Saturday, February 13, 2016

In the End, It Killed Him

Review: The Man With Three Wives, with Beau Bridges and Pam Dawber


Last night I got sucked into a 1993 made-for-TV movie, The Man With Three Wives. I cannot explain why this sleaze even caught my eye sufficiently to cause me to turn it on—perhaps it was the concept that it was based on a true story. 


Maybe it was just the opportunity to see Pam Dawber again.

Whatever my initial motivation, I was thoroughly hooked by the first commercial break. Beau Bridges, who played Dr. Norman Grayson, the polygamist of the title, presented a complex character with confused motives. Genuinely caring, a truly good doctor, Grayson suffers because he really does love all three women.

Yet he lies to them constantly, by omission and by action, covertly and overtly deceiving everyone for whom he supposedly cares. He complains of stress in his life; his solution is to marry a third woman. He even juggles two wives who live in the same community, managing to keep them separate. Wife #1 (Lillian, played by Kathleen Lloyd, a veteran TV-movie actress) is the mother of Grayson’s three adult children. Wife #2 (Katy, played by Joanna Kerns, familiar to wide-screen audiences from Girl, Interrupted) owns her own business; Katy’s father is another doctor at Grayson’s hospital, and his good friend.

The unbelievable cojones required to keep up this balancing act can be encapsulated in one scene. About four years into their marriage, Katy arrives at the hospital and asks Grayson to take her to lunch at the mall. She knows Lillian (whom she believes to be her husband’s ex-wife) is participating in a bicycle safety event there. Grayson not only consents to introduce them to each other (by first name only, needless to say), but stands there with a gentle smile on his face as the women exchange guarded greetings—he even invites Wife #1 to lunch with him and Wife #2! (Fortunately for Grayson’s adrenals, Lillian cannot leave the booth she’s tending.)

Bridges’ Grayson never breaks a sweat in public—but at night, as he weaves his pattern of false emergencies and late hours to sleep with both local wives for a few hours each night, the years of bigamy begin to take their toll. Increasingly, he wakes in a cold funk, and needs to gobble antacids to return to sleep. When Grayson helps Robin (Pam Dawber) through her divorce, this woman with whom he has a long history of friendship becomes first a refuge from his stress, then a new source of it when he marries her, as well.

The third marriage escalates his problems, as Grayson begins to lose some control in this incredible juggling act. He “forgets” to make several mortgage payments on the house he is buying with Katy, in order to pay the income taxes for his household with Lillian. Checks are being returned NSF from all the accounts he’s opened for the three homes. His marriage to Robin entails travel every other weekend, and when he rejects Robin’s offer to come visit him at the hospital, saying he “can’t afford to put her up in a motel” there (which is probably true on several levels), her suspicions are aroused.

Robin, unlike either of Grayson’s long-term wives, is sufficiently worried to hire a private detective. What she learns sends her storming into Grayson’s office with a full annulment, and a restraining order to keep him away from her daughter. She does, however, consent not to tell anyone else about her “husband’s” infamy.

Throughout the movie, I was engrossed by the narrow escapes and the effrontery of this man, whose three wives could say, even after his bigamy was revealed, “But I still love him!” I knew his artificial world would eventually come crashing down. The grace of this movie (which, given the topic, could easily have been as sleazy as its title implies) is that we want Norman Grayson to succeed, even while we know that he deserves, and is ultimately doomed, to fail.



Liner Notes:


  • This review was first published in 2005 in my blog Paper Frigate. It also appeared in Blogcritics and was republished in print in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
  • The real-life polygamist, Dr. Norman Lewiston, lived and worked in the San Francisco Bay area. Wife #3, Robyn Phelps, met him when she worked at the same hospital, but married him after she had moved to San Diego.