4:51 PM 12/6/1996

Selena legend lives on with TV movie

By ANN HODGES
Copyright 1996 Houston Chronicle TV Critic

The legend of Selena takes its place on cable's movie marquee tonight.

E! Entertainment's True Hollywood Story: The Selena Murder Trial premieres at 6 p.m., and Selena fans definitely should not miss it. But those who hadn't heard of Selena before she was murdered on March 31, 1995, shouldn't miss it, either.

It's a story as fatefully fascinating as a Shakespearean tragedy: The Queen of Tejano killed by the woman who was her most faithful and devoted friend. Selena, the beautiful, talented 23-year-old from Corpus Christi. So full of life and so close to fulfilling the promise of all her dreams. She was shot down by the president of her own fan club.

The theatrical film on Selena's life is still in production. And that one will, no doubt, have a lot of her music. This one tells, briefly, how Selena's father discovered her vocal talent at age 7, how she made her first album at age 12, and how her first bilingual album, released after her death, became the first Latin album ever to debut at No. 1 on Billboard's pop charts.

But this movie is not the story of Selena's music. This is a very different story, and a quite riveting one. It details the events leading up to the shooting of Selena by Yolanda Saldivar, the deed itself, the trial and the verdict. It's a tale from behind the headlines, told in a combination of forms, most frequently by a narrator. Sometimes the film clips are real, but most of them are dramatic re-creations. The net effect is a kind of dramatized documentary.

If you've been watching E!'s nightly specials, those irresistible -- and surprisingly well-done -- dramatic re-creations of what's happened earlier in the day in the O.J. Simpson trial, you'll probably guess what's coming here in the courtroom.

This is the same thing -- the actors in court are speaking lines taken directly from the transcripts of that high-profile murder trial held in Houston. Does it work? Yes, it does. No Hollywood scriptwriter could have set these scenes better.

Lizzette Padilla, a Selena look-alike actress who's described as a Guatemalan-American, plays Selena in this film, and Socorra Mora, another look-alike, plays Yolanda. Basically, this film is about them. And most of what happened between them is told not in dialogue, but by the narrator, over film clips.

Twice, though, the dialogue is the real thing. After Selena was shot and killed, Saldivar locked herself in a relative's pickup truck. While holding the gun to her own head, she recited a litany of what are described here as "bizarre and ultimately unfounded accusations." As she did that, Sgt. Larry Young of the Corpus Christi Police Department was pleading with her to give herself up.

Saldivar's "parking lot standoff"went on for 9½ hours, and what was said by Saldivar and hostage negotiator Young was taped. All this dialogue is taken from that tape.

All the dialogue in court is taken from the real trial transcripts, and in view of that, these courtroom scenes may come as a surprise to those who didn't follow the case. As these attorneys square off, you may find that what's being said in that courtroom raises doubts. It's very clear that Yolanda shot Selena, but when some of these witnesses raise the question of whether it was an accident or done deliberately, it does beg your attention.

This dramatic account proceeds through a number of witnesses --from Selena's father and husband to her favorite manicurist, the San Antonio gun shop clerk who sold Saldivar the gun, and the hotel maid and desk clerk who saw Selena die that awful morning.

Sgt. Ray Rivera and Sgt. Paul Rivera, the Corpus Christi police detectives who questioned Saldivar when she signed her written confession, are there, as well. And so is Texas Ranger Robert Garza, who testified that he watched Saldivar's interrogation through a one-way glass, and he heard -- and saw --her describe the shooting as an accident. That is not in the typed confession that Saldivar signed.

In that trial in October 1995, Saldivar was found guilty of the first-degree murder of Selena, and she's now serving a life sentence in the maximum security division of the Texas prison at Gatesville. Her case is on appeal.

Scenes from Selena's wake, with long lines of fans filing sadly past her open coffin, are the final reminder of how the grief of this untimely death overwhelmed so many.

They still mourn. In death, the Selena legend grows ever larger. True Hollywood Story: The Selena Murder Trial is true to that legend.