- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

Here we go again: Martha Stewart, the shrew of the 300-thread-count sheet. This time, it’s NBC-TV’s two-hour movie scheduled to air from 9 to 11 p.m. Monday, “Martha, Inc.: The Story of Martha Stewart,” starring Cybill Shepherd as the fabled dominatrix of gracious living.

Although Miss Shepherd, by her own account, can’t boil water and has a beanpole figure that doesn’t resemble that of Miss Stewart (lately looking as if she’s been into the profiteroles), the actress manages to approximate the combination of animal energy and icy will that marks America’s most famous arbiter of the color-coordinated living room.

The movie is loosely based on Christopher Byron’s unauthorized Stewart biography of the same name, published last year, which portrayed the author, lifestyle-zine editor and cooking-show hostess as an ambition-crazed climber who sank her chef’s knife into the backs of family, friends and business associates alike as she carved out her multibillion-dollar Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia communications and Web-shopping evil empire.

Before Mr. Byron’s book, there was Jerry Oppenheimer’s equally unauthorized 1997 biography, “Just Desserts,” which depicted Miss Stewart as an employee-abusing obsessive-compulsive who sank her topiary shears into the hearts of family, friends, etc., as she clambered from Polish-ghetto New Jersey into Manhattan boardrooms. (Mr. Oppenheimer’s book also was supposed to turn into a made-for-TV-movie, starring Mare Winningham as you know who, but that deal never jelled.)

Before that, there was all the feminist carping about Miss Stewart’s glorification of — horrors — homemaking, and those Internet Martha-legends, such as the time she supposedly got into a snit and backed her car, Lizzie Grubman-style, over (a) a faithful family retainer or (b) some of the designer chickens she famously raises at her mansion in fancy Westport, Conn.

Just for schadenfreude funsies, Miss Stewart’s media and marketing empire took a stock-market bath last year when the news broke about suspicions of insider trading after she sold shares of ImClone Systems, the failing biotech firm headed by a friend of hers, Samuel Waksal, who was indicted. (Miss Stewart is said to be cooperating with law enforcement and likely will not be decorating a jail cell, as one tabloid gloatingly predicted.)

“Martha, Inc.,” directed by docudrama veteran Jason Ensler (“Behind the Camera: The Unofficial Story of Three’s Company”) from a teleplay by Suzette Couture (“Million Dollar Babies,” “Jesus”) skips the chickens. But it never skips an opportunity to blame Martha for everything.

Her bitter 1989 divorce from her lawyer-publishing-exec husband, Andy Stewart (played long-sufferingly by Tim Matheson)? All Martha’s fault.

How about the financial woes of Kmart, which sells a line of mid-priced Martha Stewart-brand sheets and pots and pans? It seems that Martha first hard-balled Kmart into a crucifying deal, then snookered the company into buying and paying for the $15 million renovation of a house which, unbeknownst to Kmart, she and her husband already owned.

Martha Stewart grew up as Polish-American Martha Kostyra in the working-class suburb of Nutley, N.J., where as a cooking-precocious 9-year-old, she sold her own home-baked birthday cakes to her neighbors. So, in Mr. Ensler’s TV biography, we see “The Bad Seed” little Martha (Toni Grossett) in 1950s pigtails slipping a bum recipe to another little Nutley girl who also wants to get into the cake-baking business. (Martha Stewart recipes that don’t turn out right when other people try to use them, another staple of Internet Martha lore, are a recurring theme in “Martha, Inc.”)

Because this is television, where everyone’s problems are automatically traced to childhood abuse, we soon meet Martha’s father, Ed Kostyra, played by Jude Ciccolella as a blue-collar martinet and cheapskate who needles Martha for her every failing, confiscates her cake-selling profits and forces the five terrified Kostyra children to bottle root beer in the dimly lit Kostyra basement.

Martha’s mother (Hollis McLaren) is a passive house-rabbit whom Martha doesn’t want to emulate as a grown-up. (The real-life Mrs. Kostyra worked as a schoolteacher, made all her clothes and passed on to daughter Martha the art of dressing and living stylishly on little money.)

Martha, no slouch in the brains department, wins a scholarship to Barnard College. In New York, pretty, blond young-adult Martha (Dorie Barton) models for Breck shampoo and other purveyors of early-1960s glamour and wins a prize as one of America’s best-dressed college students in her home-sewn frocks. Best of all, she meets and marries Yalie law student Andy.

He gets a job at one of Wall Street’s top firms but never manages to make quite enough money to satisfy his ambitious wife. We watch her face contort in dismayed surprise when Andy’s wealthy parents, central-casting WASPs to whom she has lied that she springs from Polish nobility, lose all their money in a stock-market crash.

The young Stewarts have to live in one of those dreary inside-facing Manhattan apartments that even Martha can’t make nice. Then — ick — she gets pregnant with her daughter, Alexis, now, according to the film, estranged from her mother.

Finally, in 1968, Martha is old enough for Cybill Shepherd to take over the role. She gets a stockbroker’s license and quickly becomes a top producer for her boutique Manhattan brokerage firm, making more money than Andy. The firm collapsed in 1975 after investing heavily in a deal involving Levitz Furniture that was shadowed with allegations of kickbacks and market manipulation. Martha had quit the brokerage business in 1973. Naturally, Mr. Ensler’s film (following the Byron book) suggests that Martha had something to do with the Levitz scandal (a prelude to ImClone, see?). This, from all reports, does not appear to have been the case, although she did lose quite a bit of her friends’ money after talking them into investing in the firm.

The Stewarts end up in Westport, where the now-broke Martha remodels their house with a pickax and paint and sells her home-baked pies to the local richies for $20 apiece. The next step is a catering business with a friend from modeling days that, thanks to Martha’s boundless drive and relentless perfectionism, quickly mushrooms into a million-dollar enterprise.

“Martha Stewart Entertaining,” her first cookbook, follows, then “Martha Stewart Weddings,” Martha Stewart Living magazine with its 17 million subscribers, Kmart, deals with Time-Warner, and the cooking show.

Along the way, Martha stabs her catering partner in the back and throws a copper pot at her head to boot. She blows up at Andy in front of her family and a PBS crew for doing the toast wrong at a televised Christmas dinner. Andy splits, along with daughter Alexis. “The truth is never good enough for Martha Stewart,” he yells at her in one of those confrontation scenes on Manhattan streets that take place only in the movies.

Martha snaps at a Kmart customer who complains that she can’t reproduce Martha’s lemon tartlets. She screams “Stupid” at the crew of her TV show for failing to provide the lima beans for a segment on them. (On this issue I sympathize with her. Isn’t that what a crew is supposed to do?)

Most strangely, Miss Stewart seems to morph into a high-camp lesbian parody near the film’s end, stroking the hair of her new live-in business partner, Caroline Kass (Joanna Cassidy), who helps her buy out her Time-Warner contract and set up Omnimedia.

All of this ought to make for a deliciously entertaining two hours, and for the most part, “Martha, Inc.” is just that. I admire Martha Stewart’s taste and energy and her belief that you don’t have to be rich to load your life with beauty and style. At the same time, it’s hard not to chuckle at the vicious gossip. Martha Stewart, like virtue kibbitzer Bill Bennett, often comes off as a hectoring, humorless know-it-all. (I once watched Miss Stewart make her own marshmallows on television: “They’re so much better.”)

The problem with “Martha, Inc.” is that director Ensler can’t stop at the mean fun; he has to moralize. Martha Stewart has to be wicked, a fraud. In one scene in the film, she describes her TV show, on which she plugs her magazine and other products, as “a commercial inside an infomercial.” As though there were something wrong with that. As though Oprah Winfrey and every other star didn’t do the same thing.

Stars sell themselves, and Martha Stewart, however tarnished her glitter may be these days, is a star.

Charlotte Allen is author of “The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.”

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