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A&Es Dash and Lilly Needs More

The bedding, bickering and boozing of two literary lions ofthe 20th century makes sorry fodder for A&E Network's Dash and Lilly, anassessment of the 30-year relationship between novelist Dashiell Hammett and playwrightLillian Hellman. It's a romance for nihilists.

This certainly isn't the saintly Lilly and crusty,caring Dash of the Academy Award-winning Julia -- this is a warts-and-all portrayal(mostly warts) of the meeting of the two and their lengthy cohabitation.

The older Hammett (played in one tone by Sam Shepard) hadalready fed on the fame that he received from his novels such as The Thin Man, andhe was toiling for Hollywood studios when he crossed paths with Hellman (Judy Davis, whomakes a fine fiery dame), then a lowly script developer.

They shared philosophies and drank too much together. Hespurred her creativity, while he abandoned his for an alcoholic haze.

In her debut as a director, Kathy Bates has the stylisticbases covered: The time comes alive via the perfect costumes, cropped hair and art decofurnishings. But there is no heart to these people -- little joie de vivre beyond the witdisplayed by writer Dorothy Parker (Bebe Neuwirth).

I suppose we are to accept that pure animal magnetismbrought the title pair together, but what kept them together? Hammett could charm Lillyone second, then excuse himself to pursue a cocktail waitress, and Hellman would still bethere when he came home.

There must have been something in Hellman's backgroundthat steeled her to such abuse, but there are no clues in the teleplay. Their workingsymbiosis may have been the key, but that, too, is undeveloped cinematically.

The drama leads off with one of the most importantappearances of Hellman's life -- her summons before the House Un-American ActivitiesCommittee -- but the episode really is given short shrift. She's responsible for oneof the best lines of the period, when she refused to name names because she would not"cut her conscience to fit this year's fashion." But the episode and itsimpact on the lovers' lives are rendered flat here.

Dash and Lilly will premiere on A&E May 31 at 8p.m.