Trash TV doesn’t get much better-much livelier or smarter-than Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean, the story of Leona Helmsley, dictatorial wife and business partner of New York real-estate magnate Harry Helmsley. The movie follows Leona’s rise from genteel poverty to her abrupt fall, an indictment on charges of tax evasion in 1988.
Suzanne Pleshette plays Helmsley as an impeccably coiffed fireball, a mixture of intelligence, ambition, and rudeness. As the movie shows, many New Yorkers came to view Helmsley as a symbol of rapacious wealth; her petty cruelty to employees at the Helmsley Palace Hotel turned her into a local villain in the media. Based on a book by New York Post reporter Ransdell Pierson, The Queen of Mean gets all this on film with energetic nastiness. ”Water droplets on the lettuce!” she shrieks at a room-service waiter. ”The Palace does not serve wet lettuce!” and she tosses the offending leaves in the trembling underling’s face.
If Helmsley were just a monster, she wouldn’t be interesting, and she wouldn’t have been such a business success. Pleshette never reduces her portrayal to campiness, and she makes it clear that Leona can be a charmer — ribaldly funny and even sexy. Lloyd Bridges makes an endearing Harry, alternately dazzled and befuddled by his take-charge wife. The pace of the movie is a little slow, especially near the beginning, but stick around: You’ll be cheering the downfall of the Queen of Mean by the end of these two hours, and not feeling a twinge of guilt. B+