"You've got spunk," Lou Grant once said to Mary Richards. Then, perceiving she had mistakenly taken this as a compliment, he growled. "I HATE spunk." Surely Mr. Grant would get cold chills or fever blisters, then, from "Portrait of a Rebel: Margaret Sanger," a CBS movie that turns the pioneering birth-control advocate into a chirpy and twerpy Mary Poppins of the pill.
The film, at 9 tonight on Channel 9, attempts to showhow Sanger defied mores and institutions of the early 20th century to preach her gospel of family planning as a practical social necessity. In the interest of producing a truly sanctimonious drag, however, writer Blanche Hanalis fills the heroine's mouth instead with suspiciously contemporary rhetoric about women having "control" over their own bodies.
Then the producers cast Bonnie Franklin as Sanger and all hope of versimilitude went out the window. Franklin is a capable and appealing actress, but far too winsome and twinkly for a role like this. When Sanger is thrown into Prison and quickly endears herself to the incarcerated prostitutes, you expect her to lead them in a chorus of "Getting to Know You" or "I Whistle A Happy Tune."
The dialogue is often insufferably didactic or heavy-handed. Male friends and foes say things like "You're a very difficult woman, Mrs. Sanger," or "You're a remarkable woman, Mrs. Sanger." Her first husband tells her, "You can't change the world, Margaret," to which she replies with solemn predictability, "I intend to try."
Although we are promised a "portrait of a rebel," there's really nothing here about the compulsions or motivations of civil disobedients, and virtually all opposition to Sanger's views -- which certainly have their cold-blooded side -- is depicted as impossibly bigoted and Victorian.
Director Virgil Vogel, fondly remembered for his Herculean work on NBC's "Centennial," continues to demonstrate fluency and imagination under restrictive TV conditions. But beginning one of Sanger's jail terms with a montage of cockroaches crawling around the cellblock floor is just a tad inexcusable.
Later, though, when Sanger leaves prison after a brief and rambunctious stay, Vogel does have the wits to include one quick and touching shot of the women left behind.
No mention is made of Sanger's second marriage, but she is portrayed as having a cutesy-wutesy affair in England with sex thereapist Havelock Ellis. hHe tells her, "I love you, you know," whereas her first husband had merely said, "I do care about you, you know."
An epilogue read with feverish fervor by producer David Frost suggests that this project went awry quite early, when everyone involved became overcome with the messianic glory of their mission. The result is more of an insult to a rebel than a portrait of one.