A Tale of Two Menendezes
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
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.
Tags: Beverly D'Angelo Billy Warlock Damian Chapa David Beron Dominick Dunne Dwight Schultz Edward James Olmos Erik Menendez Erin Gray hairdon'ts Honor Thy Father and Mother: The True Story of the Menendez Murders It's Log James Farentino Jerome Oziel Jill Clayburgh John Johnson Jose Menendez Josh Malina Kim Raver Kitty Menendez Leslie Abramson Lyle Menendez Melrose Place: Original Flavor Menendez: A Killing in Beverly Hills miniserieseses movies Pamela Bozanich Rick(y) Schroder Ron Soble Stanley Kamel that special breed of '90s foolishness The Blotter the pitying of fools Travis Fine true crime TV