By any normal standard, The Woman Who Loved Elvis is a pretty lousy made-for-television movie. But who judges Roseanne Arnold by normal standards? As the brashest and most original and independent superstar on TV, Arnold is unusual in many ways, not the least of which is that she is a Hollywood multimillionaire who insists that we never forget her drab, lower-middle-class roots.
And so it is in The Woman Who Loved Elvis: Arnold portrays Joyce Jackson, a single mother in a small Iowa town who is stuck on welfare and saddled with a serious Elvis problem. Joyce has turned her dilapidated front porch into a shrine to the late Presley and is given to solemn pronouncements such as ''Elvis died for the love of us and our love for him.'' Joyce has just been assigned a new caseworker from the welfare agency, a wide-eyed innocent named Emily (Cynthia Gibb of The Karen Carpenter Story), who, unlike Joyce's previous caseworkers, doesn't think she's just a lazy nut.
Emily gets drawn into the lives of Joyce, her two adolescent daughters (Danielle Harris and Kimberley Dal Santo), and her ex-husband, Jack, a brooding, quiet motorcyclist played by a cast-way-against-type Tom Arnold (The Jackie Thomas Show). The most interesting thing about The Woman Who Loved Elvis, directed by actor Bill Bixby, is that for the longest time, you can't tell whether it's supposed to be a melancholy comedy or a light drama it doesn't fit into any standard TV-movie category. The worst thing about the film, written by novelist Rita Mae Brown (Rubyfruit Jungle), is that there's not a single scene in it whose outcome isn't drearily predictable.
We know from the start that the plot will turn on whether or not Joyce will be kicked off the welfare roll. And because Jack is such a poutingly sensitive working-class stiff, we get the idea pretty quickly that he regrets the breakup of his marriage to Joyce, that he wishes they were still together. The supporting characters don't provide much novelty either. Sally Kirkland, who has also appeared on a few episodes of Roseanne this season, plays Joyce's tough, wisecracking best friend, Sandee. And there's a stunningly lame subplot about Emily's rocky romance with a coworker (Joe Guzaldo).
Oddest and most disappointing of all is that the Elvis angle gets lost in all the banality. For Joyce, as for not a few of his fans, the King is nothing less than the King of Kings. ''Drugs were part of his suffering,'' Joyce says to a skeptic who questions the saintliness of Presley's life, ''and no one could save him from suffering.'' Joyce even does good works in his name: Poor as she is, she mends old clothes to give to families poorer than her own, presenting them with the benediction, ''Elvis Presley wants you to have these clothes.''
In interviews over the years, Arnold has spoken often of her admiration for Presley as an up-from-nothing, show-biz-transcending star; she identifies with him to the extent of having worn an Elvis-esque gold lame suit for her 1992 HBO stand-up special. In The Woman Who Loved Elvis, Arnold sets up Joyce to be a fanatic who will prove to have wisdom; we assume her purpose is to redeem Joyce and Elvis to doubters. Instead, the movie downplays Presley as it goes along, reducing his presence to a few hits on the soundtrack.
For most scriptwriters and performers Elvis is a joke, a dead punch line employed in movies like Honeymoon in Vegas. Arnold knows that one reason her sitcom Roseanne commands such a huge, loyal audience is that she shares many of her fans' taste in unfashionable subjects like Presley. But The Woman Who Loved Elvis doesn't shed any new light on Arnold's own obsession.
The Woman Who Loved Elvis is based on Laura Kalpakian's 1992 novel, Graced Land; it's not the Elvis book Arnold should have tackled. That one is Harlan Ellison's 1961 Presley fable, Spider Kiss, a far more wild, down-and-dirty novel that tells the tale of Stag Preston, a country-hick rocker raised to superstardom by callous promoter Col. Jack Freeport (an on-the-money caricature of Presley's manager, Col. Tom Parker). I have long thought Roseanne could buy the rights, turn the hero into a woman, and play the role herself (Doe Preston?). Hubby Tom could chomp on a cigar and strut around as Colonel Jack. Maybe next time, Roseanne? C+