June). So who are all these viewers and why are we so fascinated with kicking people when they are down?
Maybe it’s because we love success, but we hate it when people become successful. It’s become a familiar ritual to pull celebrities down a couple of pegs via public humiliation. But Martha, Inc. doesn’t even follow through with that directive. It concludes as a distraught, scandal-stung Stewart stops at an agricultural fair, where the adoring public mobs her. These final shots show Stewart in her element: smiling, vibrant, healed by the love of her fans. You get the feeling that everything’s going to be okay with Martha Stewart. But after two hours of being programmed to hate the woman, a hokey feel-good ending feels more like a cop-out than the type of go-for-the-jugular ending one might expect from a production this mean-spirited.