Actor-director JoBeth Williams was looking for her first feature-length story to direct - after the success of her Oscar-nominated short, "On Hope" - when she was presented with Frankie and Hazel (Showtime, Oct. 8, 8-10 p.m.). The family picture concerns two extraordinary 12-year-old girls, one ready to audition for a city ballet scholarship; and the other, a budding politician ready to take on the incumbent mayor who has slacked off in the job.
"It was enough of a challenge, but not so technically difficult that I would be overwhelmed by it," said Ms. Williams in a recent telephone interview. "I liked the story about two go-getter girls ... who had goals and went straight toward them...."
The ballerina, Frankie (Mischa Barton), is torn between her love of dance and a burning desire to play baseball - for which she has a natural aptitude. Her grandmother (played with her usual brilliance by Joan Plowright) believes one must sacrifice for one's art - and that baseball is a waste of valuable rehearsal time.
But Frankie has to learn for herself what her own ambitions really are. A nice thing about the script is the old-fashioned relationship between a disciplined, thoughtful grandmother, who knows the rigors of the art world, and her respectful granddaughter, who is still a child with dreams of athletic glory.
Joan Plowright is about the only actress who could carry off the commanding role with such grace. She never overwhelms her two young costars.
"Joan was just wonderful," says director Williams, who admits that she is in awe of the great British actress. "She was just so responsive to me. She'd say, 'Tell me if I'm doing too much.' One of the reasons she wanted to do the project is that it's written and directed by women....
"When I read the script, I couldn't imagine anyone else in the part."
Williams will soon leave for Vancouver, British Columbia, to direct an episode of the Fox anthology series "Night Visions" - her first foray into the horror genre. To do that, she had to give up the lead in a Los Angeles staging of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" - a part she has always coveted. So she understands young Frankie's dilemma about conflicting ambitions. But the lure of directing finally has the upper hand for Williams.
"I think it's important to have more of a female presence in the industry," she says. "The more choices we all have, the better."
And speaking of choices, as A&E's sterling Biography series demonstrates in Mary Queen of Scots: Heroine or Harlot? (Oct. 13, 8-9 p.m.), the poor lady made nothing but wrong ones throughout her career.
She suffered one horrible disaster after another - a marriage to a sociopath, whom she had murdered; another ill-timed marriage to a lover; a penchant for riling Catholic and Protestant nobles alike; and finally a foolish ambition for the English throne, to which she did have a legitimate claim. The lovely queen was imprisoned for 19 years, and finally, she was executed by Queen Elizabeth I.
If Mary's story has a touch of the Gothic about it, The Wyvern Mystery (PBS, Mystery!, Oct. 12 and 19, 9-10 p.m., check local listings) is as Gothic as it can get. Based on a novel by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, an Irishman whose frightening tales were popular in the late-19th century, the dark tale of murder and kidnapping just skirts the supernatural - the "ghostly" here has other explanations.
Beautiful young orphan Alice is raised in the house of Squire Fairfield, her dead father's enemy. When the Squire (Derek Jacobi) proposes marriage, Alice flees with her beloved, the squire's eldest son.
But tragedy dogs their footsteps to their new home as a strange, wild woman pursues and attacks. Is she an agent of the squire, the devil, or someone else? As the mystery unfolds, nothing is quite what it seems, and buried secrets surface.
Despite a few gaping plot holes, the story should be riveting for fans of mystery and speculative fiction. The moral jeopardy for the characters is reflected in dark corners: Alice wanders down endless dark halls; one wing of the new house is painted black; a housekeeper tells a story of a drowned baby; and Alice's continuing nightmares reflect the horrors in the house.
Jacobi, who usually plays mild-mannered heroes, is here a complex villain - with a conscience. As repulsive as the Squire is at first, the great actor invests his thinly written character with layers of feeling that ultimately elicit compassion. Naomi Watts as Alice displays intelligence and strength.
Like most Gothic tales, this one has everything to do with confronting evil - finding the truth beyond the veil of lies.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society