Increasingly in recent years, television has worked up the nerve to deal with delicate social problems in prime time. There have been dramas about drug abuse, autistic children, battered wives, divorce, and even the problem of TV violence. These messege movies are a little like Afterschool Specials for adults; they're Afterwork Specials.
Crushing realism may not always be the rule, and the moral may stick out like a handful of sore thumbs, but at their best, the films turn statistics and talk-show topics into drama of impact and immediacy, home theatre for the American home. This happens again Sunday night at 9 on Channel 7 with the ABC movie "When She Was Bad," which depicts a case of child abuse.
The movie was co-produced by David Ladd, who is still legally married to Cheryl, the Charlie's Angel, and is the son of Alan, the underestimated Hollywood actor, who died in 1964.Ladd, who lucked out by inheriting his old man's good looks, says he and Cheryl wanted to make a film about how a normal middle-class couple might let marital and career pressures drive them to the point of physically harming their own little girl.
Cheryl Ladd plays the mother in the film and Robert Urich, of "Vegas $," the father.
"The kind of program, drama or documentary that has been done on child abuse has always showed the exploitative or sensational side of it -- burning kids with cigatettes, or sexual abuse, or whatever," Ladd says "But that is only 10 percent of the problem, whereas 90 percent is the kind of abuse that we depict. We wanted to show that some people do have this problem and they're not criminals or psychopaths, and they can be helped."
Of course one popular way to explain away dishonorable behavior is to label it disease. And yet in "When She Was Bad" the details of how domestic violence can come about are very believably dramatized by writer Carmen Culver ("First You Cry"). For one thing, the child is not portrayed as God's most perfect little angel; one can feel the anger and frustration building up in the mother as she tries to deal with this occasionally obstinate, tyrannical tot.
In the film, the couple played by Ladd and Urich are trying to start over in a new town, he gung-ho on his insurance career, she trying to be the model wife and mother. 'You're beautiful, but you're dumb," the husband tells the wife, and he ridicules her in front of the child: "See that? Mommy's being shy again."
This is a story about more than child abuse -- about all kinds of stresses and self-deceptions that can be part of striving for the surburban good life. In this case, and because both parents were abused children themselves, the target for their aggression is their child.
The mother can't cope with the way the little girl is complicating her life, and so she hits her. Hard. Then she plummets into a sea of guilt.
Ladd, 32, had one child during his eight-year marriage to the former Cheryl Stoppelmoor -- a daughter, Jordan, now 5.
"You take a baby in your arms -- and this sounds very melodramatic and everything -- and you realize, they come into the world with blank brains," Ladd says. "And during those first four or five years, you program their lives in many ways. That probably was our initial involvement in the subject of child abuse, which later led to the film itself."
For actress Ladd, this was also a chance to prove she can do something besides talk to a speakerphone and get wet. And for Urich, the opportunity to show he can do something other than drive and shoot.
"The network got kind of afraid of the film," says Ladd. "They were concerned with the choice of Urich. They felt it might be perceived as "Charlie's Angels Meets Vega $." Did the network ever protest that a film about child abuse might be too depressing? "You bet. You bet," Ladd says.
"For us, it was the chance to take the responsibility to do something responsible. It's like Jane Fonda making 'Coming Home.' It's something we cared about," Ladd says. He does make it sound a little Hollywood Liberal gloppy, but the film definitely has a powerful veracity going for it. And Ladd and Urich, though in over their heads, do some formidable stretching.
That both are such familiar and basically innocuous personalities may give the film more oomph than if so-called great actors had been cast in their parts.
The hardest role in the film, though, is that of the little girl. The Ladds looked at 300 kids before casting novice Nicole Eggert. Cheryl had to spend a few minutes with her on the set after shooting the traumatic scenes to make sure she knew that no one was really angry with her.
"We felt so guilty about it, we took Nicole to the Virgin Islands after we finished the picture," Ladd says.
Ladd wants to produce feature films as well, but he gets very brave and boldly confesses, "To be very honest with you, I like television." Gulp. "I really do. And you can do things in television you can't do in movies anymore unless you have a Jane Fonda, like this kind of film.
"I think without Jane Fonda, 'Coming Home' might have been a TV movie. TV is a place where you can do an intimate film that is about something. It's growing, and it's growing up. A lot."
Ladd's arrival in Washington was preceded by alarms from a panicked flack warning not to ask Ladd about his rocky marriage. When he heard this, he smiled and then said, "We are seperated.We've had eight wonderful years together. I don't know how the hell it's going to turn out, but I don't think there'd be any regrets either way."
It also seems impossible to be in the presence of the Son of Shane and not ask about Ladd's father Alan (whose other son, Alan Ladd Jr., was recently deposed as head of 20th Century-Fox). Asked whether, as the son of a Hollywood star and as a child actor ("The Proud Rebel," "Dog of Flanders") himself, he could possible have had anything like a normal childhood, Ladd simply replies, "I'm alive."
Of his father's films, Ladd thinks the 1949 version of "The Great Gatsby" is the best. There was a scene in the film in which Ladd as Gatsby took visitors into his bedroom to show off his expensive silk shirts, which he threw down flamboyantly on the bed. Ladd says his father, who started poor like Gatsby, used to do the same thing in real life.
"A book came out a while ago about my father that was just ridiculous," Ladd says. "If you want to know the truth, I think he was a hell of an actor and he wasn't given much credit for it. Someday, people will realize how good he really was."