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Roger Smith

Ann-Margret's "Happy Face"

Murder mystery based on real case

"Put on a Happy Face" is the theme song of the movie "Happy Face Murders", but it's not the best way to describe this movie's star.

Ann-Margret's transformation for this Showtime film is a sight to see.

To put it bluntly, Ann-Margret is a mess.

She's dressed down, not up, in a bad-hair-day fright wig and blowsy, dumpy, hausfrau duds, to play a 58-year-old woman whose lies landed her in prison.

And as good as Ann-Margret, also 58, looks these days, that was a job.

When she met the TV critics in California, she was slim, trim, titian-haired, and dressed to the movie-queen nines. She giggled when someone suggested she looked like Shelley Winters in the movie.
"I only see my films one time", she said in her trademark breathless whisper. "I looked in the mirror. I had, like, a Brillo pad as a wig, salt and peppar grey. The makeup man put brown to make the eyes look closer together, and made my eyelashes white and my eyebrows white. I took one look at myself and said, 'That's it, I'm not looking again'".

Those extra pounds are a layer on layer of body padding, and that was a shock to her psyche, too.

"This is such a different role for her, it was brave of her to take it on", said executive producer John Cosgrove.

"We said to ourselves she'll probably never want to do it, because she'd have to get so down and dirty and unattractive that she may not want to, or more likely, the agents, managers or whatever won't want her to", seconded Showtime programming president Jerry Offsay. "But we also thought she was a fabulous actress who could do this".

She certainly could, and did.

She did it, Ann-Margret said, because it is a true story, and she did well last season in another true story, playing the role of the late Democratic Party fund-raiser and ambassador Pamela Harriman.

This true story is about as far as you can get from that one.

Ann-Margret plays Lorraine Petrovich, a grandmother who accuses her much younger and very brutal live-in lover (played with frightening intensity by Nicholas Campbell) of the rape and murder of a young woman.

It was "the complexity" of the character she plays that intrigued Ann-Margret. "The fact that her first husband had beaten her, that her second husband got stomach cancer, that her son and her grandson had muscular dystrophy... I mean, it's incredible what this woman had come through, and she was so desperate that she had to start lying.

"It was just so sad to me", Ann-Margret said, "but she was quite something. She was not dumb at all, She voraciously read mystery books and saw 'Matlock' and 'Diagnosis Murder' (on TV), and she got ideas from those".

Ann-Margret never met the woman she plays, but she studied all the videotapes of her. And there were plenty of those from the TV news files.

"Happy Face Murders" is based - basically, at least, on a Portland, Oregon, murder case that executive producers Cosgrove and Terry Dunn Meurer spotted on their TV show "Unsolved Mysteries".

At that time, a reporter for the Portland Oregonian newspaper had been following the story, and was convinced that the woman in prison for the crime was innocent. She had recanted her confession, but a jury found her guilty and sent her to prison in 1991. It took four years for the truth to come out and the woman to come out of prison.

Right after the movie, you'll see interviews with the real Lorraine (Laverene Pavlinac is her real name) and with the real killer, Kevin Jasperson. In the movie, his name is Billy Lee Peterson, he's played by Rick Peters, and he's chilling. But Billy Lee is nowhere near as scary as Jasperson.

Showtime's 15-minute postscript to the movie is titled "The Real Happy Face Killer".

And as you'll see in that, this film changes a lot more than character names.

Portland has become the fictional city of Larwin, Mich., and there's a fictional detective investigating the murder.

Scriptwriter John Pielmeier (best known for Broadway's "Agnes of God") decided this story needed some sympathetic characters.

He added Marg Helgenberger's Police Detective Jen Powell (and her house full of cleverly named stray dogs), along with Henry Thomas' Dylan McCarthy. He's a young graduate student who's been assigned to help Powell with this investigation, as a research project for his criminology thesis.

The film's centrepiece is Pavlinac (Ann-Margret's Lorraine) whose elaborate hoaxes helped the police convict her abusive lover and herself, as well, of a brutal murder.

Even before the verdict, the court and the Portland Oregonian had been getting letters from a self-proclaimed serial killer who said the couple on trial didn't do it; he did.

The letters were signed with a happy face drawing, and as police found when he was picked up, he had happy faces sprinkled all over his truck.

That's how the case got its name, and also how this movie got its rather weird and black comedy approach to the case.

It sets out trying to recapture the sly, dark humour of HBO's award-winning "The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom". Starting with the breezy disclaimer in the opening credits: "Most of what you see is true. The stuff that isn't true is the stuff that is the most believable. Go figure".

But director Brian Trenchard-Smith's attempt to induce the atmosphere of "Rashomon meets Fargo by way of Twin Peaks" into the mix of this murder plot runs aground here. That's because there's so much graphic sexual violence throughout this movie.
As each character describes the murder (or murders) to suit his or her version of the crime, the killing is played and replayed. And it's entirely too brutal and too ugly to sustain the mood suggested by a counterpart of clever jollies.

As hard as they try to lighten it up, there's absolutely nothing funny about "Happy Face Murders".

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By Ann Hodges

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