“Cinema Verite,” HBO’s dishy new docudrama about the making of 1973’s “An American Family,” vividly captures what some consider reality TV’s big-bang moment.
“This is heaven!” gushes a dazzled Lance Loud (Thomas Dekker) upon first seeing the camera crew that’s going to follow his family around and record its most intimate moments.
The paradise was short-lived. The Louds of Santa Barbara, California, paid a high price for opening their closet doors to millions of TV viewers.
Four decades later, that groundbreaking series still merits attention, even as loudmouthed chefs, has-been celebrities and recovering addicts compete for the reality spotlight.
“Cinema Verite” starts in 1971, when producer Craig Gilbert (James Gandolfini) envisions “a brave new experiment” in TV programming: He will present a genuine American family as it lives life, shattering the idealized images presented by sitcom clans like “The Partridge Family.”
Through a friend, he meets and woos Pat Loud (Diane Lane), her husband Bill (Tim Robbins) and their five mostly teenage children, convincing them to share their home with a small film crew.
What happened on camera made TV history and helped put PBS on the map. Twelve hourlong episodes of “An American Family” introduced the nation to the Louds.
Lance, ensconced in Manhattan’s fabulously seedy Chelsea Hotel, became TV’s first openly gay son. Pat, a desperate housewife decades before her time, demanded a divorce from cheating, dumbstruck Bill in a scene that still chills with repressed tension.
So what’s left to tell? Quite a bit, “Verite” suggests, as it recreates the off-camera drama “Family” viewers didn’t witness.
We see the nervous, tepid support for the series by PBS executives, and the envious reactions of the Louds’s friends and neighbors. Gilbert battles with his film crew (Patrick Fugit and Shanna Collins) over what today seems like quaint notions of privacy.
Most revealingly, “Verite” focuses on the role Gilbert played as a behind-the-scenes instigator. (The real Gilbert didn’t participate in “Cinema Verite,” and has reportedly dismissed it as “fiction.”)
As portrayed, quite convincingly, by Gandolfini, Gilbert flirts with Pat and rats out Bill as he pursues truth and drama in equal measure.
David Seltzer’s script doesn’t shortchange Gilbert’s serious intent, though. Manipulations aside, Gilbert and his project seem light-years ahead of today’s contrived, cartoonish reality programs.
The performances are uncanny. Lane gets Pat’s icy, broken demeanor just right, and Thomas Dekker, with bravado and bluster, demonstrates why Lance all but stole the show. Robbins nails Bill’s arrogant, middle-age panic, portraying a father both befuddled by and envious of his children.
Even at a brisk 90 minutes (the movie ends too abruptly and mostly ignores several lesser Louds), “Cinema Verite,” smartly conveys the lure of fame and its unpredictable ramifications.
“Cinema Verite,” directed by Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, airs Saturday on HBO at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***1/2
Some PBS stations will also air “American Family” this weekend. Check local listings for times.
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(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)