CBS (Sunday, Nov. 11, 8 p.m. ET)
What a pity that Richard Burton had to go to the grave with this as his last performance. He is as striking and imposing as he ever was. But the mini-series that last recorded his cello voice should have been stopped at the border. Ellis Island tries to be the son of Yentl and Ragtime revisited, but it is three times as long as either one and not a fraction as entertaining. In this lukewarm melting pot, immigrants come to “Ahmeleeka!” to find streets paved with bad intentions. Peter (Concealed Enemies) Riegert is a Russian Jew who becomes a hit songwriter (sample lyric: “Knock, knock, New York, you better let me in”) and the husband of showgirl Ann (Jennifer Slept Here) Jillian. His buddy, hunk Italian gardener Greg Martyn, falls in love with Irish beauty Judi (Clash of the Titans) Bowker, who goes blind and then turns to writing movies—a bad joke that makes a person wonder whether the director of Ellis Island, Jerry (Shogun) London, hasn’t himself lost his sight or senses. Anyway, Martyn becomes Faye Dunaway’s paid “fancy man” (“I’ma nota somea piecea meat,” he protests as he unzips his pants), until Dunaway marries Richard Burton, the rich Republican senator; then Martyn marries Burton’s TV (and real) daughter, Kate, who turns liberal, lunatic and lesbian. And so on. And so on. Ordinarily, a book should be made into a miniseries instead of a movie because it is so filled with people and plot that you need a half-dozen or more hours to’ tell the tale—and even then, as in the case of Shogun, you have to leave things out; Ellis Island, on the other hand, is stretched to fill its seven hours—it’s long on characters, short on characterization. It can’t decide whether to be trash or class, whether to teach or to titillate. So pity the poor actors who find themselves lost in this schizophrenic cinematic sprawl. Cute Kate Burton, the one with the supposed social conscience, gets stuck with all the worst lines: She seduces Martyn sighing, “The slums…tell us about the stench, the filth, the cockroaches!” Riegert finds himself reciting the Declaration of Independence to Jillian’s pregnant womb. Bowker looks like a delicate flower fighting for survival in a weed patch. Melba Moore and Ben Vereen come on and off the screen as, sorry to say, token blacks. Ann Jillian, a comic blond bombshell, never gets a chance to ham it up. And Dunaway, who should stick to class acts like Bonnie and Clyde, hams it up too much; she looks as uncomfortable as a pig on the spit. At the end, she says: “I always cry at the final curtain.” They are tears of relief. Part Two airs Tuesday, Part Three Wednesday.