It must be difficult for any actor to turn down the opportunity to play Clarence Darrow, the famous trial lawyer. Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, Paul Muni, and Orson Welles have all had a crack at the role, but Kevin Spacey should have resisted this American Playhouse version of Darrow’s life, which is merely a tedious slog through the lawyer’s best-known cases — Clarence’s Greatest Hits they could have called it.
Spacey came to prominence as the magnificently weaselly Mel Profitt on Wiseguy and is currently appearing on Broadway in Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers. He’s a wonderfully self-effacing actor, and in Darrow, he lets his shoulders sag as he yanks on his suspenders to approximate the lawyer’s mannerisms — it’s a brilliantly dowdy performance.
But Spacey’s labor is in vain. The teleplay by William Schmidt and Stephen Stept presents Darrow as just another TV-movie hero: He’s hardworking, he loves his family but doesn’t see enough of them, he takes on rich bad guys and lost causes. The writers have also made two particularly poor decisions: The first is to have Darrow’s son, Paul, played by Stephen Mailer (Cry-Baby), narrate the tale with a sentimental portentousness. The second is to remove the climax of Darrow’s career — the legendary 1925 Scopes ”monkey trial” that had Darrow defending the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution against William Jennings Bryan’s fundamentalist-Christian position. The case is mentioned only in the closing moments of the movie, accompanied by a string of cliches from Paul (”He took his agnosticism into the heart of the Bible Belt…It’s the performance most people remember him for…”).
It’s likely that the filmmakers thought the Scopes trial had been rendered so memorably in earlier movies, especially 1960’s Inherit the Wind, that it was best to shift the emphasis to other, less-well-known periods of Darrow’s career. Instead, this omission makes Darrow seem abrupt and unfinished. D