Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean (1990) – A Review
Suzanne Pleshette plays notorious business woman, real estate mogul and the woman dubbed ‘the Queen of Mean’ Leona Helmsley in a 1990 television movie.
Based on the book of the same name, the story covers Helmsley’s poor, unloved upbringing, her numerous marriages to wealthy men and eventual marriage to real estate billionaire Harry Helmsley (played by Lloyd Bridges) with whom she would reach the top of the ladder she had always wanted. From her marriage to Helmsley she would become one of the most feared and powerful businesswomen in the world. With her controversial and savage personal and business behavior she would fall from her penthouse perch when she got indicted for tax fraud.
Helmsley was a fixture in newspapers throughout the 80’s. Reports about her cut-throat and vicious persona kept her in the headlines. It was little surprise when the kingdom she built and her name she had tried so hard to come to associate with elegance and class came crumbling down. Everyone was eager to read about the Queen’s fall.
Helmsley is a fascinating character and her story is almost one of those huge Shakespearean tales. Rich and powerful characters, expensive proprieties in their grasp, a rich city that they rule over. This is an epic tale.
That sadly is one of the big weaknesses with this TV movie. With a limited TV budget, the film is unable to create a real sense of the extravagant opulence that Helmsley ruled over. I was familiar with seeing Helmsley on the news and recall the lavish hotels and homes she had. She made herself out to be royalty with these huge estates and hotels of hers.
The film can’t compete with that. Most of the scenes are set in very bland looking rooms. Even lavish parties and banquet halls aren’t that impressive looking. Most of them look like any ordinary gathering at a Hilton hotel. It really does look like a cheap TV-movie.
While watching this I kept envisioning what they could have created with a bigger budget and better production design. Compared to something like the more recent HBO film Wizard of Lies about Bernie Madoff, that film was able to give you more of a feeling of the wealth and surroundings the story was taking place in. The Queen of Mean doesn’t come close to conveying that. But that was the restraints they were faced with by the smaller scale production.
What the film lacks in its budget, it succeeds with its lead performance by Pleshette. She is the real standout in this and makes it worthwhile. She gives a terrific performance. She’s cold, calculating, manipulative, its just what you expect to see from this woman. And when she loses her temper the rafters start shaking, the commoners around her quake and she earns her famous nickname.
Pleshette doesn’t hold back making this woman unlikable, and the character doesn’t apologize for her behavior. There’s no sense of guilt or hesitation by her when she finally meets Harry and gradually begins manipulating her new lovelorn husband any way she pleases.
There’s a wonderful scene of Leona giving Harry the ultimatum of leaving his wife of thirty-three years to marry her. She plays it very sly, acting as if she has no choice making the demand. Poor Harry ends up divorcing his wife, while Leona feels her handling of him and the leap her social status is about to take is a success. No remorse is even hinted at.
Bridges is fine as Harry. I felt sorry for the guy as his new wife blatantly manipulates him. It’s obvious he’s completely in love with her. I’m not so sure about her with him though. I didn’t see much genuine feelings towards him. It could be that Leona does care for Harry in her own way, or at least the most she can, but it’s superseded by her drive for success. Watching how she acts towards her own son, it’s not likely that this woman can love at all.
The story is told in flashback as Leona prepares for the big verdict of her trial. And the film ends there. It felt like the film could have spent more time with her during the publicity storm that was raining down on her from the press during this period. That’s when her notoriety really soared as more and more stories about her came out. But it’s quickly glossed over. I think that was a missed opportunity.
Joe Regalbuto plays one character who doesn’t bow to Helmsley on her climb. He becomes something of a confidant and something of a conscious in the movie. He doesn’t hide his feelings that he thinks her behavior is abhorrent. He suddenly disappears from the story when she meets Harry.
Perhaps she had no further need for a friend like that. Had the film kept him around he could of offered an honest perspective by someone who was witness to her behavior. Leona wouldn’t have listened to him, but it might have been interesting to have a scene of someone attempting to give her a reality check during her out of control tantrums.
The ‘bitchy’ moments the movie does present are a heck of a lot of fun. Leona going ballistic over wet lettuce in her hotel, having her assistant wipe her shoes, firing employees without batting an eye, threatening her son for jeopardizing her enterprises. All of it is great stuff and Pleshette soars during those scenes.
A movie about Leona could be the equalvilant to a modern day Mommie Dearest. An out-of-control ‘bitch’ just waiting to explode in scenes with memorable deplorable behavior, reciting lines like her famed, “Only littlepeople pay taxes”. That could go right up there with the “No wire hangers” scene.
Throw in her gaudy outfits, caked on makeup, prowling around in opulent surroundings, it would seem like a movie that would be almost a guaranteed cult offering.
Until that movie gets made The Queen of Mean is adequate enough. Pleshette excels in it, but I can’t help but think if one were to put this woman and her story on a grander canvas it could be so much more entertaining.
Here, give it a watch!