I’m sure the producers of the Jerry Springer movie had every good intention of making a cheap, sensationalistic movie to exploit the popularity of America’s most popular and controversial daytime talkshow host. I’m sure they wanted a cocktail of lesbian strippers, transvestites, and chair-throwing white trash to make a quick buck in the theatres. None of the promotional materials I’ve seen led me to believe anything else. However, I’m sure director Neil Abramson, writer John Bernstein, and, I suspect Springer himself, had another idea entirely.
While “Ringmaster” is a work of fiction performed by professional actors, it is eerily true to everything Springer has stated about his show. Jerry is not the star of his show. He’s not the star of the movie, either. Jerry is a sort of befuddled wizard of Oz, wandering in and out of his own movie as the real stars of the film make their way to him seeking transformation, transcendence or just their fifteen minutes in the spotlight. Two groups make their way to Oz (Los Angeles): one to demonstrate, “My girlfriend’s a traitor” and the other, “You did what with your stepdaddy?”
The real star of this show is Molly Hagan. As Connie Zorzak, she drives a snack truck and lives with her deadbeat husband Rusty (Michæl Dudikoff) and her 19 year old daughter, Angel (Jaime Pressly) in a genuine Florida trailer park. Angel’s a petite, blonde hellion whose two primary methods of expression seem to be her temper and oral sex. All are subject to the former and guests of the motel she clean for and her, guess what, “stepdaddy” are subject to the latter. Mom, who was only 15 when Angel was born, walks in on the pair. Her first stop is across the trailer park to Angel’s sort of fiancee Willie (Ashley Holbrook) to create a kind of “balance” in the family dynamic, and her second stop is to the payphone to call the “Jerry” show to report all that’s gone on.
The other half of the sideshow concerns Starletta (Wendy Raquel Robinson) and her boyfriend Demond (Michæl Jai White). Demond has the misfortune to always have Starletta bust him in intercourse with her girlfriends. Two such girlfriends join the pair on their trip to Los Angeles to appear on the “Jerry” show.
Meanwhile, in California, Jerry’s staff is well aware they do not work for 60 minutes. Fans accost Jerry as some sage Jedi master who can help them work through their problems. The media accosts him as the harbinger of the fall of western civilization. Jerry, it turns out, is just a schlub trying to do the best that he can and has a little compassion to go around for everybody, and everybody finds their way to his show.
Now we get to the point of all this. Jerry has stated publicly, and in the movie, that while he seems to reign over a freakshow, his guests are decent human beings who have the misfortune of being poor and getting into some messed up situations. Much of the shows success derives from Jerry’s refusal to judge them (that and the fights). He is, after all, the guy who was busted for visiting a whorehouse while deputy mayor of Cincinnati because he wrote them a check.
The movie takes viewpoint of the guests. We follow them from the point they develop their “situations”, to contact with the show, what happens there, and how they cope with the aftermath. What allows this film to transcend your typical Fox reality show is the refusal to write off anyone. Everyone is allowed the chance to display their humanity. They prove to be not necessarily losers as just lost. Demond, the one guy who just can’t seem to keep it in his pants, performs a completely selfless act, one he knows will cost him.
When the movie works, it’s like Robert Altman directing from a Paul Schrader script. It’s dark and powerful. No one is Hollywood pretty. It demonstrates, with fierceness and subtlety, the one defining characteristic of Jerry’s kids is loneliness. They all ended up where they are by a need for human contact and compassion. The reason they all worship Jerry is he’s giving out warmth and compassion like Halloween candy to a bunch of confused but good children wearing scary masks.
The movie has it’s problems. Jerry and his movie staff feel the need to preach occasionally and deliver the requisite freakshow. Abramson and Bernstein know, fortunately, they’re not dealing with the empty cult of personality of Howard Stern. Molly Hagan is stunning. Her performance never wavers. No matter what she has to take, she never gives up on her daughter, who despite her mother’s subtle competitiveness, loves her back. In the end, it’s the women in this film who find in each other upon whom they can depend.
Why has Oprah Winfrey lost so much ground to Springer? Oprah comes off now like some stern mother telling you what to do with your life. Jerry is the confused but understanding dad who will always love you and tell you to just play nice. Which would you want? Besides, “Beloved” sucks.