A review requested by Deeper Understanding, with thanks for contributing to the Second Quinquennial Antagony & Ecstasy ACS Fundraiser.

Countless awards and critical plaudits later, with the buzziest television show of the 2010s on its roster, HBO has been so respected for so long that's almost come around on the other side, and now the really good stuff is happening elsewhere, while HBO quietly sinks into irrelevance on the strength of its brand name. That reputation had to be earned, though, and before the run of massively celebrated TV series that cemented its status, the cable network began its foray into original programming with made-for-TV movies. These stretched as far back as 1983, but it wasn't until the early 1990s that everything clicked and HBO Productions started churning out one well-regarded film after another, a process that has not ever really tapered off since it exploded in 1992.

In that period, there have been an impressive number of genuinely great films to premiere on the network, but one of the best then remains one of the best now: the 1993 production The Positively True Adventures of the Alleged Texas Cheerleader-Murdering Mom, based on the sensational national news story from 1991 of Wanda Holloway, an alleged Texas, um, you can guess I rather suppose. In fact, no cheerleaders were murdered, nor was anyone else, and it was the cheerleader's mother that was the intended target of the contract Wanda hoped to put out, so as to give her own daughter a leg up in competing for the cheerleading squad.. But a little bit of screaming insane ballyhoo is emphatically in the spirit of the movie, which is only in the most basic sense a ripped-from-the-headlines soap opera along the lines of the previous year's TV movie Willing to Kill: The Texas Cheerleader Story; it's much of a drunken madcap farce satirising the hell out of the warm ideals of the American heartland and the glaring superficiality of the infotainment media, which took the opportunity of a high-profile criminal case to hang its hat on.

I could go on about how much of the film's success owes to Jane Anderson's cracking good script, almost unfairly well-stocked with barbs, bons mots and zingers to help the raw nastiness and insight go down, or to Michael Ritchie's bright directing, gliding with jazzy playfulness between the frame narrative (Wanda being interviewed for a film about her story by the actual real-life producer of the film James Manos, Jr, playing "himself") and the actual meat of the plot, handled with a light naturalist touch that keeps it from backsliding into "redneck sitcom" territory. And these people are, by all means, important figures in the success of The Positively True Adventures. But let's not try to be cunning. There is one person who marks the difference between the version of this film that remains one of the high water marks of HBO original programming 23 years later, versus the one that's remembered on the same "...oh sure, I remember that, that was good" level of Truman or Don King: Only in America, and that is Holly Hunter, playing Wanda. It is, in all sobriety and without a modicum of hyperbole, one of the great comic performances in modern times. The fact that 1993 found Hunter in both the theatrically-released The Piano and this is almost beyond belief: not just that she found the resources deep inside as to play such wildly unalike characters as the bellowing mush-mouthed egotist Wanda and the defensive Scottish mute Ada McGrath, but that she should give one of the best English-language screen performances of the 1990s in both of her at-bats. I might go so far as to declare Hunter's 1993 the best calendar year for a single actor since the golden days of the studio system (and I haven't seen her other Oscar-nominated turn in The Firm from the same year), but let's steer clear of rabbit holes like that for the moment.

Writing about this performance is, as they say, a bit like dancing about architecture - it's next to impossible to pin down all the things that are so knife-sharp, brazen, and mercurial in Hunter's conception of Wanda without reference to the actual things like the timbre of her voice, her lunging body language, the way she works her mouth and eyes. So hey, let's not do that. Instead, I would ask you to take a peek at this short clip - the first we see of Hunter's Wanda in the whole movie, as Manos gets her ready to film her interview - and we'll talk about some of the ways she's worked to make one of the most stunning first impressions of any character in a 1990s comedy.

[Editor's note, February 2020: The short clip is currently unavailable, but should be back up within a couple of months of this update. Badger me about it in comments if you're reading this later than May 2020 and there's still nothing here]

Let's start with the way she's sitting there: radiating impatience like a tetchy sun. Her leg is swinging so hard you're afraid she might break it off; and consider that jabbing way she gestures with her left hand, suddenly swinging it out and dropping it back down that you almost can't perceive it. Listen to the sound of her voice - not the words she says, which are anyways hard to make out, given that she hasn't been miked - and you hear someone used to barreling through life and insisting on her way, jabbering out orders but tripping over them in her haste.We've only known this woman for a few seconds, and already we have such a clear sense of who she is: imperious as all hell, convinced that she's smarter than everyone else and doing them a favor by deigning to sit around waiting for their stupid movie thing to happen, and naturally assuming a position of authority just by her presence. That impression certainly isn't discouraged by her subsequent actions; her curt hand gesture trying to fend off the sound assistant hooking her up with a lavaliere microphone, and the little "why are you such a contemptible twerp" fold in her eyebrow immediately after, for one thing.

But there's more than just Wanda's arrogance on display. We get a sense as well of her vigorous attempt to be aware of everything all at once, and coming off as an addled bird in her set of head gestures alongside "isn't there supposed to be a make-up person?": the way she cranes her head up to see what's going on above her, like a kitten stalking a moth on the ceiling, immediately segueing into her call to an off-screen "Shanna! Shanna!", immediately followed by the way she recoils, annoyed, from the sound technician. These poses all blur into a single flow of actions, as is true of pretty much every piece of physical acting Hunter does in the movie: she's always overlapping gestures with dialogue from another thought process, in constant movement that gives the impression she's always five steps ahead, or maybe five steps behind but racing flat-out to catch up. And there are still other things to pull out: her sudden moment of stillness after talking about the people "who were actually killed", as though putting all of her body and soul into making sure we understand that she, good, nice Wanda Holloway, could never do that, and we are awful people for not realising how good she actually is for not being Jeffrey Dahmer. And my favorite part of all the scene, maybe even all the feature-length performance, her sudden, unamused laugh after talking about her Sports Illustrated appearance, a bitter reflection on the media culture that is happy to exploit her as a cartoon character rather than treat her as a human woman. There's so much to go on with all of this: the self-aggrandisment of a natural born saleswoman whose only product is her own larger-than-life personality, the anger of a woman marginalised in a world where there's nothing else for her to do but shove her unwilling daughter towards cheerleading, the manipulation of a sociopath who wants to charm the whole world as a way to get away with whatever toxic behavior crosses her mind.

Understand, Hunter's whole entire performance is at this level, always playing in three or four different registers, using shocking and delicious movements and line deliveries both to particularise Wanda and to benefit the film as a big, juicy comedy about a colorful zany monster. We certainly knew by 1993 that Hunter could do comedy - she's world-class as a steely, Stanwyckian romantic lead in Broadcast News, and there's of course the matter of her appearance in the Coen brothers' sophomore feature Raising Arizona, which draws upon the same pool of regional color she'd use to flesh out Wanda. But this... this is something beyond. This is digging into the nest of stereotypes the film is rather unashamed to play around with - moony country songs, tacky clothes, kitschy houses, enclitic pronunciation of every word that can be realistically drawled together - and fully inhabiting those stereotypes in a way that's deeply hilarious while also embodying the woman inside of them in such clear, precise ways that we can never write off her exaggerated excesses as just comedy; there's a person and a culture who shaped her hiding within all those dropped final g's and corny Down Home social politeness. We laugh at Wanda, of course; but we are also scared of her, because she is so tangible, so present.

Surely what I'm about to say is a gross simplification; but it does rather seem like the whole of The Positively True Adventures springs from Hunter's performance. The pacing of the film is entirely based on how Hunter ramps up and slows down, and after her work, the pacing is probably the most noteworthy thing about it; Ritchie darts rampantly from scene to scene, giving the eccentric cast just enough time to recognise what's happening in any given moment of the story, leaping into the next moment before we or they have processed it. I don't want to pretend that Hunter is the solitary bright spark in the cast: everybody ends up thriving on this madcap rhythm, up to and including Beau Bridges, never a favorite of mine, whose natural bear-like plodding becomes electrifyingly aberrant given the context (he plays the ex-brother-in-law Wanda approaches to find a hitman; in a very literal sense, he does interrupt the flow of the drama, and it's right and good that his energy should be so different from Hunter's). The evocation of a nasty little town in Texas where everybody has smiling, droning faces atop sharklike viciousness - with Wanda merely the most overt and showy embodiment of this mentality - is perfectly suited to the tightrope-like tension Ritchie supplies to the film, and which Anderson writes in at the edges (an especially great touch: the way that Wanda's hated rival, played by Elizabeth Ruscio, is even more merciless in her pursuit of cheerleading gold, except that she directs her cruelty exclusively towards her daughter, so it's more socially acceptable).

Everything about this milieu, this attitude towards life, and the film-setting enthusiasm with which Hunter plays it is fucking great, but then there comes a point where the plot slams around a corner into the realm of the courtroom drama and everything gets all... I don't know. Not "bad". Certainly less fun, and I really don't care for the endless climactic title cards which cheekily catch us up on the "where are they now" aspects to story only around 18 months old at the time. But even if the courtroom scenes are basically just courtroom scenes, dressed up with Texan accents, I concede that The Positively True Adventures needs them. The film's final 25 minutes or so are like the slowdown track at the end of a roller coaster - a little boring and disappointing, but you can start to breathe again. It's a necessary deflation that makes the film seem less of a comic triumph than it deserve to be; the relentless opening hour is like nothing else in '90s American cinema, and between the elaborate character building and the implacable mockery of those same characters, this is one of the sharpest satires of fame-hungry aspiration made during the early years of the reality television era.