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Jeff Simon: I almost ignored the Watergate-era miniseries 'Gaslit.' That would have been a terrible mistake

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Gaslit Season 1 - 2022 (copy)

An unrecognizable Sean Penn and Julia Roberts play former Attorney General John Mitchell and his wife, Martha, in the Starz series "Gaslit."

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Nothing would have been easier than avoiding "Gaslit" altogether.

I almost did.

There was the title, for one thing. It's no problem at all for movie critics like me who know that it refers to George Cukor's 1944 thriller "Gaslight" starring Charles Boyer as an ultra-suave husband trying to convince wife Ingrid Bergman that she's crazy. For a huge portion of information-deprived America, though, it is, no doubt, obscure.

Even so, here was a new mini-series on the Starz Network with that title. And Starz is a traditional "also-ran" to HBO and Showtime. And that new mini-series starred two huge stars whose "sell by" dates are sometimes thought in Schadenfreude City to be hurrying fast. After all, Julia Roberts, at the age of 54, and Sean Penn, at 61, already have their Oscars; in Penn's case, two of them, both well-deserved.

Did I want to wade into the murk and muck of Watergate one more time to watch Roberts and Penn play Martha and John Mitchell in a mini-series?

I had some wobbly moments. But what can I say? I'm a loyalist critic. I've been on Roberts' side since her movie "Mystic Pizza." And I was one of those who reached for the highest hosannas on the shelf on the occasion of her mega-star arrival in "Pretty Woman."

And yes, I've been on Penn's side, too, since HIS larval period – in "Bad Boys" and "The Falcon and the Snowman." On three separate occasions I've been in groups doing gang interviews with Penn, once preceded by a studio publicist who apologized to everyone because Penn's chain-smoking had turned an entire hotel floor into a smokehouse. (Never, alas, for a Roberts interview, gang or otherwise. More's the pity.)

I don't give up on hugely successful actors just because they hit traditionally fretful late middle age. It may indeed be a thorny period for major movie stars, when they mark time and turn into bank assets.

Look at Tom Cruise, with 60 candles on the way to his cake. And a new "Top Gun" that smashed the bejabbers out of movie box offices everywhere.

That's why a little voice in the back of my head said "don't be so easily bored. Stay with Roberts and Penn. They're going to give us the unhappiest marriage in all of the Watergate Follies: Richard Nixon's pal and attorney general John Mitchell and Mitchell's wife, Martha, quite the damndest whistleblower ever to hit a cabinet cocktail party or journalistic Rolodex.

While the Nixon administration was peeping and hiding behind all manner of awkward ploys and shaky stratagems, Martha Mitchell was indulging her fondness for the cheerful sound of her own voice by coming close to connecting the famously paranoid president and the incomparably bizarre burglary break-in at Democratic Headquarters at the Watergate hotel.

That little voice inside my head told me that Roberts and Penn were still as ambitious as all get-out and ready to tackle parts different from anything they've ever done.

And so they did.

And by my way of looking at it, they did some of the best mature work of their performing lives. In Roberts' case, she portrayed everything from a gossipy Arkansas steel magnolia to a terrified abused wife beaten up by one of the husband's designated watchdogs.

In Penn's case, the role of portly, bald John Mitchell was more off the trail than Martha was for Roberts. He played John Mitchell as a chortling, tolerant and bemused husband to a habitually outrageous wife – until, that is, the point where her indiscretions indicated that part of a presidential administration was being run with all the efficiency of a neighborhood burglary ring.

Both Roberts and Penn were absolutely extraordinary.

You have no idea how seldom I've cared in the past about who wins Emmys. In this case, though, I have to admit having fond hopes that both of them win prizes galore for finding something truly unusual to do in their maturity and doing it to a fare-thee-well.

Anyone who automatically presumed the whole project to be hopelessly archaic and hidebound couldn't be more wrong. Not only is the break-in's 50th anniversary on Friday, but "Gaslit" was based on a podcast – that ever-so-modern source for some of the hippest and smartest talents anywhere in Hollywood's "creative community."

Producer Sam Esmail and writer Robbie Pickering of "Mr. Robot" to name two, and director Matt Ross, a much-praised actor who is dear to me for having written and directed a movie that I found to be the best film of the year in 2016: "Captain Fantastic" starring Viggo Mortensen as the father of a literally prodigious young family living off the grid in a kind of DNA counter-culture of their own.

That's what I mean about my life as a critical loyalist.

If you've ever blown me away on the job, I'll stay with you through very little thick and megatons of thin, just in case your talent and ambition and opportunities all come back simultaneously. I'll try my best to be there and bear witness.

"Gaslit" is the best thing I've seen on TV all year.

Its 50th year has brought Watergate back into people's attention. One of the big books of the year is Garrett M. Graff's "Watergate: A New History."

Fifty years ago we had a presidential administration show us all a new way of going wrong.

Now, in our era, we have our government showing us how a failed presidential election became the basis for an inconceivable attempt to bypass all tradition entirely.

Martha Mitchell pre-figured a lot of things in her garrulous time on Earth but even she could never have imagined the information that regularly comes out of the halls of congress these days.

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Semi-Retired Columnist and Critic

Jeff Simon began working at The News as a copyboy 57 years ago. Since that time, he has been closely involved in all aspects of The News' cultural coverage – as critic, columnist and Arts and Books editor for 25 years.

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