It's not often that television gives us an acting performance that truly deserves to be preserved for the ages. It's rarer still to find a three-month period during which one can see three such performances.
But that's exactly what's happened this year. "Lonesome Dove" gave us Robert Duvall as Augustus McCrae. "Murderers Among Us" gave us Ben Kingsley as Simon Wiesenthal. And now My Name Is Bill W (Sunday at 8 p.m., Ch. 4) gives us James Woods as Bill Wilson.The Emmy award voters are already scratching their heads.
That television should present three such superlative performances in one short stretch of time is unusual. That they should come during one of the most schizophrenic television seasons in recent memory is absolutely remarkable.
"My Name Is Bill W" is a "Hallmark Hall of Fame" production that tells the moving story of Wilson, one of the two founding fathers of Alcoholics Anonymous. Told as a flashback, it shows how Wilson started his professional career full of promise and then lost everything to the Depression - and drunkenness.
We see him fall, in scenes that are exquisitely crafted and executed by Woods. This once-confident securities analyst becomes a raving lunatic, driven mad by drink despite the loving support of his wife, Lois (effectively played by JoBeth Williams). In one of film's most memorable scenes, Wilson explains to her what he's feeling inside.
"I look out the window and watch all the normal people walking by, and I don't think I've ever felt really normal all my life," he says. "I feel different, like I don't quite measure up. Ever since I can remember I've had this feeling deep down in my gut. I'm on the outside looking in, afraid maybe that I won't be accepted.
"And then I found that a drink, a few drinks, makes me feel comfortable, like I always wanted to feel. It gives me courage to be with people, do things, to dream . . . It feels good for a while. But it never seems enough. Things begin to slip away. I feel cheated, angry, and always so full of fear. So I drink more, and it makes it OK for a while.
"I convince myself that things will turn around, that I'll make it all up to you. But it only gets worse. I can't look in the mirror, or at you, especially at you. I've stopped believing in everything: people, God, myself."
And then he concludes in a moment of gripping reality: "I know it sounds insane, Lois, but in spite of all this, what I want right now more than anything else is another drink."
It's a brilliant scene, made possible by William G. Borchert's rich script and Woods' incredibly understated presence. That scene sets up the rest of the film, including a spiritual experience that helps Wilson dry out, his zealous-but-ill-fated determination to save his fellow drunks with religion and his ultimate meeting with Dr. Bob Smith (played by James Garner, who only appears in a handful of scenes), his "buddy on the stormy sea of booze" with whom he develops a "shaky little fellowship" that becomes AA.
There is a sort of missionary feeling to "My Name Is Bill W," and yet director Daniel Petrie ("Sybil," "The Dollmaker" and "Eleanor and Franklin") is able to maintain a pace that prevents it from becoming preachy. The story is compelling and ultimately uplifting and the cast and production values are uniformly excellent. But it is Woods who makes "My Name Is Bill W" a prime time event with a performance that ranks right up there with the season's very best.
And this season, that's really saying something.