What the Made-for-TV Martha Misses

NBC's biopic, based on the book Martha Inc., stresses her past and her bad behavior while neglecting to examine her business success

By Patricia O'Connell

Domestic doyenne Martha Stewart has had a horrible year. Caught up in allegations of insider trading, she saw a dizzying fall in the stock price of her company, Martha Stewart Omnimedia (MSO ) -- and a parallel plunge in her personal worth. Martha Inc., Christopher Byron's unauthorized, unflattering portrait of the celebrity decorator, was published. Even her annual Christmas TV special was canceled. And advertising at her Martha Stewart Living magazine has slumped.

Prospects started looking brighter for Stewart this spring. Her retailing partner Kmart has emerged from bankruptcy, and MSO's stock price has rallied recently on reports that Stewart is close to striking a deal with the Justice Dept. in the ImClone Systems (IMCLE ) insider-trading case. In mid May, her syndicated series Martha Stewart Living won two Daytime Emmys in the service-show category: best host and best show. But just as things are looking up, now comes NBC's made-for-TV biopic, Martha Inc., set for broadcast on May 19. While it probably won't affect MSO's share price or the outcome of Justice's investigation, it won't do much for Stewart's tarnished reputation, either.

The movie, based on Byron's bestseller, opens with Stewart hearing about insider-trading charges against Sam Waksal, her friend and former ImClone CEO, and that she, too, may be implicated. (Byron's book was originally published before the ImClone scandal broke and has been updated in softcover to include these events.) The biopic then flashes back to a look at Stewart's childhood and early career, which consumes more than half the movie.


  Many of the vignettes will be familiar to Stewart devotees: how she sabotaged a young rival in the cake-baking business during her childhood, her careers as a model and stockbroker, her relationship with her demanding, perfectionist father, her shame over her humble background, her relentless drive to better her life, her striving to make things "beautiful," her harsh treatment of employees, and her careless -- perhaps even callous -- behavior toward her husband and child.

For the uninitiated, this focus provides an interesting insight into why she became such a formidable entrepreneur. Viewers might not feel much sympathy for Stewart, but at least they'll understand her a little better. Unfortunately, the movie devotes only its final 30 minutes to the period when her business really took off. With so much focus on the past, Martha's salad days are passed over too quickly and too superficially.

Too bad. The Stewart saga is as much a business study as anything else, and not enough attention is paid to exploring that aspect of her life. If the movie's first half explains why she is the way she is, the second half is insufficient in explaining how she became such a popular marketing phenomenon and eventually the target of an insider-trading probe.


  The movie shows Stewart as a backstabbing, egomaniacal control freak. Indeed, the flick portrays just one act of kindness on her part: She buys an expensive copper pot as a gift for a woman who lost money investing with Stewart during her stockbroking days. (The woman later became Stewart's catering partner, and after she accuses Stewart of trying to elbow her out of the business, an enraged Martha throws the pot at her.)

Too many scenes depict Stewart showing up for a business meeting with fresh-baked goodies. Her fully baked business proposals -- for a magazine and for a TV show -- are treated as just movie icing. In particular, her merchandising deal with Kmart, the linchpin of Stewart's power and wealth, is given short shrift.

It's unclear how or why Kmart chose her. After all, she was hardly a celebrity of the caliber of fellow Kmart icon Jaclyn Smith. Yet were it not for Kmart advancing her millions in merchandising royalties, Stewart wouldn't have had the money to buy her way out of her contract with Time Warner, Martha Stewart Living's original publisher.


  Actress Cybill Shepherd must share part of the blame for the incomplete portrait, as her performance just skims Stewart's surface. For all of the mogul's faults -- and the movie seems intent on showing them all -- the no-nonsense Stewart has always made everything look effortless, and her icy dignity never fails her. Yet Shepherd never quite captures Stewart's compelling smoothness on camera. Rather than appearing unflappable, Shepherd's Stewart often comes off like a zombie.

Some scenes are also a tad too over-the-top. There's Stewart's nightmare about life in prison, and when she shrieks "Did I not ask for merlot?" after a staffer places pinot noir in front of her, movie buffs will be reminded of Faye Dunaway's campy portrayal of Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest. The scene in which Stewart floors Time Warner execs with her $85 million buyout is followed by a demonstration on her TV show of the proper way to crack nuts.

The movie never delves into the insider-trading charges against Stewart. But it doesn't matter. By the time Martha Inc. ends, it appears proven that she broke the law with her ImClone stock sale -- despite no charges having been filed against her. Still, even if that were true, it would have been one of the least offensive things Stewart has ever done.


  Defenders of the driven, enormously successful entrepreneur have often said that she's judged too harshly because she's a woman -- that an ambitious, ruthless man wouldn't be so reviled. Maybe so. Nevertheless, it's hard to imagine that belittling employees and family members, cheating friends and partners, and displaying an arrogance of epic proportions would seem noble, appropriate, or admirable in a man, either.

Is everything that one reads -- and now sees -- about Stewart the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Of course not. But this woman, whose empire and fortune are on an image, knows only too well that believability is what matters. And in the end, the movie is believable enough. I just wish it were a little more in-depth.

O'Connell is an editor at BusinessWeek Online in New York

Edited by Douglas Harbrecht

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