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HUSTON HOLDS `BUFFALO GIRLS' TOGETHER

The four-hour CBS miniseries "Buffalo Girls" isn't bad.

It also isn't of the same quality as "Lonesome Dove," despite the fact that both are based on Larry McMurtry novels and were produced by the same set of people.It isn't factual, despite the fact that many of the characters in it are historical.

And it isn't up to filling out the whole four hours. This would have been a very entertaining two - maybe even three - hours, but it's too long at four. There's a lot to like here, but you have to slog through some slow passages as well.

And the best part about "Buffalo Girls" is the cast. Anjelica Huston holds the production together with a great performance as Calamity Jane, a woman caught in the Old West where "there were only two ways for women to survive: wifin' and whorin'. I weren't cut out for neither so I lived as a man - and sometimes passed myself off for one. I got a freedom that most women never knew."

What she had was a freedom for adventures, tempered by her inability to capture the man she loves - Wild Bill Hickock (Sam Elliott).

The truth about Calamity Jane will never be known. Huston herself mentioned some evidence that there were seven Calamity Janes at one point. But McMurtry's book - and this miniseries - fictionalized the life of Martha Jane Canary, a real person who had many adventures, several husbands and may or may not have had children.

"So many stories are conflicting about her that, actually, it's a great character to take license with because one could do that freely," Huston said.

But a few facts about Martha Jane Canary are not in dispute.

"She was a serious alcoholic," Huston said. "She died of inflammation of the bowels from drinking too much rotgut. She swore heavily. She rode like a man. She was, in essence, fearless. And carved out a life for herself in a situation and at a time when it was virtually impossible for a woman to survive in such conditions.

"So I think, yes, she may have been a tragic figure ultimately, but she lived the way she wanted to live."

The first half of "Buffalo Girls" (Sunday, 8-10 p.m., Ch. 5) follows Calamity Jane's career as she interacted with the likes of George Custer and Hickock, her long friendships with a pair of crusty old trappers (Jack Palance and Tracey Walters) and a wise old Indian named No Ears (Russell Means). It includes her ill-fated romance - of sorts - with Hickock and the birth of their child. (In McMurtry's book, the daughter was sort of a figment of Calamity's imagination. In the miniseries, she's real.)

But hers is not the only story in "Girls." There's her close friend, Dora DuFran (Melanie Griffith) - a well-known madam whose own love affair with a cowboy named Blue (Gabriel Byrne) is also rather tragic.

Before the end of Part 1, Buffalo Bill Cody (Peter Coyote) is trying to get Calamity to join his Wild West Show and travel with him to England - an offer Calamity at first rejects but eventually accepts. Which sends the miniseries into its more entertaining second half, which features not only a group of rough Westerners in civilized London but the appearance of Annie Oak-ley (Reba McEntire).

Still, Huston's portrayal of Calamity holds what could have otherwise been a totally unwieldy production together.

"It's a fantastic role," she said. "It's an androgynous role and I get to do many things. I get to play manly as well as womanly. . . . But I never found her to be butch. She lived predominantly in a man's world and she just did the things she did. She lived outside under the stars, living more freely than most women at that time. She rides and ropes and dressed accordingly. She didn't want to be a man.

"The thing I really like about her is that she's guileless. She's real straight-on. When something affects her, it affects her. She's not tricky."

And neither is "Buffalo Girls." It's a straightforward Western adventure (complete with a good deal of violence).

Again, it's no "Lonesome Dove." But, if your expectations aren't too high, it is worth taking a look at.