Suzanne Somers achieved success by being a blond bombshell defused in advance; as a television-manufactured sex symbol and comedic actress, she has always been ready for prime time. Flashy and giggly, wiggly and nonthreatening, Somers remains best known for the five seasons she spent as Chrissy Snow on Three’s Company, the quintessential TV sex farce: all provocation, no payoff.
When Somers walked away from Three’s Company after the 1979-80 season in a contract dispute, it was a gesture that mingled bravery with foolhardiness. Hollywood has never taken kindly to sex symbols who want more money and power than the men who run the industry deign to grant them. Over the course of the ’80s, Somers’ career turned into the stuff of an SCTV parody: campy, schlocky TV movies like Hollywood Wives, a singing-and-dancing nightclub career that probably made Joey Heatherton green with envy, an ongoing sideline as a poet whose verse crossed Sylvia Plath with Erma Bombeck.
These days, however, the 44-year-old Somers is enjoying a sudden comeback. She’s costarring with Dallas’ Patrick Duffy in Step by Step, a sitcom from the folks who brought you Family Matters and Perfect Strangers. Nestled between those two big hits on Friday nights, Step has the potential to become a huge success itself.
And this week there’s also a TV-movie version of Somers’ 1988 autobiography, Keeping Secrets. A vanity production with a core of undeniable truth, keeping secrets is as melodramatic and self-aggrandizing as you’d imagine, but its emotions are honest and surprisingly raw.
Ostensibly the story of Somers’ early years, stopping just short of her Three’s Company breakthrough, Keeping Secrets is really the tale of a family in crisis, of the star’s alcoholic father and the suffering he caused his wife and children. Suzanne Mahoney-Somers’ maiden name-lived in fear of her father, Frank (played by Dallas’ Ken Kercheval), whose drunken binges and tyrannical rages made her middle-class youth in San Bruno, Calif., so awful that she used to crawl into a closet to hide for hours at a time.
In scriptwriter Edmond Stevens’ adaptation of Somers’ book, we see that everyone in the Mahoney household had an addictive personality: Somers’ father, two brothers, and sister (The Guiding Light’s Kim Zimmer) all became hooked on booze. Her mother, played by Michael Learned (The Waltons, Nurse), seems to have been dependent on the abuse of her husband, whom she feared and yet loved. Only Suzanne remained untempted by the bottle; she was addicted to ambition, to becoming a star.
Keeping Secrets, directed by John Korty (The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman), doles out its details with the latest psychoanalytic jargon about dependency and the dysfunctional family. While perhaps psychologically sound, this material seems wooden and phony as drama. By far the best thing about the TV movie is Kercheval’s scary, head-long performance. Fearless about playing someone unattractive and hateful, Kercheval makes sure you understand the mental as well as physical pain that an alcoholic can inflict upon those around him.
With Kercheval in it, Keeping Secrets is the best recruitment film both Alcoholics Anonymous and Adult Children of Alcoholics will ever have.
The weakest sections of the movie are the ones that depict Somers’ romance with and eventual marriage to Alan Hamel, the Canadian game-show host and actor, who is also Somers’ manager and co-executive producer of this film. Hamel is played by David Birney here, and although the script wants us to believe that Hamel, who is still married to Somers, was crucial in helping her emotionally and professionally, he comes off unappealingly — as a grinning smoothy who played Svengali to a curvaceous babe.
Somers does a pretty good job; she’s utterly unbelievable in the early scenes as a chipper high school graduate, but in reliving her years as a struggling actress, Somers isn’t nearly as self-conscious as she might have been. With its earnest tone and Kercheval’s performance giving it weight, Keeping Secrets is better than you might expect. C+