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 movie theme so unique and unusual that critics and audiences alike were at a bit of a loss as to how to respond to it. 
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 sensitive indie character drama (Five Easy Pieces); The Baby Maker proved a hard picture to categorize and an even tougher film to market.

As such, The Baby Maker was deemed too “straight” by young audiences who saw it as yet another inauthentic screen depiction of the hippie counterculture (a valid criticism given that at one point Hershey's tree-hugger character literally hugs a tree), while mainstream critics labeled it a “bizarre” movie (The Miami News) and couldn’t seem to get past framing its then-daring themes in terms of exploitation and sensationalism. Audiences titillated by the film’s teasingly salacious ad campaign: “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.” (Mind you, this is back when “making it” was popular hipster slang for sex)—were disappointed to find a thoughtful, often clinical, nearly two-hour drama. 

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

Further adding to the film’s woes were those who simply saw the film’s subject matter as being either distasteful or amoral, or, perhaps most damaging, the fact that just a few months prior to the release of The Baby Maker, John G. Avildsen’s low-budget social melodrama Joe (which climaxed with a vigilante massacre at a hippie commune by a pair of ultra-conservative working-class reactionaries) had struck some kind of chord with the public and became a controversial sleeper hit.
By 1970, The Baby Maker’s positive depiction of hippie culture had grown cliché and was fast becoming passé.
Thus, in spite of its 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 actually garnering an Academy Award nod for its original song score (composer Fred Karlin was nominated for The Baby Maker the same year he won a Best Song Oscar for “For All We Know” from Lovers and Other Strangers), The Baby Maker only enjoyed a brief run at theaters and then promptly disappeared. Both from movie screens and most people’s memories.
"I was just looking at your records. You have an awful lot of Frank Sinatra."
The surrogate mother meets (and sizes up) the father

I don’t recall it ever appearing on television or even having a video release. And while I remember when it came out, I confess to having responded to the newspaper ads much the same as I suppose many did: the film looked like cheap exploitation. Not that that had ever been a deterrent to my interest in any film, but with both Myra Breckinridge and Beyond the Valley of the Dolls hitting the screens that same year, I guess my reasoning was that if I was going to see trash, it might as well come 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 that had lasted about two years), and hippies in movies were starting to look as dated as beatniks. Nevertheless, for the week of the film's run, I saw it about three times. I loved it!
Tish and Tad
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. 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
James Bridges was successful screenwriter who got his start in television (he wrote “The Unlocked Window” my all-time favorite episode of The Alfred Hitchcock Hour) with a background in acting and directing for the theater. Dissatisfied with the films made from his scripts, Bridges decided that he’d direct his next screenplay (“I can fuck ‘em up as good as they can!”). Bridges based The Baby Maker on a woman he life-partner/business partner Jack Larson knew from a Venice Beach bar called The Carousel. The woman was a free-spirit type who liked being pregnant and made extra money by being a surrogate mother for childless couples. 
It's Complicated
The Baby Maker is a twist on the classic triangle, only in this instance the third party is engaged in the most impersonal manner to engage in the most personal of relationships. In those pre-in vitro days, the fact that the surrogate is impregnated “the old-fashioned way” may have provided the film with its gimmick and marketing hook, but the conflicts, complications, and comedy arise out of the clash of generations, cultures, and unforeseen emotions.
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 shifts in tone or sustaining its narrative thrust over the length of the film’s running time; I was impressed that he seems to respond to the material as a story he wants to tell, and doesn’t appear inordinately concerned that it doesn’t meet expectations or fit easy genre description. 
 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 the fact that she comes across as the real thing, that she’s not “acting” the part of Hollywood’s idea of a hippie, is what saves the film.
Hershey, who gave a truly chilling performance in Frank Perry's shattering Last Summer (1969) gives another incredible performance in this, her 5th film. Always an undderated actress, she is The Baby Maker's Most Valuable Player.  In scene after scene, whether it be some bit of dialog that would sound clichéd 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. 
Glenn would go on to have a featured role in James Bridges' Urban Cowboy (1980)

As the middle-class couple, Collin Wilcox and stolidly handsome Sam Groom (whose large head makes him well suited for the medium shots of television, where he indeed found his success as TV’s Police Surgeon) supply more traditional performances that, by comparison, feel more generic, but both are quite good. Wilcox in particular (whom I don’t think I’ve seen in anything since To Kill a Mockingbird) plays Suzanne as a grounded but somewhat neurotic character of emotional complexity. It’s the unique female relationships and the dominance of the women’s performances in The Baby Maker (this includes Jeannie Berlin as Tish’s activist best friend) that makes it such a surprisingly refreshing period-piece of a movie for me.
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 realtionships. 

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
I’m a big believer in the tenet that different voices can’t help but result in different stories. The subject matter couldn’t be more heterosexual, but as one written and produced by 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 depicted in films) was woefully male-centric and conventional in its attitudes toward women. The Baby Maker is the only hippie-themed film of the era with a female protagonist and told from a woman’s perspective (not a fetishized, free-love, heterosexual male perspective like Candy 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 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 time is so tied to its pop-cultural trappings, my nostalgia buttons can be pushed by the most superficial depictions of the era. The Baby Maker takes place in Los Angeles, but one of its major perks its many moments of "I remember that!" memory-jogging that take me back to my SF 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 used so much bleach tie-dying my jeans that they practically disintegrated. Hitchhikers were visible all over San Francisco, but thankfully, my parents weren't the give 'em a ride type. Especially since at the time the lyrics to The Doors' Riders on the Storm ("There's a killer on the road...") had scared the holy shit out of me.

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/dirctor 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. My Fanta root beer addiction helped her out a lot.

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, 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 troupe still in existence.

Although it’s one of my favorites, The Baby Maker isn’t some undiscovered classic. It’s shot in the flat, undistinguished style of a TV-movie, the hippie trappings and dialog can be a bit distancing, and modern audiences may find the tempo sluggish. But I find the film’s sometimes uncompromising presupposition of the inevitability of growth and change to be very moving.
A consistant 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
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 brief role of Barbara Hersey's mother.
Phyllis Coates, Jack Larson and unknown actress 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 flirtation (and a joint)
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. 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 produced and was often present on the very "happy" set.


Copyright © Ken Anderson