A PROMISE TO CAROLYN
Suspicious for almost 40 years of the circumstances surrounding the death of their youngest sibling in 1955, sisters Debra Harper (Delta Burke) and Kay Wilbanks (Swoosie Kurtz) convince authorities in McKinney, Texas to investigate their baby sister's questionable death. Victims of abusive parents, Debra and Kay are haunted by the misfortunes of their abused childhood and the tragic loss of their youngest sister, Carolyn, who allegedly died from a fall off a bed. Convinced that Carolyn's death was at the hands of their cold and cruel stepmother, Jolene Maggart (Shirley Knight), Kay and Debra delve into their traumatic pasts to bring the killer to justice.
Based on a true story, "A Promise To Carolyn" opens with Debra traveling to McKinney to spend the Christmas holidays with her family. Anxious about seeing Kay, their father Butch Maggart (Bill McKinney) and Jolene, Debra slips into a mysterious flashback in which she sees a baby sitting in the back seat of a car. Always certain of Jolene's guilt, Kay's relationship with her parents has long been rocky. Debra, on the other hand, has always tried to skirt the issue, wishing to forget the past.
An aficionado of astrology, Kay asks Debra to inquire about the exact time of Carolyn's birth so she could read her astrological chart. Debra reluctantly agrees to ask Butch, knowing the consequences such a question could bring. Predictably, Butch and Jolene express displeasure with her question and blame Kay for bringing up the past.
The story then travels back to the mid 1950's when Debra, Kay and Carolyn were moving into a Texas motel with Butch and Jolene, who just abducted the girls from Butch's unreliable ex-wife. With the three sisters having difficulty adjusting to the change and wanting to return to their real mother, Jolene begins to verbally and physically abuse them.
Back in McKinney, while staying with Butch and Jolene over Christmas, Debra continues to have vague flashbacks similar to the one she experienced on the bus. At Kay's Christmas party, these flashbacks begin to take their toll on the sister's relationship, as they argue about Carolyn's death. Denying Kay's accusations of indifference, Debra claims that she was too young to remember what exactly happened. Breaking down out of anger, Kay reveals that Carolyn did not fall off a bed, but was violently thrown to the ground by Jolene.
Back home, Debra sends in a request for Carolyn's medical records, which she asks her doctor to review. Kay places a call to Detective Randy Goodson (Lawrence Monoson) of the McKinney Police Department to find photographs of Carolyn that she remembers were taken just before her funeral. Debra's doctor deducts from Carolyn's records that she certainly was beaten to death, as supported by notes of bruises, a black eye and a crushed skull. Now thoroughly convinced that Jolene did indeed kill Carolyn, Debra travels back to McKinney to help Kay uncover the truth and bring their stepmother to justice.
At the police station, Debra and Kay tell Goodson how Jolene liked to hurt them by feeding them things that made them ill, and when they'd refuse to eat, she would beat them until they complied. Realizing that her memory of Carolyn's murder is vague and that the D.A. needs more proof of what happened, Debra insists that she be hypnotized to find out the truth, which Goodson eventually approves. As a psychologist guides Debra back to the murder, she begins to tremble as she returns to see Jolene lose her patience while trying to put Carolyn's shoes on, driving her to yank Carolyn out of her chair and violently slam her down to the hardwood floor. As Debra shrieks from the horror of reliving Carolyn's murder, Kay rushes to comfort her as she fades out of the memory.
After further investigation into Debra's and Kay's stories, and showing the videotape of Debra's hypnosis to the D.A., Goodson gets permission to exhume Carolyn's body to determine the extent of her injuries. Forensic experts determine that Carolyn had a broken rib and a tear in her skull resulting from an impact similar to a fall from a four-story building, not from a simple fall off a bed. With physical proof in hand, Goodson arrests Jolene for Carolyn's murder, but he still needs witnesses to corroborate the sisters' story and to run lab tests to determine what the exact color of the dress Carolyn wore when she was buried. Kay believes that the dress was lavender, while Debra says that it was yellow. This causes a discrepancy in their story, which could be used to prove Jolene's innocence.
Claiming that child abuse was strictly a family matter when the murder occurred, a doctor who treated Carolyn in the emergency room years earlier offers no help in supporting their story. Eventually, a nurse who was also at the hospital and who authorities thought had since died, calls the D.A. to tell him that she remembered Carolyn being covered with bruises, and as an abused child herself, had never forgotten about Carolyn. Now the authorities have a rock solid case against Jolene.
The stress of being responsible for Jolene's arrest, and the likelihood of testifying against her drives Debra to think about backing out, but she is persuaded to stay strong by the D.A.'s assistant. She is also buoyed by her reunion with an aunt who offered the three girls their only sanctuary from their unloving parents. Shortly after taking the stand to testify, the D.A. tells Debra of test results that ascertain the color of Carolyn's dress as yellow with lavender trim. Debra is now instilled with the strength and courage to testify against Jolene.
Jolene is found guilty of murder without malice, but is sentenced according to the law as it existed in 1955 and is given a five year suspended sentence. Having finally found justice by uncovering the ever elusive truth about their sister's death, Debra and Kay pay one last visit to Carolyn's grave before leaving McKinney to let their murdered sister know that she can finally rest in peace.
A Promise to Carolyn
January 16, 1996
By John P. McCarthy
Filmed in Dallas by the Kaufman Co. in association with Citadel Entertainment. Executive producer, Paul A. Kaufman; co-executive producer, Scott Swanton; producer. Michael 0. Gallant; director, Jerry London, writer, Swanton; camera, Billy Dickson; editor, Benjamin A. Weissman, production designer, Derek R. Hill; sound, Skip Frazee; music, Laura Karpman.
Cast: Delta Burke, Swoosie Kurtz, Shirley Knight, Grace Zabriskie, Lawrence Monoson. Casey Biggs, Alexa Vega, Jane Goold, Bill McKinney, Steve Shearer, Morgana Shaw, David Denney, Melanie Haynes, Madylin Sweeten, Allison Ritter, Jessica Ritter, Liz Piazza Kelley, Tim Simek Gail Cronauer, John Davies.
Delta Burke and Swoosie Kurtz deliver vivid perfs as Texas sisters avenging the years ago murder of their sibling in "A Promise to Carolyn," a harrowing story of child abuse and its aftermath. Jerry London shrewdly directs Scott Swanton's script, which has detailed characterizations and only a pinch of false sentiment.
Flashbacks to 37 years ago show the three young sisters getting passed between their mother and aunt before ending up with their father and his sadistic wife, Jolene (Morgana Shaw, and Shirley Knight in the present).
Kay (Kurtz) has never forgotten Jolene's wrenching brutality, but Debra (Burke) who, ironically, now runs a day care center has blocked it out to a degree. The powerful enactment of the torture campaign against the girls my be too much for some viewers.
Guilt over Carolyn's "accidental" death still dominates their lives. Resolve to pursue the matter hardens at the holidays as fragile Debra wants Carolyn's forgiveness and salty Kay seeks revenge: "I want to see Jolene swinging from a damn rope.
Referring to both women's checkered pasts, Debra sums up one aspect of her reluctance: "Who's gonna give a damn now ... especially about a couple of white trash sisters like us?"
A sympathetic detective trusts their memories and gets the district attorney's attention. After Debra relives the murder under hypnosis, charges are brought and the toddler's body is exhumed.
Emphasis isn't on legalities but on Debra's ability to remember, forgive herself and honor Carolyn. While the decision to point up Debra's struggle is justified, the psychology isn't subtle: Shots of Debra's face are held too long, and the movie almost gets lost in her vulnerability.
Burke is a refreshing telepic heroine. Those finding her performance too childlike will be outnumbered by those who identify with her unglamorous persona. Kurtz, who never flags, complements Burke. Shaw, in cat glasses, is chilling as the younger Jolene, and Knight is lurid as step mommy dearest.
'A Promise to Carolyn' is better than average
By JOHN MARTIN
What's so good about "A Promise to Carolyn," CBS at 9, is that it is plausible, terrifying and heartbreaking. And while it may be guilty of some typical TV-movie flashback excesses, the fact-based drama will send chills up and down your spine.
Swoosie Kurtz ("Sisters") and Delta Burke ("Designing Women") costar as white trash sisters who, 40 years after the fact, come to grips with the fact that their 2 year-old baby sister Carolyn was murdered by their abusive stepmother (played by Shirley Knight and by Morgana Shaw in flashbacks).
Kurtz's character, 5 at the time of the assault, has always had doubts about her sister's death. Burke's character, who was only 3 when she witnessed the killing, has blocked out all memory of the incident. With the help of a therapist, however, she unlocks the past.
Confronting their horror together, they set out to convince prosecutors to reopen the decades old case. They find a sympathetic detective and an assistant district attorney determined to see justice done.
It's a little distracting to see Kurtz as a coarse, cigarette smoking Texan. Burke, however, is well cast as her sister. Both sisters have had lifelong emotional problems (and why not) that cloud their credibility. That they get it together to fulfill this "Promise" is a strong part of the story.
The flashbacks are tough to watch as all three children are repeatedly belted and screamed at. But the visceral scenes make you better feel the torment the sisters have lived with.
"A Promise to Carolyn" packs an emotional punch. But you'll feel good when these sisters finally get what they want.
Burke and Kurtz help TV movie rise above the usual banality
January 16, 1996
By Michael Story
I hate to admit this, but I usually cringe when made-for-TV preview tapes arrive. Most of these movies are simply mawkish offal.
With titles such as "The Cold Heart of a Killer," "Deadly Whispers," "A Killer Among Us," "Deadly Pursuits" and "Deadly Vows," these cheesy quickies usually star Lisa Hartman Black, Donna Mills, Kate Jackson, Lindsay Wagner, Cheryl Ladd or Victoria Principal as the (pick one) fiancée, wife, ex-wife, estranged wife, mistress, neighbor or would-be victim of some guy "with a dark secret."
These flicks are usually "based on the true story" or "ripped from today's headlines." They come slathered with panting teasers like "A strange woman says she's having an affair with your husband and he wants you dead. He denies everything. Who's telling the truth and when do you start running for your life?"
Followed by: "Suspense has never been this sexy!"
A steady diet of this stuff will rot your brain. No kidding. It's TV; it could happen.
The two other standard movie topics are "disease du jour" and children in peril. The latter is the more gripping. There's nothing like danger threatening a helpless kid to push all the right emotional buttons and sell that soap.
But every once in a great while a tasty little morsel will drop on the plate. Not exactly a feast fit for the video gourmand, but a satisfying tidbit nonetheless.
Such a bonne bouche is "A Promise to Carolyn," airing tonight at 8 on CBS and KTHVTV, Channel 11.
Know up front that this is a disturbing movie dealing with abuse and the death of a child. But what separates this effort from the typical smarmy reality based fare is fine acting, economical writing and an especially creative use of the flashback.
Delta Burke ("Designing Women"), Swoosie Kurtz ("Sisters") and Shirley Knight ("Indictment: The McMartin Trial") turn in bravura performances in this teleplay.
"A Promise to Carolyn" deals with psychological demons and the horror of repressed memories as they surface. Burke and Kurtz portray Debra Harper and Kay Wilbanks, sisters tormented by the 1955 childhood death of their 2 year-old sister, Carolyn. The scene stealing Knight plays their sinister and abusive stepmother, Jolene.
As adults, the sisters decide to, put an end to years of denial and convince the district attorney to reopen the case.
Executive producer Paul Kaufman says the movie, based on actual events in Stillwater, Texas, took four years to produce and 11 was an emotional and magical experience." The movie was filmed near Dallas.
Side note: Kurtz announced last week that this would be the last season for "Sisters." The show, currently airing at 9 p.m. Saturdays on NBC, has been on since May 11, 1991.