Proximity to the release of Dead Man Walking has made this a particularly inauspicious time for Last Dance to appear on the scene--most of the reviews (including this one, you'll notice) are likely to make the comparison between the two, and not to the latter's favor. Regrettable, because while it's certainly no Dead Man Walking, Last Dance is a quite decent film on its own terms--tight, touching and relatively corn-free.
The similarities, though undeniable, are on the superficial side anyway, as far as the respective tones of the dramas are concerned. Last Dance is, I think, much more aggressively and unambiguously an anti-death-penalty-message movie than Dead Man Walking. In the Tim Robbins film, eminent execution was made to seem almost necessary to the redemption of the inmate (Sean Penn)--his death was his graduation from the crash course in spiritual courage that Susan Sarandon's Sister Helen had given him. The race against time wasn't to save his life, but rather his soul.
In Last Dance, the inmate has already saved her own soul, before we've even met her. Stone plays Cindy Liggett, a 12-year death-row veteran with just a month to go before execution for a crime she did commit--as a drunken, drug-addled white-trash beauty, in the midst of a robbery, she bludgeoned a rich man's daughter who was insulting her. Her boyfriend and accomplice got the deal and she went to death row. In her isolation, her head cleared, she took up drawing via a correspondence course and, too late, she grew up.
Into this scenario comes Morrow as Rick, the lawyer/playboy son of a rich businessman. An irresponsible partner with a string of career failures, Rick is handed a dead-end job as a clemency board advocate by his brother (Peter Gallagher), the aide to the governor of the Southern state. Geography makes it needless to say that the gov is loudly pro-death penalty, and has never granted clemency in the past, so the brother feels it's a position in which Rick can goof off more or less harmlessly.
Of course, when Rick meets Cindy and acquaints himself with the circumstances of her case, he begins to feel that she has gotten a raw deal. He makes a nuisance of himself to his boss (Randy Quaid), to the governor, to various lawyers and judges, and to the inmate herself trying to get her a stay, even though Cindy's sure that clemency is impossible, and maybe not even desirable, as her alternative to execution would surely--and justly--be lifelong imprisonment. Sure enough, as they get to know and trust each other, the two begin--quietly, without histrionics--to fall in something resembling love.
The script, by Ron Koslow (who wrote an interesting little '70s time capsule called Lifeguard), is subtly structured to demonstrate the disparities between social classes--to suggest what it means, at different economic levels, to be a wild youth and the differing ways society will look after you if you are. But the film doesn't bludgeon us with this theme. It's integrated painlessly into the story line.
This can be said, refreshingly, of the film in general: It isn't wearing a hairshirt; it never disputes that the woman's guilty as hell of her crime and, however sadly, deserves to be behind bars. It doesn't even indulge in melodramatic caricatures of corrections officials (even Dead Man Walking couldn't resist a little of that). All that Last Dance seems to be asserting, in its low-key way, is that putting Cindy to death is, in some hard-to-define way, a waste--that even if, to her, the needle is more attractive than the dreariness of a long life in prison, the act of killing her reduces society.
The director, Bruce Beresford, is capable of fine work, but for every Breaker Morant there seems to be a piece of slapdash hackwork like Her Alibi or Rich in Love. Happily, with Last Dance, Beresford is on good behavior--he keeps it simple, showcasing Stone's performance by leaving out anything that might distract from it, and his leading lady fills the space impressively. Though he has much more screen time, Morrow becomingly underplays to the point where he, too, seems almost gallantly to be deferring the picture to Stone.
I found Stone excruciating in Casino--I'd have happily sent that fishwife to her death in Cindy's place. But it wasn't Stone's fault--her co-stars Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were even more unbearable, owing mostly to the wrong-headed direction. Elsewhere, Stone has proved a fine glamourpuss with a good, deadpan sense of humor, but Last Dance is the first chance she's had to show how believable she can be.
She gets one big, actressy outburst--which she handles excellently--but for the rest of the film she pulls it in and keeps it sober and real. This mature performance may not win her an Oscar--as, a la Susan Hayward in I Want to Live!, it was probably meant to--but in any case, I hope it won't be her last dance in a no-high-heels role.
Directed by Bruce Beresford; with Sharon Stone, Rob Morrow, Randy Quaid, Peter Gallagher, Jack Thompson, Jayne Brook, Pamela Tyson, Don Harvey, Diane Sellers and Skeet Ulrich.