LEONA HELMSLEY: THE QUEEN OF MEAN
In truth, "The Queen of Mean" was one of the nicer things said about the late hotel impresario Leona Helmsley. The term most often used was that usually reserved for a female dog. Perhaps this was why, when Helmsley died in 2007 at age 87, she willed $12 million to her dog.
Professional courtesy from one bitch to another?
Few people were as publicly reviled in their lifetime as Leona Helmsley was. She became infamous for her tirades at staff and for her haughty behavior, the nadir being when she allegedly said that "only the little people pay taxes". The tales of her imperious manner, her tyrannical manner with staff, her vindictiveness send chills down the spine.
In short, Leona Helmsley was one of the most repulsive figures in America, a horrid woman who elicited no sympathy or pity, only disgust. Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean, covers the story of this most notorious figure. It does attempt to give some light into understanding how this girl from the wrong side of Brooklyn clawed her way up to the upper echelons of Manhattan society, but it also suggests just what a monster she was. After rewatching the television film, it's surprising that in some ways, The Queen of Mean pulled some of its punches on this most infamous of 'nasty women'.
Using the framing device of her tax evasion trial, we see the rise and fall of Leona Helmsley (Suzanne Pleshette), who stars life as Leona Rosenthal, the much-ignored daughter who fails to attract her mother's love or attention and compared to her older sisters, the beautiful Sonya and the 'unwell' (read, fat) Sandra. She marries, has a son, Jay, but is not above beginning an affair with Joseph Lubin (Bruce Weitz). Divorcing her first husband to marry Joe, Leona rises in income level, but falls in quality (she has no hesitation to stealing silver salt-and-pepper shakers from a classy restaurant),
Leona divorces Joe when he tells her he's moving them all to Lumberton, North Carolina, the idea of leaving the posh Manhattan no reason to follow a man she supposedly loves. Now as Leona Roberts (attempting to hide her Jewish background as well as her age), she pushes ahead in the real estate industry, getting many Manhattan buildings to go co-op. She also gives in to sexual harassment and starts sleeping with the boss until she meets the fabulously wealthy and powerful Harry Helmsley (Lloyd Bridges).
Despite having her own small empire and Harry being married (to a Quaker, no less), Leona makes short business of turning Helmsley into her latest conquest. She soon cajoles the weak Harry into leaving his wife of 33 years to marry her by faking another beau.
Despite appearances, Leona's private life is not easy: her mother, apparently having had a stroke, still won't 'look at her' and Jay following Mama's footsteps by marrying and divorcing in quick succession. Leona's only real friend is Paul Summerton (Joe Regalbuto), as he is the only one who isn't afraid of her and is not afraid to tell her what's what. Perhaps it is his brazen manner that appeals to Leona, as he is, apart from Harry, the only one who can talk to her in any way that shows familiarity.
Leona now becomes The Queen of the Palace Hotel, reveling in the power she has in the city and over Harry. However, there are missteps, particularly thanks to Jay. She gets Harry to give Jay a cushy job, one that he quickly takes advantage of by trying to undercut Harry. Placed in charge of ordering furniture and material for the Helmsley hotel chains, Jay double and even triple bills the hotel for material already ordered, then takes the excess material and sells them to other chains, pocketing the difference. Leona attempts to suppress the information by firing the accountant, but word gets to Harry.
Despite this, Leona's arrogance and power go unchecked. She snaps her fingers at anyone within reach, her obsession for perfect image reaching sometimes hysterical levels. She berates staff for leaving water on the lettuce, has her poor assistant Mark (Maurice Godin) shine her shoes in front of others, and on a whim has a deck of cards with her picture on all 52 cards ordered for the hotels, then on a similar whim insists that, despite her approving them all they have to be redone.
Leona's tyranny at some point drove even the loyal Paul away, and without his words of caution she goes completely demonic. She fires people for the slightest cause and shows no sympathy for Jay's widow or I figure her grandchildren. About the only sympathy she has is for Harry, who is slipping due to a series of small strokes. She also, with or without Harry's blessing, starts billing the company for personal expenses to their home, and this is what brings about her downfall.
Leona bills furniture and work done to her home to the company, even billing a girdle as a business expense. Her comment about 'only the little people pay taxes' (which she disputed) doesn't help. Her decades of riding roughshod over everyone catch up to her, and she is convicted of tax fraud (Harry having been declared not competent to stand trial).
It's curious that The Queen of Mean didn't go all-in for just how vicious Leona could be. It does show her to have been a repulsive figure (her abusive manner towards everyone, even Harry, her demeaning of everyone who worked for her, her tirades and the abusive manner she had with all save Paul). In other ways, however, the movie asks us to be more sympathetic to Leona, particularly when it comes to her desperate search to be loved and approved of by her mother.
It's a credit to Pleshette that we get any sympathy for Leona Helmsley. The scene in the nursing home where Leona begs her mother to look at her when it's clear Mrs. Rosenthal is physically unable to is heartbreaking. Pleshette, who received an Emmy nomination for her work, shows us the horrible, abusive figure Helmsley was, but she also gives us an image of a troubled woman, devastated by the death of the son she rarely talked to.
Pleshette makes Leona almost human, but she also dives into the manipulative, shrewish, shrewd seductress she was. The script, while not going for the jugular when it comes to how monstrous Helmsley was, has moments of humor at Leona's expense. After Harry tells his wife their marriage is over, we hear Leona gloating to her sister Sondra. Remarking in voice-overs that she'll return the fake engagement ring to her tomorrow, Sondra tells her to keep it, as it's costume jewelry, and she comments how surprised she was that Harry couldn't tell it was a fake.
Leona laughs and says, "Harry wouldn't know a fake if it hit him across the face". Without missing a beat, Sondra replies, "That's obvious, Leona. Good night". It's clear Leona wasn't in on the double entendre.
Neither was she amused when a decorator who had shelled out money to buy antique chairs was told she wouldn't pay for what she called, "second-rate antiques". Enraged, he coldly remarked that she was right: there was only room for one second-rate antique in the Helmsley apartment. Paul found it hilarious, but Leona was incensed at the rare put-down.
Regalbuto was droll as the acerbic Paul, the closest thing to a friend Leona had, almost the clichéd 'truth-teller' to a bitchy woman. Bridges made Harry into almost a simpleton, a weak man who was quickly beguiled by this temptress that managed to get him to do anything, at least until he found that Jay was trying to pull a fast one. His own tirade showed he did indeed have a backbone, one he rarely used but which he could muster. His decline into dementia does touch your heart.
Here's where The Queen of Mean could have done better. Paul comes and goes with very little sense, and ultimately disappears without a word. He tells her after the decorator ridicules her that she has always been tough, but she was also fair, at least until now. After that, we didn't get a real blowout between them, or any sense that he, who almost cheered her own as she set about seducing a married man, had finally had some moral awakening.
It would also have been nice to have seen the evolution of the Mark character, this much-harassed and demeaned personal assistant to a woman so frightening the staff referred to her as "Momma" and whose impending arrival terrified everyone. He finally quits when she orders him to pick up the playing cards with her pictures on them that she had tossed in another of her fits.
As to why this particular act, while demeaning not the worse thing he'd endured, was the straw that broke the camel's back is unknown.
Leona Helmsley: The Queen of Mean was ultimately not as vicious in its portrayal of the notorious tycooness as it could have been. It does have a particularly powerful performance by Suzanne Pleshette, giving the monster a touch of heart within her black soul. It is entertaining and a little glimpse into someone who united people of all persuasions for her vile, cruel, arrogant manner.
She always denied saying that 'only the little people pay taxes'. In the end, Leona Helmsley was the one that ended up paying: with a prison term and a reputation beyond saving.