Monday, November 27, 2017

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE 1972

Warning: Spoilers galore

Looking back, I still find it hard to believe that I came to know of the existence of The Poseidon Adventure only after it had already opened in theaters. It was in December of 1972, I was 15-years-old, and my folks were treating my sisters and me to our first visit to Disneyland over the Christmas holidays. Disneyland and Universal Studios were, of course, a blast for a film fan like me (this was back when Universal was ONLY a tour, not an amusement park, and the main attractions were Lucille Ball’s dressing room, the props from the Land of the Giants TV show, and that bridge Shirley MacLaine got pushed off of in Sweet Charity). But that was for the daytime.
My favorite part of our trip was in the evenings, when we were treated to a driving and walking tour of Los Angeles, Hollywood to be specific. Of all the places we visited, I especially loved seeing Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood Blvd. was always kind of tacky, but not to my utterly overwhelmed and enthralled eyes. In in the early 1970s it was still a place to go to see first-run movies, where premieres were held, and where they had their annual Christmas parade populated with actual movie stars you've heard of. Hollywood Blvd...all decked out in Christmas decorations, stars on the sidewalks, overflowing with one lit-up movie palace after another…to my eyes it looked every bit as magical as Main Street in Disneyland.

Who Will Survive--In One Of The Greatest Escape Adventures Ever!
Gene Hackman as Reverend Frank Scott
Ernest Borgnine as Mike Rogo 
Stella Stevens as Linda Rogo
All of the 1972 holiday movie releases had opened: Grauman’s Chinese featured Streisand’s Up The Sandbox, Diana Ross was at The Pantages in Lady Sings the Blues, the Cinerama Dome had the Patty Duke thriller You’ll Like My Mother, the Pacific was showing The Getaway with Steve McQueen & Ali MacGraw, and Paul Newman was at the Hollywood (currently a Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum) in The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean.
Adding considerably to the excitement was the fact that movie theaters still went all out in the way of promotional materials and displays, so every theater was bathed in colorful neon, aglow with bright and flashing lights, and everywhere you looked were banners, streamers, oversized posters, and huge cardboard promotional cutouts for movies currently running and others coming soon. My eyes were popping out of my head.

But what really stopped in my tracks when we came upon the beautiful and enormous Egyptian Theater. Here, towering at least two stories high above the theater’s massive, winding marquee was the poster art for a film I’d somehow not heard a single thing about: The Poseidon Adventure. The Egyptian, every bit as ornate and elaborate as Grauman’s Chinese, was in the middle of an exclusive run of The Poseidon Adventure after having hosted the film’s premiere a week prior. Remaining evidence of the glamorous event were the massive cast portraits adorning the sprawling marquee, taller-then-me cutout posters, hanging banners, production stills, posters, and lobby cards as far as I could see. Suddenly I was surrounded by images of what looked like the most exciting film I’d never heard of.
Shelley Winters as Belle Rosen 
Jack Albertson as Manny Rosen
Red Buttons as James Martin
Carol Lynley as Nonnie Parry
To understand how a dyed-in-the-wool film fan type like myself managed not to hear a single advance word about a movie that went on to become not only one of my all-time favorites, but the second highest grossing film of the year, it helps to know what kind of year for film 1972 was. In both fan magazines and the legitimate press, the lion’s share of 1972 movie coverage/publicity centered around these high-profile titles: The Godfather (Brando’s comeback!), Cabaret (Judy’s daughter makes good!), Last Tango in Paris (Le Scandale!), Lady Sings the Blues (a Supreme film debut!), The Getaway (behind-the-scenes adultery!), and What’s Up Doc? (Streisand meets New Hollywood wunderkind!).

I don't think many other films had much of a chance of competing with the publicity juggernaut surrounding these high-profile releases. Besides, given my age and cineaste pretensions, I’m certain that had any news about The Poseidon Adventure managed to reach me in the midst of rapt my absorption in all the above titles, I most likely would have leapt to conclusions concerning the involvement of Irwin Allen (whom I associated with gimmicky, cheap-looking TV shows), and made snobbish assumptions about that film’s cast of past-their-prime notables. A roster which, with the exception of Gene Hackman, struck me less like a Grand Hotel-style“all-star” movie cast and more like a TV Guide listing of a particularly feeble week on Johnny Carson’s sofa.

But there I was, standing in the middle of the Hollywood Walk of Fame, staring up at grand-scale movie hype at its best, hoping beyond hope that my parents would decide to terminate our sightseeing foot tour on the spot and insist we all go in to see this suddenly must-see movie that very minute.
Roddy McDowall as Acres
Pamela Sue Anderson as Susan Shelby
Eric Shea as Robin Shelby
Leslie Nielsen as Captain Harrison
Arthur O'Connell as John, the ship's Chaplain 
The Poseidon Adventure opened on December 15th in Los Angeles, but by the time we returned home to San Francisco, had not yet been released. The Poseidon Adventure opened at San Francisco’s Alexandria a week later on Friday the 22nd. So, over that weekend and several more times before school reconvened, I saw The Poseidon Adventure…and what an adventure it was. For weeks afterward, I couldn’t enter a classroom, library, store, or home of a friend without imagining what it would look like upside down. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
It says a lot about the traditionalism of TV and studio-era films that by age 15 I’d already grown pretty well-versed in recognizing movie clichés. While I’d not yet seen many of the films that established the familiar tropes from which ‘70s disaster movies would later draw (The High and the Mighty, Zero Hour!, The Last Voyage); I was familiar enough with combat movies (dangerous situation + dissimilar people from all walks of life + hero = everyone discovers what they’re really made of), all-star ensemble melodramas (the aforementioned Grand Hotel), and waterlogged thrillers (Lifeboat, A Night to Remember), for the of The Poseidon Adventure’s high-concept upside-down ocean liner premise to sound both intensely original while at the same time sounding reassuringly familiar.
Reverend Scott, not looking exactly pleased to have someone besides himself talking.
Far left is actress Frieda Rentie, sister of 227 actress Marla Gibbs

On New Year’s Eve the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon (significantly, at least in terms of ironic poignancy, making her final voyage before the scrap heap) is capsized by a tidal wave. While several passengers survive the breathtakingly entertaining catastrophe; only nine of the ship’s most stock and photogenic passengers ultimately elect to follow the long-winded Reverend (Hackman) on a perilous climb to safety via navigating their way up to the ship’s bottom.
Everyone involved—save for the resourceful reverend, who oozes so much self-reliance and leadership qualities he can’t help but grow tiresome—is spectacularly ill-suited to the task, but any life-or-death struggle that begins with a ragtag group of “types” having to climb a big, tinsely Christmas tree to salvation is my kind of calamity. And so, armed with little more than pluck, guts, elderly body-shaming, and tight-fitting hot pants; our intrepid troupe begins their adventure.

Meet The Players / Character Shorthand
He's a Rebel 'Cause He Never, Ever Does What He Should
In the interest of saving time, Rev. Scott--who's such a hip, throw-out-the-(Good)book type he wears a turtleneck instead of a clerical collar--simply tells us what we might have otherwise found out about him from, y'know, paying attention and following the plot
The Bickersons
Common-but decent police detective Mike Rogo and his foul-mouthed former-prostitute wife Linda, are a kind of Bronx George and Martha. Mike thinks Rev. Scott is a loudmouth, Linda refers to Mrs. Rosen as "Ol' Fat ass." Ergo, they are my favorite characters in the film. 
My Yiddishe Grandmama & Papa
As though their borscht-belt accents weren't a dead giveaway, the film makes sure we know Belle & Manny are Jewish by introducing Manny with his nose in an Israel travel brochure, and Belle knitting their grandson a sweater with prayer shawl stripes.
Coded and Fabulous
James Martin--the real hero of film, as he is the one who comes up with the idea to climb to the hull--is gay. No one can tell me otherwise. This 50-something bachelor haberdasher might actually have said something about it had Belle, the Hasidic Heteronormative Buttinsky ("It comes from caring"), not pressed that "What you need is a pretty wife" business.  However, it's not likely anyone bought his "I'm too busy" line anyway. Mr. Martin's character would essentially be out and proud in the 2006 Poseidon remake, but the movie itself was so lousy, no one cared.
Damsel in Distress
My real-life experience has been that in moments of crisis, more men & women act more like Nonnie than Rev. Scott, but that doesn't stop this fraidy-cat,  easy-listening songbird from being a bit of a pill. She's genuinely sweet though, and as one of cinema's most high-profile fag hags (you don't honestly think she and middle-aged Mr. Martin became a post-rescue romance, did you?), I like to imagine Nonnie and Mr. Martin became friends: she tagging along on his visits to The Mine Shaft, or meeting up for Sunday brunches in the Village
Susan Being Polite To Mr. You're Not Reverend Scott (Ernie Orsatti)
Although I don't ever recall a brother actually calling his sister "Sis" instead of her given name in real-life, I suppose it was important for the film to establish lovesick Susan and "all boy" Robin (so much the stereotype I expected him to say "Jeepers!") weren't some kind of Susan Anton/Dudley Moore couple.
Sure, his role is brief, but after three Planet of the Apes movies, I'm sure Roddy McDowall is simply glad to show his real face in a movie again. More a plot device than a character, what exactly is Acres' accent? I thought he was British (with a Liverpool lilt), but someone told me he's supposed to be Scots (maybe due to that bagpipes crack?)

In the 1972 shout-fest X, Y and Zee, Elizabeth Taylor has the line:“I may be the worst thing in the world, but I carry it in front where you can see it!”  Well, if The Poseidon Adventure could speak, that would be its mantra. It’s old-fashioned, schlocky, and loaded with what director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) labeled “carboardy” characters; but the film carries it all out in front where you can see. 
The Poseidon Adventure, a 20th Century Fox film, wears its corniness proudly on its sleeve. It’s a big, family-friendly film that was a conscious thumb of the nose to the incoherence (Fox’s Myra Breckinridge -1970), drugs (Fox’s The Panic in Needle Park -1971), and vulgarity (Fox’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls - 1970) of New Hollywood.
Sure, The Poseidon Adventure is hokey, soapy, cliché ridden, and a terribly contrived, but (miracles of miracles) it works. And rather magnificently, at that! I loved the premise, enjoyed the archetypal characters, and I was thrilled as all getout by the upside-down sets and the real-life special effects. Most surprising of all was that the filmmakers not only got me to care about these characters, but to also feel something about their fates. Who knew a cheesy movie could be so moving?
The terrible remake (which Carol Lynley called “The biggest piece of shit I’ve ever seen”) cost 32 times more and had CGI wizardry up the ass, but I never gave a whit about what happened to anyone in it. The Poseidon Adventure was ripped apart by many critics in its day, but it has aged well. What seemed corny in 1972 looks rather sweet today. And makers of today's disposable action films could a lesson from how The Poseidon Adventure takes the time to get us to know/care about the characters before the mayhem starts). This film is now 45 years old, and in spite of its well-earned reputation as a campy favorite, I can't help but think that in the realm of disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure is some kind of a minor classic of the genre.
As both Beyond The Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm proved, when Irwin Allen directs, the result is a guaranteed disaster. An invaluable boon to The Poseidon Adventure was handing the directing chores over to Ronald Neame and leaving the action sequences to Allen

PERFORMANCES
One of the peculiarities of the disaster film genre is that things don’t actually improve when “good” actors are cast in the roles. The genre doesn’t need performances, it needs personas. Nothing bogs a disaster film down more than a so-called serious actor trying to give a “performance.” For example--for all their innate talent, you’d have to look to an Ed Wood movie to find performances worse than Olivia de Havilland in The Swarm, or Jack Lemmon in Airport ’77.
Leslie Nielsen as Captain Harrison
Young viewers are surprised and delighted to see the Airplane and Naked Gun star in a serious role. However, those of us of a certain age know that for decades, THIS Leslie Nielsen was the only Leslie Nielsen there was.
No, with the genre’s emphasis on action and expediency, it’s often a matter of finding actors with distinct, identifiable, almost over-emphatic screen personas, capable of projecting a level of conviction appropriate to the arch dialogue and bigger-than-life goings on.
Much in the manner that Vincent Price became the master of schlock horror sincerity, disaster film actors who take their roles too seriously come off as ridiculous, while the most effective performances are those that seem to operate on a level of magic reality that hovers somewhere between authentic and artificial.
The distinction I'm trying to make is that while the cast of The Poseidon Adventure may all be quite excellent actors in their own right, what they're called upon to do in The Poseidon Adventure doesn't require "good" acting so much as "effective" acting. To make material like this believable, it matters more to strike the right tone; in which case performances ranging from hammy to hoary can prove to be 100% on the money.
My absolute favorite shot in the entire film, also my favorite moment.
No matter how many times I see The Poseidon Adventure, Linda Rogo's death remains for me the most shocking and heart-wrenching. Winters' Belle Rosen was set up from the beginning to be nobly tragic, but Mike and Linda Rogo were the couple I identified with. They weren't know-it-alls, they weren't noble, and they said the things I was thinking. They were funny, sweet, and a life-force in the film, and Linda's death reverberated like no other. Ernest Borgnine just breaks my heart in this scene and I always get waterworks from his reaction. To me he was always the film's most valuable player.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
By no means all, but just a few of my favorite things:
I don't care how dated the special effects are, the capsizing of the Poseidon is epic moviemaking
(Gotta love Red Buttons during this part. That's not acting)
No one on the Poseidon faced a bigger challenge than these two trying to find the beat
I love Mrs. Rosen
Even in 1972, the Hot Pants Under The Gown Reveal drew gasps and laughs.
Loving Linda's reaction
That Dive!
The biggest shock of the film. It got laughs, applause, and cheers
I love Linda Rogo

The Poseidon Adventure is a favorite. You'll never hear me call it one of the best films ever made; I don't buy into revisionist assessments ranking it a genuine classic (it's great for what it is, but let's not forget what it is); nor do I harbor illusions about its depiction of women (save for Belle and her big moment, the men are all active while the women are reactive) and lack of people of color in the major cast (Akers & Belle occupy the stereotypical roles of ethnics in action films: "first to die" and "noble sacrifice").
Yet there's no denying The Poseidon Adventure is one of those imperfect films that achieves a kind of lightning-in-a-bottle kind of excellence. From script (dialogue, primarily) to characterizations, to outlandish (albeit exciting) premise; it shouldn't really work as beautifully as it does. But you'd have to look hard and long to find a disaster film that does it better. It's one of the best of its breed. I've come to regard it with such fondness, I've noticed that over the years my laughs of derision have turned into laughs of affection. Despite its flaws, I fully understand why it has endured and why so many people have taken it to their hearts.


BONUS MATERIAL
In 1973 MAD magazine once again did a movie satire that hit the nail on the head. In "The Poopsidedown Adventure" the characters are named: Reverend Shout, Hammy & Bellow Roseman, Snoozin & Rotten, Mr. Martyr, Ninny, Mr. Rougho, Limber, and Apers.

The juxtaposition of Shelley Winters' name to the title of the film "Fat City" causes Robert Duvall to lose it when reading the 1973 Academy Award nominees for Best Supporting Actress. And don't buy the "for public consumption" explanation Duvall gave the press saying that he was laughing because James Caan was making faces from the audience. Though it's nothing compared to U.S. norms today, Shelly Winters' weight was a major source of comedy and comment, a Johnny Carson monologue staple, and all anyone could talk about in 1972. HERE

The internet is loaded with information, fansites, trivia, casting factoids, reunion videos, and clips pertaining to The Poseidon Adventure film and any one of its numerous stage incarnations.
Copyright © Ken Anderson

Friday, November 10, 2017

THE BABY MAKER 1970

In 1970, decades before the topic of surrogacy became a standby staple of Lifetime TV thrillers, fodder for mediocre comedies (Paternity, Baby Mama), or a nightmare vision of a dystopian future (The Handmaid’s Tale), it was once considered a subject so unique and unusual that critics and audiences alike were at a bit of a loss as to how to respond to a movie proposing surrogacy as a legitimate alternative for a couple wanting a child but unable to conceive.  
Barbara Hershey as Patricia "Tish" Gray
Sam Groom as Jay Wilcox
Collin Wilcox as Suzanne Wilcox
Scott Glenn as Tad Jacks
The Baby Maker, the debut film of Oscar-nominated screenwriter James Bridges (The Paper Chase, The China Syndrome) tells the story of a Los Angles hippie (Barbara Hershey, the then go-to flower child of the movies) who, for a substantial amount of money and because she just loves being pregnant (“Proof of the reality of my own existence”), agrees to bear a child for a square-but-nice, well-to-do Brentwood couple (Sam Groom & Collin Wilcox). Combining as it does—with varying degrees of success—elements of the well-intentioned Generation Gap TV movie-of-the-week (Maybe I’ll Come Home in The Spring); the quickie cash-in counterculture youth flick (1969s natural childbirth gimmick comedy Generation); the racy and “with it” social exposé (The Christine Jorgensen Story); and the indie character drama (Five Easy Pieces), The Baby Maker proved a hard picture to categorize and an even tougher film to market.

Young audiences deemed The Baby Maker "too straight" and mainstream, just another example of a major studio depicting hippie counterculture inauthentically on the screen. A valid criticism considering The Baby Maker actually contains a scene depicting Hershey's tree-hugger character literally hugging a tree. Meanwhile, mainstream critics labeled the film “bizarre”(The Miami News), and tripped over their words as they tried to frame the movie's then-daring themes of surrogacy in ways which didn't suggest simple exploitation and sensationalism. On that score The Baby Maker's marketing campaign didn't help matters muchAudiences titillated by the film’s teasingly salacious ad copy: “She’ll live with a couple. Share the husband. They get a baby that’s at least half theirs. She gets the joy of making it”—must have been disappointed when the movie proved not to be about a  tie-dye three-way, but instead, a thoughtful, often clinical, nearly two-hour character drama about the permanence of our choices. (Time capsule note: the film's deceptively smutty ad copy plays on the late '60s double-entendre use of the term “making it"--then hipster/swinger slang for having sex.)

Lili Valenty as Mrs. Culnick, the sweet little old lady go-between who
 facilitates the pairing of the childless couple with a willing surrogate

It also didn't help marketing matters much that America's love affair with the hippie was on the downside. A few months prior to the release of The Baby Maker, John G. Avildsen released a low-budget social melodrama titled Joe which climaxed with a vigilante massacre at a hippie commune by a pair of ultra-conservative working-class reactionaries. The film struck an odd, cathartic chord with the public and became a controversial sleeper hit. In this social climate, The Baby Maker’s positive depiction of hippie culture started to look a tad cliché, its idealized depiction of youth fast becoming passé.

All of which contributed to The Baby Maker enjoying only the briefest of theatrical runs before promptly disappearing from movie screens and people's memories. This in spite of it having received a good share of favorable notices for its performances, actress Barbara Hershey attracting a lot of Best Actress Oscar nomination buzz in the trade papers, and it actually garnered an Academy Award nod for its original song score by composer Fred Karlin. (Karlin actually won the Oscar that year, but in another category for a different film: he won Best Song for “For All We Know” from Lovers and Other Strangers.)
"I was just looking at your records. You have an awful lot of Frank Sinatra."
The surrogate mother meets (and sizes up) the father

Although I remember when The Baby Maker was originally released, I don’t recall it ever appearing on television or even coming out on video. My reaction to the newspaper ads at the time was likely in line with how they appeared to most people: the film looked like cheap exploitation Drive-In fare. Not that that had ever proved a deterrent to my interest in a movie before. It's just that with both Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls hitting the screens at the same time that year, my reasoning was that if I was going to see salacious trash, it might as well be big-budget salacious trash from a major studio.

I finally got to see The Baby Maker in 1973 or 1974 when it played at the bottom of a double bill at San Francisco’s Alhambra Theater where I worked as an usher during high school. By this time Barbara Hershey had officially changed her name to Barbara Seagull (an ill-advised phase which lasted about two years), and hippies in movies were starting to look as relevant as beatniks. Nevertheless, for the week of the film's run, I saw it about three times. I loved it!
Tad and Tish
One of the things I like about how the character of Tish is conceived is that she never thinks twice about treating her body as her own property to do with as she wishes. Although she is in an open relationship with her boyfriend Tad (for all of six months), when she decides to be a surrogate she doesn't seek his permission or approval. The scene where she finally tells him is touching and beautifully played, and feels light years away from how I imagine the scene would be written today. 


WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
Before making his directing debut with The Baby Maker, James Bridges was a successful screenwriter who got his start writing for television (Bridges wrote one of my all-time favorite episodes of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour: “The Unlocked Window”) with a background in acting and directing for the theater. Dissatisfied with the quality of the films made from his scripts (The Appaloosa, Colossus: The Forbin Project), Bridges decided that he’d try his hand at directing direct his next screenplay (“I can fuck ‘em up as good as they can!”). Basing The Baby Maker on an individual he and life-partner/business partner Jack Larson were acquainted with at a Venice Beach bar called The Carousel, the woman was a bohemian, free-spirit type who liked the feeling of being pregnant and made extra money by serving as a surrogate mother for childless couples. 
It's Complicated
The Baby Maker is a twist on the classic triangle, the third party in this instance being recruited in a most impersonal way to participate in a most personal form of interrelation. In those pre-in vitro days, the fact that the surrogate is to be impregnated “the old-fashioned way” may have served as the film's principle gimmick and marketing hook, but The Baby Maker distinguishes itself in the way the sensational premise really serves as a springboard for a thoughtful examination of culture conflict. The film's humor and heart arise out of the clash of generations, personalities, backgrounds, and the unanticipated emotions that arise out of what ostensibly is in form and function, a business arrangement.

In all, Bridges set a heady task for himself in his first outing as director. And while he’s not always successful in balancing the varying shifts in tone or sustaining the narrative thrust of the story over the length of the film’s running time (sometimes it feels up in the air as to just whose story the film is most interested in); I was impressed that he seems to respond to the material as a tale he particularly cares about and wants to tell. He doesn't appear unduly concerned with it meeting audience expectations or fitting easily into a genre designation. 
 Collin Wilcox made her memorable film debut as Mayella in To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)


PERFORMANCES
Critics were divided over The Baby Maker’s merits, but the quality of Barbara Hershey’s performance was undisputed. And without a doubt her performance is the single most distinguished takeaway from the entire film. Barbara Hershey’s real-life hippie-dippy reputation may have blighted her early career (and indeed may have cost her a much-deserved Oscar nod for her role here), but it’s precisely that she comes across as the real thing, that she’s authentically who we're watching and not “acting” Hollywood’s idea of a hippie, that proves the film's defining voice and ultimately its saving grace.
Hershey, who just the year before gave a truly chilling performance as a sociopath in Frank Perry's shattering Last Summer (1969) gives another incredible performance in this, her 5th film. Always an underrated actress, she is The Baby Maker's Most Valuable Player. In scene after scene, whether it be some bit of dialogue that would sound hokey or laughable coming from someone else, or a moment when the film feels to be veering into soapy waters, Hershey’s unselfconscious and nuanced performance moors potential contrivance to truth.
Making his film debut, actor Scott Glenn is very good as Tish's sweet but immature boyfriend. 
In 1980 Glenn would go on to have a featured role in James Bridges' Urban Cowboy

As the middle-class couple, Collin Wilcox and stolidly handsome Sam Groom supply more traditional performances which, by comparison, feel more generic, but both are quite good (Groom's large head and chiseled features made him a natural for the closeup-heavy medium of television, where he found success as the star of the syndicated program Police Surgeon). Wilcox is a standout as Suzanne, playing the character as a pragmatic but somewhat neurotic woman. The Baby Maker actually excels in making women the dominant players, placing their unique bonds and relationships front and center, moving the narrative forward and shaping the outcome of events. A young Jeannie Berlin is wonderful as Tish’s outspoken, activist best friend.
Tish uses some of her money to help support her single mom (Phyllis Coates) and her  grandmother (Madge Kennedy) who both live in a Venice trailer park. In a sea of post-Easy Rider male-centric buddy films, The Baby Maker is unique for its dominant narrative perspective of women and their relationships. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I’m a big believer in the tenet that the engagement of different voices can’t help but result in different stories. The subject matter of The Baby Maker couldn’t be more heterosexual, but as a story written and produced by two gay men, I feel it qualifies as a keen example of Queer Cinema.
For all its progressive ideas, the youth movement and hippie counterculture (at least as it has been depicted in films) has always been woefully male-centric, conventional, and in most cases downright misogynist in its attitudes towards women. For example: The Strawberry Statement, a 1970 film about campus protests, couldn't conceive of anything more important for its female activists to do beyond making Xerox copies of protest  pamphlets and doing the marketing. To the best of my recollection The Baby Maker is the only hippie-themed film of the era to feature a female protagonist and a story told from a woman’s point of view. A genuine woman's perspective, not a fetishized, free-love, heterosexual male gaze fantasy of the sort depicted in films like ChastityCandy, or There's a Girl in My Soup.
The Baby Maker producer Jack Larson (l.) & director James Bridges met when both appeared as actors in the film Johnny Trouble (1957). Openly gay, they remained lovers/partners till Bridges' death in 1993. Larson passed away in 2015
For its time, The Baby Maker’s feminist perspective, non-sexualized heroine, and unorthodox domestic relationships are a subtle challenge to the heteronormative status quo; something I wholly attribute to the gay sensibilities of its creators. Like the works of playwrights Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee, I think what’s brilliant about Bridges’ screenplay is that it looks at heterosexuality through the outsider insights of queer.
In a reversal of a common youth film trope, the male bodies are the
ones exposed and made the object of the gaze in The Baby Maker

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
Being that I was just a child when my family lived in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in the late ‘60s, I tend not to be a very good judge of what passes for the authentic or inauthentic representation of hippie culture in movies. Largely shielded from the sex and drugs side of it all, my kid's-eye-view memory of the era consists largely of its pop-cultural trappings. My nostalgia buttons can be pushed by the most superficial depictions of the era, so even though The Baby Maker takes place in Los Angeles, one of its major perks for me is how often it triggers moments of "I remember that!" memory-jogging that take me back to my San Francisco roots.
Fringed suede/leather jackets were all the rage, and everyone seemed to know how to tie-dye but me.  My elder sister (who really caught the hippie bug) was a whiz, but I tended to use so much bleach that my garments practically disintegrated. Hitchhikers were visible all over San Francisco, but there so many of us (me & 4 sisters)  that picking up thumb-trippers was never a practical option even if my parents were open to it. Which they weren't. This suited me just fine, for The Doors' Riders on the Storm  was being played on the radio at the time and I'd had the holy hell scared out of my by the lyric "There's a killer on the road..."

War Is Not Healthy For Children & Other Living Things
I remember the many protests and picket-sign slogans of the day, the above being so ubiquitous it became a popular poster and graphic for the 1971 film Bless the Beasts and the Children. In this scene, Jeannie Berlin (daughter of writer/director Elaine May) leads a protest against a store selling toy guns.

Pop-Top Fashion
From roughly 1965 to 1975, beverage cans came with disposable pop-tops. Hippies, being ecology minded and all, took to using these aluminum tabs to create fashion and "art." Everything from hats, dresses, and vests were made out of these things. I hope she'll forgive me for ratting on her, but my older sister (Yes, Ms. Tie-dye) made herself a pop-top headband just like this. 

Home Decor
The days of gigantic stereos, door-size coffee tables, and sofas that seat 20

Candles, Candles, Everywhere
Candle stores were like the Starbucks of the Sixties; you couldn't take two steps on Telegraph Avenue without bumping into one. I remember I had a beloved star-shaped rainbow candle in my room (back when they were, y'know, just rainbows and not a symbol) and, of course, my sister made her own 

The Single Wing Turquoise Bird
How's that for a '60s name? Psychedelic light shows and avant-garde multimedia theater was all the rage. Not only did every youth-culture movie feature at least once sequence of freak-out visuals, but the phenomenon went mainstream with 2001: A Space Odyssey. In The Baby Maker, Tish and friends attend a light show performance by The Single Wing Turquoise Bird, a real-life performance troupe that is still in existence.

Although it’s one of my favorites, I don't mean to paint The Baby Maker as some kind of undiscovered classic. It’s shot in the flat, undistinguished style of a TV-movie, the hippie trappings and dialogue can be a bit distancing, and modern audiences may find the tempo a tad sluggish. But I derive a great deal of pleasure from these very things, in addition to the film's moving and uncompromising presupposition that both growth and change are inevitable parts of life.
A consistent theme in many of my favorite films is the human need for contact, so I'm a sucker for movies about people who misguidedly assume independence means the absence of attachments. Plus, anybody who knows me knows how much I love a good cry at the movies, and the ending of The Baby Maker never fails to get the ol' waterworks going.


 BONUS MATERIAL
The Superman Connection
The Baby Maker producer Jack Larson was best known as cub reporter Jimmy Olson on the TV series The Adventures of Superman from 1952 to 1958. That show's original Lois Lane (1st season only) was actress Phyllis Coates. Larson and Coates remained friends over the years, leading to her being cast in The Baby Maker in the role of Barbara Hersey's mother.
Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson, and Ann Doran in The Adventures of Superman
Phyllis Coates as Patricia's mother

Brenda Sykes (Cleopatra Jones) appears in an unbilled bit part as a woman
with whom Tad shares a joint and a flirtation
In 1985 I appeared as a dance/exercise extra in the virtually unwatchable James Bridges film Perfect, starring John Travolta & Jamie Lee Curtis. Although the aerobics class scenes were shot on location at the Sports Connection gym in West Hollywood, this particular scene was shot months later on a set designed to look exactly like the gym. These reshoots were necessitated by the feeling from the higher-ups that the previously shot aerobic class scenes weren't "sexy enough,"
Aside from having to do something like six hours of pelvic tucks, what's most memorable about this particular sequence is that, after filming had begun, shooting halted in order for the costume people to figure out a way to sew up the legs to Travolta's shorts in order to give him a more pronounced package. When Travolta returned a half hour later with a more camera-ready crotch, it also appeared that a bit of filler had been added. Jack Larson served as producer on this film as well, and was often present on the very gay (and happy) set.


Copyright © Ken Anderson