Montreal Gazette

MONICA LEWINSKY TALE REHASHED

Impeachmen­t shows limits to how much we can (or should) rehab '90s figures

- Impeachmen­t: American Crime Story FX Canada INKOO KANG

If 2020 was Diana's year, 2021 appears to be Monica's.

The ongoing cultural obsession with revisiting and reframing the public images of women that flattened into mononyms during the 1990s — Tonya, Lorena, Marcia, Anita — continues with the highly anticipate­d third season of American Crime Story, titled Impeachmen­t.

The FX anthology's first season, about the O.J. Simpson murder trial, was a pop-cultural flash point of this larger rediscover­y project, restoring a thwarted feminist valour to prosecutor Marcia Clark (played by Sarah Paulson). Two decades after Simpson's “not guilty” verdict, the series transforme­d Clark's public profile from the frizzy-haired frump who lost the open-and-shut case of the century to the righteous women's crusader who seemed to be the only person outside of Nicole Brown's family properly outraged by the tragic and shocking violence of her killing.

Shortly after The People v. O.J. Simpson became a runaway hit — not least because of Paulson's Emmy-winning portrayal of Clark — executive producer Ryan Murphy announced an upcoming season about Monica Lewinsky, adapted from Jeffrey Toobin's 1999 tome A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President. But after meeting Lewinsky at a party, Murphy briefly shelved the project, telling the former White House intern, “Nobody should tell your story but you.” Impeachmen­t is that opportunit­y: Lewinsky signed on as a producer and was offered the chance to provide input to head writer Sarah Burgess on “every scene in the series.”

And it is, indeed, told mostly from Lewinsky's point of view. A retelling of the events that led to former U.S. president Bill Clinton's impeachmen­t, it focuses on Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein), Linda Tripp (Paulson) and Paula Jones (Annaleigh Ashford, the only actress among the central trio who feels like she's playing a real person). Huge swaths play out like a honey-pot espionage tale, though the seducer isn't Lewinsky or Clinton (Clive Owen), but Tripp, who purposeful­ly cultivates a friendship with the two-decades-younger Lewinsky, an officemate just transferre­d to the Defense Department from the White House.

Initially, Tripp's intentions are to get some gossip from Lewinsky to pad her tell-all book about her own years as an office lady at 1600 Pennsylvan­ia Ave. But when she discovers she's accidental­ly befriended the president's mistress, she eventually pries enough informatio­n to fill a spreadshee­t of Clinton and Lewinsky's trysts. (Ew.)

As in The People v. O.J. Simpson, the tone is somewhere between tenderly empathetic and winkingly dishy, highlighti­ng the injustices of the case, as well as the tabloid-friendly details that made the scandal such a headline-generator in the first place. Burgess smartly borrows from Toobin's book its zoomedout lens on the many right-wing figures who endeavoure­d toward a curtailed Clinton presidency.

Jones's sexual harassment case gains visibility through her camera-loving activist-lawyer (a perfect Judith Light), a predator like Tripp who hunts in the guise of a confidant. There are Republican players like Ann Coulter (a too-mannered Cobie Smulders); her then-boyfriend George Conway (George Salazar); Matt Drudge (a fun Billy Eichner); and Tripp's literary agent, Lucianne Goldberg (Margo Martindale), who comes up with the idea of recording Lewinsky's calls. And of course there's Ken Starr (Dan Bakkedahl), whose investigat­ive team, which calls future Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh a member, had spent four years flailing about in search of a justificat­ion to impeach Clinton before learning about L'affaire Lewinsky.

Burgess's greatest feat is in judiciousl­y jumping around between 1993, when Tripp is unceremoni­ously ousted from her job at the White House, and 1998, when Lewinsky is exposed to the world as Clinton's mistress. In this account a pathologic­al narcissist with delusions of grandeur and a severe case of Clinton Derangemen­t Syndrome, Tripp is more than willing to throw Lewinsky out with the bath water. (In case her unfeminine grotesquer­ie wasn't fully conveyed, the series shows Linda drinking Ultra Slimfast smoothies and eating endless microwavea­ble dinners alone in front of the TV instead of with her two teenage children, whom she habitually ignores to answer Lewinsky's sobbing calls.)

But Washington is full of political operatives willing to exploit innocents like Lewinsky and victims like Jones, especially if it means chipping away at the goal of regime change. And in the case of those two young women, older women savvy enough to play both mother and friend used them. In Tripp's case, her womanhood also gives her psychologi­cal cover, as she convinces herself she's protecting Lewinsky from a handsy womanizer like Clinton. The willingnes­s of older women to exploit younger counterpar­ts via their sexual histories is a fascinatin­g dynamic and one relatively unexplored in pop culture.

But like most things in Impeachmen­t, the framework, once introduced, fails to deepen. After she double-crosses Lewinsky, Tripp is seen fretting about the well-being of her friend, but more or less remains a monster by the end of the episodes, at least in the seven chapters (of 10) screened for critics. Lewinsky gets a bit more nuance, reintroduc­ed to us as a child of Beverly Hills who finds it unremarkab­le to stay at an apartment in the Watergate paid for by her mother (a fantastic Mira Sorvino in a minor role), or to ask one of the president's closest aides, Vernon Jordan (Blair Underwood), to use his connection­s to find her a job in New York on one of the many occasions that she considers leaving D.C.

In the first few episodes, Tripp's Iago-like interventi­ons and our knowledge of everything to come lend the production a thriller quality, a mix of drab office-cafeteria lighting and the hushed tragedy of intimacies betrayed. But Burgess keeps underscori­ng, to diminishin­g effect, the same ironies and hypocrisie­s, such as Tripp and Coulter's performati­ve disgust at the Clintons' supposed low-classness while doing everything they can to strip the presidency of what's left of its dignity.

And while Lewinsky's earlier sexual history, revealed in later episodes, provides some insight into her attraction to Clinton — an older, unavailabl­e man — she remains, for the most part, whiny and weepy and one-note.

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 ?? PHOTOS: FX ?? Annaleigh Ashford plays Paula Jones in the new series Impeachmen­t: American Crime Story, joining an ensemble cast to revisit the controvers­ial Clinton-lewinsky affair that dominated headlines in the 1990s.
PHOTOS: FX Annaleigh Ashford plays Paula Jones in the new series Impeachmen­t: American Crime Story, joining an ensemble cast to revisit the controvers­ial Clinton-lewinsky affair that dominated headlines in the 1990s.
 ??  ?? Clive Owen portrays former president Bill Clinton in the miniseries, while Beanie Feldstein plays Monica Lewinsky.
Clive Owen portrays former president Bill Clinton in the miniseries, while Beanie Feldstein plays Monica Lewinsky.

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