FILMS

A family affair

A new movie looks at sex and mothers

Brian D. Johnson November 14 1988
FILMS

A family affair

A new movie looks at sex and mothers

Brian D. Johnson November 14 1988

A family affair

FILMS

A new movie looks at sex and mothers

She wore a sensible dress. Matte black and cinched at the waist with a matching belt, it fanned into a tent that stopped just far enough above the ankles to show off zebra-striped stockings. Attached to the front were two oversize artificial flowers, each almost as large as her face, which was framed by bangs and a sweep of straight, fine hair. Green-tinted glasses obscured her eyes. But the smile was instantly familiar, the surrendering, self-deprecating smile of Diane Keaton, lost for words to define herself. Interviewed last week in New York City about her new movie, The Good Mother, Keaton guiltily accepted another cup of coffee (“Coffee, mmmmm, bad”) and talked about the sorts of women she likes to portray. “I guess they are characters who have complicated feelings,” she said. “They’re kind of in two places at once, conflicted a lot. Going one way or the other. I guess. I don’t really know. What do you think?” In The Good Mother, Keaton portrays a woman too complicated for her own good, a mother who is torn between her lover and her young daughter. Based on the best-selling 1986 novel by U.S. author Sue Miller, the drama revolves around a grim courtroom bat-

tle for the child’s custody. One of three movies released this fall about women on trial, The Good Mother is indicative of Hollywood’s increasing interest in creating issue-oriented movies with strong roles for women. In The Accused, released last month, Jodie Foster portrays the victim of a gang rape who must defend herself in court against allegations that she asked for it. And this week marks the release of A Cry in the Dark, starring Meryl Streep, a true story that chronicles the witchhunt against an Australian mother unfairly convicted of murdering her baby (page 60).

The Accused and A Cry in the Dark specifically focus on women’s issues: their protagonists are victims of public innuendo based on sexual stereotypes. But The Good Mother is not so clear-cut. Set in Cambridge, Mass., and filmed mostly in Toronto, the movie raises some delicate issues. And it covers a range of subjects including child custody, the sexual curiosity of children, the power of the courts and the conflict between maternal and erotic instincts.

Recently divorced, Anna (Keaton) meets a free-spirited young sculptor named Leo, portrayed by Irish actor Liam Neeson. Leo se-

duces Anna in his warehouse loft. Gradually and gently, he introduces her to an uninhibited world of passion and sexuality that she had never enjoyed with her husband. Anna’s daughter, Molly, played by six-year-old Toronto actress Asia Vieira, accepts the new boyfriend, who has virtually moved in with her mother. But while visiting her father on a weekend, she tells him about touching Leo’s penis. In fact, she had seen Leo stepping out of the shower and asked to touch it; to satisfy her curiosity, he consented. It was a fleeting and harmless incident, not an act of molestation. But Molly’s father, imagining the worst, sues for custody. And Anna’s lawyer (Jason Robards) urges her to sacrifice her relationship with Leo instead of trying to convert a conservative judge to a liberal philosophy of sexual education.

The story involves some complex psychology, and the film-makers seem to have quite different ideas about what it all means. Director Leonard Nimoy, who became famous as Mr. Spock, Star Trek’s gothic-eared Vulcan, says that the movie’s central issue is the age-old conflict between motherhood and sexuality. “It’s the classic division between the madonna and the whore,” said Nimoy. “I think it is a particular problem for men to perceive their mothers as women who have sex.” On the other hand, producer Arnold Glimcher maintains that the movie is first and foremost “a powerful statement that the ideals of the 1960s are unrealizable in the 1980s.” Glimcher—whose first production was Gorillas in the Mist, the story of primate researcher Dian Fossey—says that he is committed to making movies about social issues. He calls The Good Mothers “political film.”

But Keaton prefers to see it as a personal story. Asked about the common perception that it is a feminist movie, she said: “Now, what does that mean exactly? I don’t see it that way myself. I thought it was about a particular woman in a particular situation. In a way, she willed it to happen. She brought it on herself. Even though it was an accident, it was one of those accidents where you kind of wonder.” Added Keaton: “I guess someone could see it as an issue movie. But I didn’t. I saw it more psychologically.”

Regardless of her opinion, the Disney-owned studio Touchstone Pictures is marketing The Good Mother as an issue movie. The advertisements pose the question: “Can a court determine how we should live, how we should love, how we should raise our children?” Initially, however, Disney executives were leery about raising such questions on the big screen. Glimcher recalls that when he first approached his friend, Touchstone chairman Michael Eisner, about doing the project, “Michael said: ‘I think it’s a television movie. It’s topical and it deals with issues I don’t think we can touch.’ ” Prime-time television tends to dramatize tough issues more readily than theatrical features. “In a TV movie,” Glimcher added, “they can

deal with dangerous subjects. It doesn’t cost as much money to make. And there is a large audience for topical issues. But do people want to come and pay $6 to be abused?”

A novice producer, Glimcher finally convinced Eisner that The Good Mother was worthy of the big screen. Nimoy, another relatively unseasoned film-maker, was hired to direct. Although he had directed two Star Trek movies and scored a commercial hit with the 1987 comedy Three Men and a Baby, Nimoy had no experience making serious drama. At first, he had trouble convincing Disney executives to accept Keaton for the lead, because of her lingering image as a comedy actress in such

Woody Allen movies as Annie Hall. To make his case, he put together a reel featuring her dramatic work from Reds (1981) and Shoot the Moon (1982).

Meanwhile, Keaton had reservations about accepting the role. Portraying the pain of a mother faced with the loss of her child did not worry her, she said. But she was concerned about the love scenes. “I thought, ‘Who’s going to want to watch me do this now?’ ” recalled the 42-year-old actress. “Who’s going to buy this? The idea that she was without clothes, that was one thing. And then there was the intimacy.” In the end, Keaton remained strategically draped in the sex scenes. And the intimacy proved to be unthreatening. “I really liked Liam,” she said of her costar. “I liked doing it.”

In bringing Miller’s novel to the screen, the film-makers have sanitized the story to some extent. The book contains sexual scenes that are unusually explicit yet critical to under-

standing Anna’s attempt to reconcile the erotic with the maternal. “The book is pretty wild,” said Keaton. “I mean, wild. And obviously, the movie is toned down from the book. But there’s a core of her that is still there in some way.” In paring down the book’s narrative, the script omits some key dimensions. Glimcher explains that it leaves out the details of Anna’s divorce because “couples who are divorcing are the most boring people to be with: you don’t want to be with them at a party and you don’t want to be with them at a movie.” However, more serious is the movie’s simplification of the story’s most important relationship—the one between mother and child. Miller’s novel describes the undercurrents of

fatigue and anxiety that strain the love of a mother who is suddenly single and alone with her child. But in the movie, the relationship between Anna and her daughter is all sweetness and light. Missing is that barren sense of a mother being trapped in a child’s world. Instead there is Keaton and a little girl being cute for the camera, like actors in a breakfast-cereal commercial.

Keaton, who has entered her 40s unmarried and childless, seems to be enjoying motherhood vicariously onscreen. In 1987’s Baby Boom, she played a high-powered executive who inherits a baby in a will and abandons her career to spend blissful time with her child in the country. “Working with kids makes you think of when you were a kid,” said Keaton. “It’s a natural thing.” Asked if she regrets not having children of her own, Keaton responded with one of her trademark double-takes: “Regrets? Sure. Yeah. I mean, sure. A little. Well,

I’m not dead. But the biological clock—it’s ticked.” It is ironic that Keaton has ended up starring in movies that, in different ways, idealize th, > relationship between mother and child.

The Good Mother evades the darker side of Miller’s vision. The tension of the novel’s ambiguity dissolves into a spirit of acquiescence. And that is most evident in the movie’s ending. The basic outcome remains unchanged in the screen version. But the courtroom drama is surprisingly underdeveloped, considering that Touchstone has marketed the movie as a legal showdown. Finally, the narrative’s rapid fade-out is unsatisfying: it is suffused with a soft-focused sentiment that is absent from the book.

Although the movie simplifies the novel in some annoying ways, it dramatizes much of it with faithful sensitivity. The characteristic ambivalence of Keaton’s personality makes her well-suited for Anna’s character. And she handles the moments of heartwrenching emotion with some of the best dramatic acting of her career. Keaton has also found a strong costar in Neeson, who played Clint Eastwood’s foil in The Dead Pool. Their chemistry has a spark of authenticity. And the summer-cottage scenes with Anna’s family are poignant— from Anna’s adolescent fascination with a promiscuous aunt named Babe (Tracy Griffith) to her adult dealings with her wealthy grandparents (Ralph Bellamy and Teresa Wright).

In attempting to make I tough subjects digestible for a 5 broad audience, the film-mak| ers have performed some unfortunate surgery on the story. The first cut of the movie was 2V2 hours long, and Nimoy trimmed it by 45 minutes to create the final product. The scars are all too evident. And Keaton herself seems less than completely convinced that the film-makers have succeeded. “I think the ending is correct,” she said. “I don’t know if it works, but I think it’s correct.” Asked her opinion of the movie as a whole, Keaton vacillated: “I don’t know what to say. It’s bad luck, I think, to say, ‘Yeah, I’m just so thrilled.’ ”

Despite the movie’s flaws, it touches on emotional terrain that Hollywood rarely finds the time to explore. Readers familiar with Miller’s stunning novel will be disappointed. But the movie conjures up enough of the drama that they can fill in the gaps. Meanwhile, those who have not read the book may be inspired to pick it up—and discover that there is more to The Good Mother than meets the eye.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON