By Phil Hall | October 31, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 257 “Katherine” (1975 TV movie with Sissy Spacek, Henry Winkler and Art Carney).

LAST SEEN: We cannot confirm the film’s last public exhibition.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only on labels offering public domain dupes.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It is hard to say, since the film doesn’t appear to be in the public domain.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE : Not until music clearance rights are settled.

The recent efforts by the John McCain-Sarah Palin campaign to link Barack Obama to Bill Ayers, a member of the Weather Underground during the 1960s, probably brought more yawns and confusion than outrage to people under the age of 60. Despite the rabid exclamations of Obama “pallin’ around with terrorists,” there are two generations of Americans who probably never heard of the Weather Underground.

Back in 1975, however, the turmoil of the anti-war protests in the mid-to-late 1960s was still very fresh. ABC-TV, tapping into the cultural upheaval, shrewdly rushed forth a made-for-television movie that covered the underpinnings of the socio-political counterculture movement. The resulting production, the 1975 film “Katherine,” actually turned out to be a compelling and memorable achievement. While it is recalled today primarily as a career stepping stone for two up-and-coming actors, it is nonetheless a fascinating endeavor that provides a raw slice of America’s forgotten history.

“Katherine” was inspired by the true story of Diana Oughton, the daughter of a prosperous Illinois real estate tycoon and politician. She abandoned her wealthy lifestyle to dabble in Peace Corps do-gooder work in Guatemala and left wing politics at home before turning radical and joining the Weather Underground. Oughton died in 1970 when a bomb she was building detonated prematurely. “Katherine” also borrowed from the then-current headlines involving Patty Hearst, another heiress whose exact level of voluntary involvement with the Symbionese Liberation Army remained hazy in 1975.

In this film, the eponymous protagonist is a Denver heiress who graduates from Wellesley and takes a Peace Corps assignment in an unnamed South American country. Katherine’s attempts to bring literacy to the local peasants results in chaos, with the local ruling elite whipping the laborers who are interested in learning how to read. But Katherine is not eager to join in the armed struggle with the guerrillas who live in the neighboring mountains. To her mind, violence is not the answer.

However, Katherine changes her mind when she returns to the U.S. and gets work as a teacher in an all-black school located in the basement of a church deep in Jim Crow Dixie. Although she falls madly in love with Bob Kline, the hirsute radical who is the only other white person at the school, Katherine winds up getting muck from the racist crackers (who call her a “n****r lover”) and the neighborhood knockoffs of the Black Panther movement (who abhor the notion of whitey teaching the black kids).

Katherine and Bob decide to motor off across America, where they engage in draft card burning activities on college campuses and get busted up by the Chicago cops during the protests around the 1968 Democratic convention. Katherine gets pregnant, but decides the world is too rough for a newborn and opts for an abortion. She then joins Bob in pallin’ around with terrorists who hang posters of Karl Marx and Ho Chi Minh on their bare walls. Bob eventually gets tired of Katherine and splits to Canada, but Katherine remains and takes on an assignment to deliver a bomb to a San Francisco courthouse.

Structurally, “Katherine” is a bit peculiar. The film appears to be four different simultaneous happenings: a documentary-style interview session where people who knew Katherine (her parents, sister, best friend and ex-boyfriend) talk about her in the past tense, the journey that Katherine takes through the streets of San Francisco to reach her courthouse bombing destination while a detective follows her (anyone who vaguely familiar with that city will be amazed at the tortured route she takes), the extended dramatic flashbacks that show Katherine’s descent from fashionably leftism into violence radicalism, and odd confessions of a black-clad Katherine in a white room, where she babble about her love for America (it may take a while to figure out what that’s all about…no spoilers here, but the effect is actually deviously clever when it becomes clear where Katherine really is).

Art Carney received top billing for “Katherine,” which is understandable since he was just coming off his Academy Award winning performance in “Harry and Tonto.” He plays Katherine’s ultra-rich and ultra-forgiving father, and he’s actually damn good – for anyone who only knows Carney for his second banana comedy status on “The Honeymooners,” there is a huge surprise in watching him handle a cliched role with subtlety and sincerity. (His performance earned an Emmy Award nomination.) A bit less successful are Jane Wyatt as Katherine’s easily agitated mother and Julie Kavner as her comic relief best friend – the roles are written as stereotypes and neither actress has the depth to turn their respective parts into three dimensional characters.

But there is Katherine, and she is played by a young Sissy Spacek. She wasn’t quite famous yet – she was the female lead in Terrence Malick’s 1973 “Badlands,” but that film was only popular with critics and not with audiences. Spacek was still paying her dues in performances on TV series like “The Waltons” and “The Rookies,” and “Katherine” offered her the opportunity to achieve her most prominent performance to date. Spacek took the part and handled it brilliantly – she captured the mix of emotions of the young woman in her transformation from strident do-gooder to dedicated social activist to rabid radical. Her segments in the eerie white room, when she “explains” her actions, are wonderfully jarring – it is easy to understand how she was cast in the title role of her breakthrough 1976 film “Carrie” based on those marvelously off-kilter scenes.

But Spacek was not the only star in ascension here. Katherine’s boyfriend was played by Henry Winkler, who was just starting to connect with TV audiences as Fonzie on “Happy Days.” His character in “Katherine” was the polar opposite of Fonzie: a motormouthed, intensely political hedonist who would rather run from trouble instead of facing it head-on. Winkler’s performance is as memorable as Spacek’s – he is a kinetic force of energy that gives roaring passion and clay feet to the radicalism of the era. It is not surprising that Jeremy Paul Kagan, the director of “Katherine,” tapped Winkler as the star of his next project, the feature film “Heroes.” Sadly, that underrated film failed to propel Winkler into big screen stardom – his iconic status was locked into the small screen via “Happy Days.”

“Katherine” was well-received in its initial U.S. television broadcast, and it reportedly played in European theaters with a few additional scenes that were deleted from the TV version (including a pot-smoking sequence and Katherine’s money-raising work in a strip club). With the advent of home video, “Katherine” has turned up on several labels specializing in public domain titles. This is odd, since the film doesn’t appear to be in the public domain. It does, however, have music clearance issues – the soundtrack offers covers of several classic tunes by the Beach Boys and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – and that may explain its absence from commercial home entertainment release and its prevalence as a bootlegged dupe.

It is not difficult to locate a bootleg of “Katherine,” and the film deserves to be seen. After all, when Sissy Spacek and Henry Winkler are trying to overthrow the government, it’s more than acceptable to be pallin’ around with those terrorists!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Martel732 says:

    “….when Sissy Spacek and Henry Winkler are trying to overthrow the government, it’s more than acceptable to be pallin’ around with those terrorists!”

    Yeah! Especially, when such terrorists – based on real people,remember – set bombs that killed at least THREE innocent people – an Oakland policeman,the first Black school superintendent in Oakland,and a soldier in a library – and possibly,a couple others,right?!!!!
    And then, those very murderous terrorists,years later, with help from their fat cat,well-oiled Liberal daddies and other such friends-in-high-places,get off the hook,and get to teach ( i.e. brainwash ) young people,in universities,in high schools,children’s schools, with Marxist/Socialist/Communist,etc, politics,hoping to bring about Stalin’s Russia/Mao’s China,Castro’s Cuba,Mugabe’s Zimbabwe,etc,with millions starving to death,or worked to dearth in labor camps,for the slightest “disrespect” to Glorious Leader, here in the US!!!!
    How “acceptable”….

    • Nicholas D'Amico says:

      YEAH!!! SHOOT EVERYBODY! I DON’T CARE WHAT POLITICAL AFFILIATION THEY HAVE!!! EVERYONE IS ROTTEN!!! EVERYONE IS… oh, wait a second. I think Phil was making a facetious statement there. Never mind.

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