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SUNDAY SWEEPS DRAMAS YIELD GREAT ROLES FOR LANE, SPACEK

IF THE western movie "Bad Girls" isn't enough evidence that TV offers actresses better roles than the big screen, then the performances of Diane Lane and Sissy Spacek on Sunday should end any debate.

You can't go wrong by watching either actress in May's first big sweeps battle.

The scenes setting up the flashbacks get old fast in the CBS miniseries "Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All" (9 p.m. Sunday and Tuesday, Channel 4).

But Lane wears well as she ages from a childlike innocent of 14 to a strong, earth woman at age 58. Lane, who was last seen on TV in "Lonesome Dove," shines the brightest in a cast that includes a bearded Donald Sutherland, Cicely Tyson, Anne Bancroft, E.G. Marshall and Blythe Danner.

Based on the best-selling novel by Allan Gargunas, "Oldest" follows Lucy Marsden through her marriage to an old Confederate soldier (he's 50) at the turn of the century. She outlived her six children and, at 100, became the oldest Confederate widow.

Bancroft, old Mrs. Robinson in "The Graduate," plays Old Lucy in the scenes set in a North Carolina seniors home. The feisty wit and wisdom from the oldsters is initially appealing, but eventually one dreads the cliched scenes.

Besides, those scenes take away time from Lane, whose scenes of love and war in marriage are captivating.

The more romantic Part 1 gets one hooked early. The independent Lucy balks at being a debutante and eventually lands in the arms of a rich, broken-down soldier, William, (Sutherland). William hasn't gotten over his wartime experiences as a teen-ager, which isn't readily apparent to Lucy.

Lucy's proper mom (Blythe Danner) figures her daughter can't do any better than the old man. After all, Lucy still is saying "ain't" against Mom's wishes, and what kind of man would want such a girl?

William appears to be a decent catch, but he is prone to war nightmares, which means more flashbacks and an anti-war message. William's inconsistent antics eventually are a nightmare for Lucy. Sutherland speaks softly and gives William a gentle side that belies his tormented soul and makes his complex character more intriguing.

The only person who realizes that the marriage isn't going to be heavenly is Castalia (Tyson), the housekeeper who has been around the Marsden family since she was a slave. Unfortunately, Tyson's dialogue often is difficult to comprehend.

Part 1 moves fast and ends with Lucy advising viewers that she didn't realize that so much could go wrong.

The same can be said about Part 2, which loses its romantic glow, is full of tragedy and has a routine ending. Once again, Lane comes to the rescue. She gives Lucy so much spirit that it "ain't" possible to give up on this "widow." Just don't expect too much, or like Lucy, you'll be disappointed.

"Widow" premieres opposite a bigger tearjerker on ABC, "A Place for Annie" (9 p.m., Channel 7), a fact-based Hallmark Hall of Fame presentation.

Spacek plays Susan, a pediatric nurse who becomes the foster mother of an unwanted baby named Annie. Annie tests HIV-positive at birth because her mother has the disease.

Susan's social worker friend advises against the adoption. Her selfish teen-age son isn't happy about it. And Susan has difficulty finding a baby sitter.

Eventually a saintly widow named Dorothy (Joan Plowright) comes along. Just as Annie celebrates her first birthday, her birth mother, Linda (Mary-Louise Parker), decides she wants her back.

Even someone as caring as Susan becomes intolerant at this turn of events. This leads to a custody problem that would frustrate anyone. The real villain -- the system.

You can't beat the system and it isn't that easy to change. But you can change human beings. And that is what Susan does.

Linda isn't exactly the ideal mother. She smokes all the time, is afraid to pick up her daughter and has a chip on her shoulder because she grew up without her mother's love.

The journey that Susan and Linda take together is emotionally satisfying. Spacek and Parker ("Fried Green Tomatoes") are so marvelous in scenes together that they make you forget how pat this story is. Everyone -- even the teen-age son, David (Jack Noseworthy)-- experiences remarkable growth.

"Annie" is about tolerance in more ways than one. And there is a miracle ending that should promote tolerance for babies with HIV antibodies.

If you don't have tears by the end of this exceptional emotional movie, you had better check your pulse.

Ratings: "Widow": 4 stars out of 5.

"Annie": 4 stars.

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