On May 18, 1926, Canadian Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson (Faye Dunaway, Bonnie and Clyde) disappears from a California beach. Weeks later, McPherson reappears in Mexico, claiming that she had been kidnapped for ransom. Believing it was an elaborate hoax, skeptical prosecutors decide to charge McPherson and her mother, Minnie Kennedy (Bette Davis), with perjury and other criminal offenses.
Reaction & Thoughts:
“I want one thing in my life that I can call my own.”
The Disappearance of Aimee has been a source of great curiosity among movie buffs ever since a feisty Bette Davis bluntly told TV host Johnny Carson that Faye Dunaway was the most unprofessional actor she ever worked with. As far as I’m concerned, that’s a good enough reason to watch this movie. Another reason to sit through this made-for-TV production is its fascinating storyline: the movie revolves around the mysterious disappearance of real-life Evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson.
The Disappearance of Aimee, a Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation, aired on TV on November 17, 1976. Hallmark Hall movies have lost the prestige they once had, but back in the day these productions were considered must-see TV events. The film is a quality movie from top to bottom — this period piece sports high production values, including eye-catching costumes by legendary designer Edith Head (Roman Holiday).
Film critic John J. O’Connor (of the New York Times) wrote that the film “is an exceptionally attractive production looking desperately and unsuccessfully for a dramatic focus.” I agree with Mr. O’Connor that the movie is a bit shapeless. I must note that The Disappearance of Aimee isn’t really a biopic. It’s a courtroom drama that relies heavily on flashbacks. The movie focuses exclusively on the sensational trial that took place in 1927, apparently one of California’s most expensive court cases.
Written by John McGreevey (Walt Disney’s Night Crossing) and directed by Anthony Harvey (The Lion in Winter), The Disappearance of Aimee attempts to offer a plausible answer to a still unsolved mystery. While historians have never been able to prove or disprove McPherson’s kidnapping claims, the film clearly suggests that the famous Evangelist was a religious shyster who lied to the authorities.
Part of me wishes that writer McGreevey had stuck to the original trial transcripts and allowed viewers to make up their own minds whether McPherson was lying or not — a little vagueness would have amplified the mystery factor. McPherson, whose life wasn’t short on controversies, deserved a more fair-minded movie with a broader scope (perhaps a mini-series would have been a better format). No matter, The Disappearance of Aimee demonstrates that sometimes life is stranger than fiction.
Despite featuring many positive elements, this fine TV production will always be remembered as “the movie that started the feud between Faye Dunaway and Bette Davis.” The temperamental ladies share the screen on multiple occasions and their scenes together are filled with almost unbearable tension. As a matter of fact, the entire movie builds up to a memorable scene where an angry Davis shakes the living daylights out of Dunaway (I’m sure Davis didn’t need to rehearse the scene!).
The cast also includes a very young James Woods (Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America) as Assistant District Attorney Joseph Ryan. Woods, who is a talented photographer in real-life, took the photo Davis used for the cover of her 1987 book This N’ That. Also with James Sloyan (The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight) as real-life District Attorney Asa Keyes and Lelia Goldoni (Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) as McPherson’s loyal follower and secretary, Miss Emma Shaffer.
Conclusions & Final Thoughts:
Evangelist Aimee Elizabeth Semple McPherson has been portrayed by a handful of actresses, albeit in a disguised manner: Barbara Stanwyck in The Miracle Woman (1932), Jean Simmons in Elmer Gantry (1960) and Geraldine Page in Day of the Locust (1976). Anyhow, The Disappearance of Aimee might not be an entirely successful movie, but trust me on this one, seeing Faye Dunaway and Bette Davis trying to upstage each other is more fun than anything else out there. Color, 96 minutes, Not Rated.