Execrable as drama and preposterous as sexual sociology, "The Women's Room," a three-hour ABC Sunday Night Movie, may nevetherless cause a profound reaction among many of those who see it. Timing is everything in television, or rather, prime timing is, and "The Women's Room" brandishes grievances and complaints that may be tired cliches elsewhere but are hot stuff for prime-time TV.
"The Women's Room," at 8 tomorrow night on Channel 7, shows what you get when you cross contemporary dogma with old-time hounds-at-the-heels melodrama: dogmadrama. And yet, while there have been TV movies that have dealt far more subtly and artfully with the evolution of modern womanhood -- "Battered," "Hustling" and "See How She Runs," to name three -- none has had the cheap emotional dazzle of this cockamamie MX missile.
For every man who finds it a sanctimonious crock, there may be a woman out there who sees it as a session at the mirror of nightmare, who may find that the insufferably long-suffering heroine reminds her of someone she knows, or even of herself.
"The Women's Room" may prove to be the year's most talked-about stinker.
Lee Remick, flexing neck muscles and eyebrows in scene after scene, plays the most put-upon female since Mildred Pierce -- a 38-year-old woman named Mira who spends most of the picture in agonized flashbacks of her tortured past. Carol Sobieski's script implies that the character represents a generation of women who came of age in the '40s married in the '50s and never knew a hint of happiness, fulfillment or even sexual pleasure. By the time she was a young woman, says Remick as Mira in the film's soppy narration, "I had been taught my place," and she retreats into marriage "as if to a convent." Her husband, like almost all the men portrayed in the film, is a thick-skulled swine who responds to her complaints of sexual dissatisfaction with, "It was nice for me."
When she tells her husband they are expecting a child, he callously suggests he may not be the father and then, when she goes to pieces, comforts her with, "Isn't it time for dinner?"
Mira "learned to lose control over my life" soon after that. In the maternity ward, she hears another pregnant woman scream and scream with pain, and soon enough Mira has not one but two children who do nothing but cry and cry. She and her husband move into a house in the suburbs that she apparently doesn't even see until moving day.
She commiserates with fellow persecuted suburban mothers who sit on park benches discussing their children's diarrhea. Oh, but this is a world full of hypocrisy and despair. Each of the women's husbands is in his own way an irredeemable rat. One is a leech, one is a lush, and another an insensitive brute who, told his son has become a vicious bully, responds, "I like a boy to be agressive."
See, this is how millions of little boys grew up to be male chauvinist pigs and why millions of women were condemned to slavery. If only they'd learned how to make clay sculptures or something or escaped into the glorious liberation of the '60s, when Mira, a divorce and a suicide attempt now behind her, hies off to school to find herself.
"I went back to college and found myself hiding in toilets," she says, but fortunately there's Val (Colleen Dewhurst), a loony old earth mother around to dispense such consciousness-raisers as, "There is nothing in the world more horny than a middle-aged woman," and "Sex is wasted on the young." She's Auntie Mame via Masters and Johnson, and the filmmakers intend for us to find her the soul of enlightenment.
Val's having an affair with a teenage cowboy whom her daughter (Mare Winnginham) refers to as "mother's lover" -- that's how liberated she is.
Fortunately for Mira, the '60s, have spawned such fecund sprites as Ben (Gregory Harrison), a pipe-puffing flower child who wears tweedy coats, supports Gene McCarthy, and is one of the few white boys on campus enrolled in an African studies program -- that's how liberated he is.
Off they go to that first stop for all lovers in TV movies, the seashore, and now Remick's narration gets very panty: "I surrendered my body to him and let him take control of it, and for the first time in my life, I felt an ecstasy of pleasure so deep, so total, it took my breath away."
Or course, even in this new age, there are still problems between men and women; one pair of classmates bickers about "my orals" and "your orals" (meaning tests) and then breaks up when one of them reveals a lesbian relationship. The lesbian (Tovah feldshuh) says something to the effect that she did not choose this life, but was driven into it by those callous cads, men.
Few things are more indecorous in a people than blaming all their woes on the heinous delusions under which their parents allegedly suffered and tried to pass on to them. This is one of the most irritating aspects of "The Women's Room": It's so busy whining that it doesn't even dramatize the up-bringing that led Mira to believe she had been willfully indoctrinated into a life of unquestioning servitude.
For all of this, though, "The Women's Room" may hit home like the fabled ton of bricks when millions of people see it on television. Those who think themselves liberated and sophisticated will jeer at the hokiness of it: The film seems as dated a period piece already as "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "Easy Rider" do long after their eras.
But America isn't just New York and Los Angeles. Television is a national validation and confirmation machine. When print journalists gripe that there was "nothing new" in a TV news investigative report, what they mean is that it was nothing new to them. Published accounts of an official who takes money under the table don't have nearly the impact of TV news film that shows him ducking out of courtroom with a briefcase over his face.
It can easily be argued that nothing really registers around here, meaning America, until it shows up on Main Street U.S.A. -- national TV.
Philip Mandelker, the executive producer, doesn't concede that the film is lousy, but admits readily and cheerfully that it will infuriate a lot of people -- chiefly men, since almost all the males in the film are throwbacks to Neanderthal days.
"The critics are about as angry over this film as I have ever seen a set of critics," says Mandelker, who last season produced the heartfelt "Amber Waves" for ABC. "I have yet to hear a positive response from the critics, and the negatives are astonishing -- words like 'loathsome' and 'despicable.' One critic I met was literally shaking with rage.
"My response is that there are films that have moved you deeply to tears, films that have moved you to laughter, but I defy you to name another film that made you as angry. We absolutely made the film we wanted to make. We wanted to take this rather unique vehicle [a Marilyn French novel] and create as much controversy as possible, with the purpose of getting men and women to talk to each other."
Mandelker says he does not feel like a traitor to his sex even if the film is a diatribe against those curs, American men, and the way women of certain generations were allegedly put into cages on pedestals by them.
"Women weep when they see the film," says Mandelker. "Their most common complaint is that it isn't angry enough. Men become enraged and feel it's unfair. Well, we never set out to make a 'fair' film. As producers, we're tired of network executives and censors insisting we make everything balanced. This was decidely, calculatedly, an unbalanced film."
It's hard to accuse someone of making a loaded movie when they say that's what they intended. But there is the possibility that "The Women's Room" will get men and women not so much talking to each other as screaming at each other. As if we needed more of that.
"That's true of some people," Mandelker says. "Some will scream. Some will talk. Some will separate [from each other]. There's no question it's going to have a profound effect. There'll be no middle ground. We didn't make this film for Emmys or for critics. We always expected the fury."
Mandelker says it took nearly three years to get "The Women's Room" on the air from the time Warner Bros. first bought the book in galleys. The wife of a CBS executive got that network to put up some production money, Mandelker says, but CBS wouldn't have the film. NBC wanted to turn it into a weekly soap opera, but Mandelker didn't.
As if offending half the population weren't enough, Mandelker has also infuriated conservative religious groups who don't like the film's sex talk and bedroom scenes. He is not intimidated. For one thing, condemnations make great publicity. For another, he's proud that ABC "let us go much further in exploring sexuality on television than ever before."
The paradox of "The Women's Room" is that it's garbage as a movie but could prove an invaluable conversation piece, inspiring discussion on, one hopes, a more sophisticated and intelligent level than that of the film itself. Many people, mostly women, will see recognizable remnants from their own lives or lives of people they know; they won't care about the quality of the film, and there's no reason why they should.
What counts is what it's saying and the fact that it's being said in prime time. This is how once-radical ideas are introduced into the national mainstream and assimilated. There's nothing like television for bringing home truths home.