Judge Chris Claro longs for the days when he thought a stork brought babies into the world, or perhaps UPS.
Baby makes three for a couple of ill-informed first-time parents.
Picture the pitch meeting: "I have a great idea. Prestige project. Couple of Oscar winners, Martin Balsam (A Thousand Clowns) and Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show). He's a great actor, dependable. She's hot from that Mary Tyler Moore show. Let's bring 'em together. A script? Yeah, sure, we'll have one of those, too."
In 1973, a woman's right to choose was an even more divisive issue than ever. Roe vs. Wade was fresh and ignited a debate that continues, more passionately than ever, thirty years later. The matter of unwanted pregnancy was the stuff of drama. In the case of A Brand New Life, it was the stuff of stilted, didactic drama.
Facts of the Case
The long-married, never pregnant Douglases, Jim and Victoria, are an affluent southern California couple. They've given up after years of trying to conceive and accepted the fact that parenthood is something they won't experience. Imagine their surprise, then, when Victoria finds herself, at 40, pregnant for the first time.
Well, this being a TV movie from the '70s, produced by the Learning Corporation of America, the Douglases, along with the audience, get a gentle, almost condescending lesson in parenting. If there had been Afterschool Specials for grownups, A Brand New Life would have kicked off the series.
See Victoria nervously reveal her pregnancy to her boss, played in full twinkle by Wilfrid Hyde-White (The Toy), who gladly promises to hire an "understudy" for her at work and construct a nursery in an empty office. Thrill to the kindly doctor advising her that 40 isn't too old for a first baby, as long as she takes her vitamins. Marvel at the sight of her middle-aged husband, blathering over the miracle of childbirth with the wide-eyed wonder of a grade-school child. (As credible an actor as Balsam is, it's hard to watch as he acts more like he's going to have a little brother or sister than a child of his own.)
Wisdom, empathy and compassion pour forth from virtually every character, save two. In one of the only affecting scenes in the film, Victoria learns from her mother (Mildred Dunnock, Death of a Salesman) that her parents never intended to have children. The scene is done in one uninterrupted, four-minute take that gives it real power and allows two sterling actresses an opportunity to show their stuff.
As the other naysayer in Victoria's life, Marge Redmond (The Flying Nun) makes the most of her two scenes. Redmond's Eleanor is a novelist who, owing to the fractured relationship with her own daughter, discourages Victoria's pregnancy. The traditionally sunny Redmond, well-remembered as Cool Whip pitchwoman Sara Tucker, offers an acerbic snap to a movie with all the bite of baby food.
Perhaps it's too much to ask a TV movie to offer real insight to a subject as weighty as the one examined in A Brand New Life. The intervening 30-plus years have seen myriad medical advances and a shift in attitudes that makes pregnancy among older women not nearly as eyebrow-raising as it was in the 70s. But the cluelessness and utter lack of any kind of awareness about parenting exhibited by the characters, in the service of offering an overly instructive primer in pregnancy, is pretty unsettling.
Take, for example, the fact that Victoria is three months along when she finally finds out she's pregnant. That's an awfully long time for a woman to be caught unawares that she's with child. Granted, there were no EPT kits in 1973, but all the mothers I know were clued in that they were carrying by changes in their moods—swinging as they do like a pendulum—and bodies long before the 12-week mark.
Balsam's Jim, at once delighted over the prospect of the pregnancy and worried about the child's effect on the marriage, burbles on about all the books they have about childbearing. Again, taking into account the fact that this was 1973 and we were at the tail end of the pacing-father-smoking-cigarettes-outside-the-delivery-room era, we can make some allowances. But it doesn't excuse an otherwise intelligent character's nattering twittiness about his impending fatherhood.
Of course, no '70s examination of pregnancy would be complete without a beatific lecture about the joys of motherhood from a swingin' hippie chick and a visit to a natural childbirth class. A Brand New Life boasts both, complete with film of the actual birth of a child.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
To its credit, A Brand New Life doesn't shy away from at least a touch of controversy, as Victoria discusses with her doctor the very real possibility of abortion. As inflammatory as that issue was and is, it was a gutsy move for a character in a TV movie such as this one to consider terminating a pregnancy.
And in spite of the insipidly pedantic script, it's hard to fault the performances of Leachman and Balsam. Under the direction of Mike Nichols' longtime editor, Sam O'Steen, Balsam's gentle gruffness is engaging, even when his character behaves like a dithering ninny, and Leachman, who won an Emmy for her performance, makes the most of her tightly-wound formality to make Victoria sympathetic. For viewers who were only familiar with her Emmy-winning performance as Mary Tyler Moore's self-obsessed neighbor, Phyllis, Leachman's performance in A Brand New Life was surely a revelation.
A timid take on a volatile topic, A Brand New Life deserves props for addressing the issue of unexpected pregnancy. Too bad it tiptoes around trying so hard not to offend.
A Brand New Life is found guilty of namby-pamby, wishy-washy fence straddling.
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Studio: VCI Home Video
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