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Home » Culture and Criticism

A Tale of Two Menendezes

Submitted by on November 12, 2012 – 10:45 PM12 Comments

Two TV movies about the Menendez case came out within five weeks of each other in 1994: Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders, and Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills the next month. The pair is incorrectly recalled by many as one massive miniseries starring Edward James Olmos and featuring a Freudian wig-snatching on a staircase — if it's recalled at all; the pursuit of a certain white Bronco less than a month after Killing aired more or less deleted Lyle and Erik Menendez's story, in fictional form or non-, from the cultural consciousness.

It's hard to keep them straight even if you do remember when everyone recognized Jerome Oziel's name, and why. The short version: Honor is the one with the wig snatch; Killing is the one that subjects us to Olmos's O face. The short version makes Honor sound way better, or at least less disturbing — but is it? Should you bother watching either of them? Let's run the numbers.

Format/Source Material
Honor, a two-hour TV movie, is based on a book by Ron Soble and John Johnson called Blood Brothers: The Inside Story of the Menendez Murders.

Killing is a miniseries, and is ostensibly sourced from Dominick Dunne's coverage of the case in Vanity Fair.

I don't know Soble and Johnson's book, but I have read Dunne's articles on the case several times; in my opinion, it's his best work, his prose tidy and direct. I don't think the source material has much bearing on the onscreen results, though — not as much as whether the case and all of its attendant details hold up at a distance. The Menendez defense team did its best to complicate the story, but 20 years later, it's pretty straightforward: Lyle and Erik did it, and claimed José drove them to it with tyrannical tennis coaching and/or sexual abuse involving a pencil. (I can't remember where I put my damn car keys, but I didn't even have to look up that pencil detail. Bleh.) You could probably get away with two nights of screeching flashbacks and shocking defense motions back in '94, but today a shorter treatment serves the material better.

Honor also aired on FOX, and you'd better believe they spread some of that Melrose mustard on it.

Advantage: Honor

Acting: The Parents
Honor stars James Farentino as José and Jill Clayburgh as Kitty. Farentino plays José as a blowhard, large and yelly but not truly intimidating; it's either an inspired choice, in which the film is commenting on whether the brothers could legitimately have perceived José as a danger to them versus as a garden-variety dickhead dad…or it's Farentino playing a variation on the same "Doug Ross's glad-handing dad" character he always does. Clayburgh's portrayal of the white-wine weeps is professional-grade, and she doesn't try to get too subtle with things.

Killing features Olmos and Beverly D'Angelo in the parental roles. D'Angelo is fine. Olmos is terrifying. The role is one-dimensional, and the film spends far too long on the idea that José is the worst father of the 1980s, but Olmos imbues the part with genuine menace.

Advantage: Killing

Acting: The Brothers
In Honor, we have Billy Warlock as Lyle and David Berón as Erik. Berón has moved into voice work almost exclusively; Warlock you may remember from Baywatch, and he's worked steadily in soaps. Warlock's performance is more a feat of athletics than of acting, as the script asks a lot of him, including screaming from underneath a sheet of glycerin while wearing a Cosby sweater, re-enacting scenes from Lyle's notorious screenplay, firing Erik the Sam-the-Eagle glares around the courtroom like bottle rockets, and getting his wig snatched off. Berón is harder to assess. The screenplay paints him as somewhat slow, and he fulfills the spec.

It's Damian Chapa as Lyle and Travis Fine as Erik in Killing. Chapa and Fine bear stronger physical resemblances to the brothers, but neither is good. Fine in particular seems to think he's in a silent movie.

Advantage: Honor

Wig Work
No contest. Lyle's wig is a key point in the case, and the Honor version is slightly more blatant. But Honor not only has his mom rip the merkin off his head; it gives José and the Asian prosecutor horrible hairpieces as well.

Advantage: Honor

Hilarity of Tertiary Casting
Honor does well here. The bitchy team owner from Major League plays Leslie Abramson; Jerome Oziel is played by Hey, It's That Guy! Stanley Kamel, a.k.a. "the big boss Bruce on Melrose who hanged himself in Amanda's office"; and Erin Gray (the Ricker's dad's girlfriend on Silver Spoons) (didn't have to look that shit up either) (sigh) is prosecutor Pamela Bozanich.

But you can't count Killing out: Kim "Third Watch" Raver and Josh "Scandal" Malina in small roles, and Dwight "Howlin' Mad Murdock" Schultz as Dr. Oziel.

Advantage: Killing

(So Bad It's) Good?
Neither is good. Neither is quite bad enough, either; Honor is kind of fun with a peanut gallery, but Killing is mostly dull, even the horrendous dummy "effects" during the actual murder scene.

You may want to use the films' opinions on the brothers's guilt as a guide. Both movies agree that they're guilty, but Honor's view of Lyle and Erik's cravenness is much dimmer. Killing makes José so sinister and unsympathetic that you may wonder why someone else hadn't shot him years before.

Advantage: Honor

Honor has a slight but distinct edge here; it's shorter, it's marginally more fun, and it has the big wig moment you remember. But the real advantage goes to the late Dunne, and reading his work on the murders and the trials is two hours better spent. He'll inevitably irritate you at some point, but mostly his balance of intel and flavor is on point and puts you right in things.

…But apparently you can watch Killing in its entirety on YouTube.

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12 Comments »

  • attica says:

    And yet, women line up to marry these guys in prison.

    Weird, I don't remember the pencil. I do remember the toothbrush handle. And that makes me sad.

  • Elisa says:

    Can someone please clarify the wig thing for me? Was this something that happened in real life or are you referring to horrible movie wigs? I just remember their names and I remember that they killed their parents, nothing else about this case really.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    IIRC, Lyle was losing his hair at a very young age, allegedly due in large part to stress caused by his father's abuse. The hairpiece was a point of trial contention, I believe because nobody could tell that he was wearing one (even Erik didn't know about it, supposedly) and his mother humiliated him about it?

    So, in the movies, it's a weird thing, because 1) ostensibly nobody knew that Lyle wore a rug, but 2) once you DO know, it's pretty obvi, and 3) in the movies, it's obvi anyway because we can put a man on the moon but we can't put a decent toupee on an actor, but 4) is it supposed to be obvi, i.e., Lyle's deluded, or what.

    I doubt that clarified anything. The Wikipedia entry for the Menendices is a concise read if you want to get caught up.

  • Sandman says:

    http://vimeo.com/36834421

    That may not clear up very much either, but, knowing nothing about this wig-related trauma, I Googled. And now I will slink away in shame and fear.

    Except to say: Was Clayburgh every anything less than reliable and efficient?

  • Sandman says:

    "Ever anything less," I should say. Dang. I blame the hair.

  • Anlyn says:

    The thing I remember most about the Menendez brothers was the Law and Order episode that ripped off the storyline and subverted the verdict. In the episode, the sons (Spoiler?) didn't commit the crime. Took me a couple of years to realize the Menendez brothers were actually guilty.

    That pic is giving me major "21 Jump Street" vibes.

  • rab01 says:

    The thing I remember most was finding out that one of the Menendez brothers went to my college but had dropped out maybe a year after I got there. A friend of mine lived over the buffalo wings shop that he had bought.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    @rab, I assume you heard the "killer wings!" joke about a skrillion times and saw Lyle's name carved into the bar at Campus Club. (We must have been there at the same time, no? I think Lyle got the boot for cheating my freshman year.) (Hi, I'm old.)

  • Kristin says:

    I'm MESMERIZED by Billy Warlock's hair in the photo. It's like an afro/mullet combo plus a little bit of a hightop too?

    A Hifrollet? WTF?

    And count me among the people who remembers the movies together, but I do remember Edward James Olmos being a total d-bag unlikable guy and Beverly D'Angelo making me think Kitty Menendez was not much better…

  • Holly H. says:

    Commenting really really late, but — this post inspired me to go read all of the Dominick Dunne articles, which was kind of fascinating as I had heard the Menendez name but couldn't really remember any of the (literally) gory details.

    That said, I'm therefore surprised to hear that the Olmos mini-series above is ostensibly based on Dunne's articles… because the articles make clear that Dunne thinks the sexual-abuse defense was pretty much completely made-up, and that neither Jose nor Kitty were likely at all the way the defense presented them.

    I can't tell from the write-up here whether the mini-series was presenting that theory as true? Then again… maybe I'm confused because the Dunne articles in which he is most clear on his belief that the defense is fabricated (along with evidence that wasn't presented at the trial, that backed up the fabrication theory), came out AFTER these films were made? Dunne is definitely more damning of the case as the articles go on, and he wrote one or two after the Simpson trial and after the brothers' conviction in a retrial.

    Anyway, in conclusion — I had no idea that Erin Gray was on Silver Spoons. For me, she will forever, and foremost, be Wilma Deering from Buck Rogers.

  • rab01 says:

    @Sars — I do think we were there at the same time but I can't remember ever crossing paths. (My email address is my name if my memory is off.) So, you're not allowed to be old because we're pretty much the same age.

    The things your memory blocks … I didn't remember "killer wings" until you mentioned it.

  • Emily says:

    If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend the 2009 documentary Mrs. Menendez, about Tammy Menendez (the woman who marries Erik). It is fascinating and quite moving.

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