**/**** Image C+ Sound B
1952: starring Demi Moore, Catherine Keener, CCH Pounder, Jason London
teleplay by Nancy Savoca
directed by Nancy Savoca
1974: starring Sissy Spacek, Xander Berkeley, Hedy Buress, Janna Michaels
teleplay by Susan Nanus and Nancy Savoca
directed by Nancy Savoca
1996: starring Cher, Anne Heche, Jada Pinkett, Eileen Brennan
teleplay by I. Marlene King and Nancy Savoca
directed by Cher
by Bill Chambers Is one expected to insert the If These Walls Could Talk disc into a DVD player, or lace it through the gears of an old-fashioned Bell+Howell projector? The three-act HBO anthology, which revolves around the abortion debate, was shot on stock that appears to be of Seventies vintage even in sequences meant to take place in the Fifties and the Nineties, contributing to its classroom-instructional vibe as much as the message-oriented scripting.
Which isn't a bad thing, per se: the mass audience is much more likely to be receptive to an all-star Sex Ed film than one with mere actors, and if Bill Maher's citizen panellists on "Politically Incorrect" are any indication, many Americans could use a refresher course in social studies. And unlike most cinematic lecture aids, the filmmakers resist statistical platitudes--raw emotions substitute for charts and graphs.
The first short, "1952," features Demi Moore as Claire Donnelly, a nurse made unwillingly pregnant by her deceased husband's brother (Jason London) and forced to discreetly shop for an abortion in the stone ages of postwar America. Catherine Keener lends surprisingly ineffectual support as Claire's ignorant sister-in-law, a new mother who, in a bit of historical irony laid on thick, touts her baby like a trophy in one hand while smoking with the other; Moore is the star of this show.
Moore's reluctant sadness (her square face takes on angry defeat as the tears flow) is consistently gripping, and her final scene lays waste to the sexpot image she so shrewdly constructed in the early Nineties--Moore becomes, for the first time in her post-Ghost career, a vulnerable presence, and while this may seem a regression from the equal-opportunity bravado of a role such as G.I. Jane, the shedding of her star persona advances her credibility as an actress, which G.I. Jane, for all the fearlessness she brought to it (Moore transformed herself into a would-be butch icon), did not accomplish. The feminist agenda of the production itself also protects Moore's image from going soft.
"1952"'s intense closing beats cast a pall over the introductory notes of "1974." Initially uninvolving, this tale of Barbara Barrows, a mother of four (Sissy Spacek) who discovers she's pregnant again just as she was regaining her independence (one kid is off to college in the fall, and she herself had planned to go back to school), does reclaim our attention, but for all the wrong reasons.
The word "abortion" never enters Barbara's discussions with her domineering cop husband (Xander Berkeley)--it's not in his conservative vocabulary--and so the only true heart-to-hearts regarding this unwanted surprise take place between Barbara and her free-spirited daughter (Hedy Burress, confident and uncloying). So convincing is the soft-focused period detail as Barbara browses a library or makes small talk with a professor (Harris Yulin), it overwhelms the classically-uneventful "middle" story. If you had told me that Joe Camp (he of the Benji movies) directed this segment in his heyday, I might have believed you, especially upon seeing Barbara's mop-topped blonde son.
The third and final section, "1996," marks the directorial debut of Cher.
Cher receives top-billing here as abortionist Beth Thompson, but Anne Heche is the lead, playing a student of architecture named Christine who's been handed money by her married lover (Craig T. Nelson) to make their mutual problem go away. Against the wishes of her pro-life roommate (Jada Pinkett) and her own religious beliefs (she was raised Irish Catholic), Christine books an appointment with Dr. Thomspon--child-rearing fears override all else. On her way into the clinic, various activists (one very creepy Eileen Brennan among them) unsuccessfully attempt to dissuade Christine; she's ushered inside by hard-edged nurses for whom this is business as usual.
This episode goes over-the-top at times--a Chris Farley sound-alike shouting, "You'll still be a mother... the mother of a dead baby!" inspires nothing but guffaws, and the number of cutaways to the crowd as Christine is operated on, in order to generate suspense, becomes excessive. (It's a blatant refashioning of the rowdy-villagers-about-to-crash-the-gate routine.) These protestors, depicted as cultish goons, would seem to present a one-sided view in favour of pro-choice, but all is saved in a moment where Dr. Thompson cries privately--we see the weight of her daily task striking (presumably) yet another blow to her spirit. Cher is an unsubtle director but an astute thespian. She also extracts great work from Heche.
If These Walls Could Talk maintains a seamless vision despite having multiple cinematographers, editors, writers, and directors. (The not-untalented Nancy Savoca helmed the first two segments.) Together the three sections, irrelevantly uneven in quality, make bold statements: the legalization of abortion has made it no less controversial; the decision to abort is fraught with as many complexities as the decision to bear the child; all men are pigs (hey, I agree); etc. The film indisputably takes a pro-choice stance and doesn't cheat by presenting a trilogy of rape cases, although it's important to note that for those characters who do have the abortion, it's never a moral victory--their respective societies make sure that they grieve.
My first thought when the tail credits began was that each segment was missing a coda. But the abrupt nature of these shorts is what lends If These Walls Could Talk its cumulative power--the film fuels discussion by not putting out the fires. (Conversely, the absence of story transitions is just plain lazy.) It's wonderful to see a network get behind a project that actually fans flames.
I don't have access to PayTV, so the arrival of If These Walls Could Talk was a welcome surprise--I look forward to playing catchup with future HBO DVD titles, including If These Walls Could Talk 2. Video quality on this disc is relatively poor: presented full-frame (expected), the image suffers from frequent pixellation, and the original elements don't seem to be in tip-top shape. Hardly unwatchable, this transfer simply doesn't look any cleaner than a cable feed. The Dolby Surround soundtrack is bland but crisp, at least, with very definite left-centre-right separation. The only extras are cast and crew bios. Originally published: April 10, 2000.