The tone of "Choices," tonight's ABC movie exploiting the abortion issue, is set in the opening credits: Molto pretentioso. Even the traffic on New York City streets is moving slowly, in reverential deference to the high solemnity of the production. The sequence sounds a warning that what follows will have comparatively little to do with recognizable human experience.
A network gets around to doing an abortion movie and then mutes the whole thing by having all the lead characters be rich twits of Manhattan. This does not seem the most realistic context for a story that seeks to dramatize arguments for or against abortion. Judith Parker's screenplay seems pat and gimmicked, and director David Lowell Rich seems more interested in polishing a decoy surface of snooty importance than in telling a human story.
The film airs at 9 tonight on Channel 7.
George C. Scott, who strides around the set with his suit coat buttoned as if he were posing for commemorative coins, plays a 62-year-old judge who in recent years took his second wife, a 38-year-old pianist played by Jacqueline Bisset, the fair Ms. Frigidaire (to borrow a line from Cole Porter) herself. It evolves that the judge's 19-year-old daughter from his first marriage has become pregnant by a boyfriend who subsequently dumps her, then wants to pick her up again when he learns the bad news. The daughter, played by Melissa Gilbert, wants to have an abortion.
When she tells her father of the decision, his first thought, his very first thought, mind you, is for the "rights" of the father. The film sees abortion as an issue that divides the sexes into two neat camps, rather than as a religious and political matter. The situation is complicated at the beginning of the second hour when the judge's wife discovers that, quite by accident, she is pregnant too. Of this abortion the judge would approve, because he is a callous old goat who doesn't want to attend birthday parties for 2-year-olds anymore.
Scott's performance may be imperiously preposterous, but Bisset and Gilbert do their most to put this transparent tale across. Bisset begins to melt in the second hour, when she has an honestly moving dialogue with a Presbyterian minister. Gilbert has not one but two tearful telephone conversations to play, and she does well in both of them, overcoming the fact that the character as written seems selfish and vacuous.
But by and large, this is abortion as the topic might be treated by Architectural Digest. Indeed, the judge's Manhattan apartment keeps upstaging the actors and the dramaturgy. Once, the camera pans the living room and you begin to hope it will not rest on any actors -- that you'll get a chance to tour the premises with no one in the way.
It's the kind of film in which characters keep stomping out on each other in the middle of arguments -- a way of injecting "action," perhaps, into what is essentially a fleshed-out Phil Donahue show. Those opposed to abortion may be unhappy to find that the only character who voices strong moral objections to the practice is that of Gilbert's boyfriend, an unattractive dolt. On the other hand, there is no portrayal of prolife terrorism as it has occurred in this country. Antiabortion fanatics picket a clinic but generously refrain from bombing it.
How the problem is resolved is also rather carefully "balanced"; teleplays like these aren't written so much as they are measured out. "I'm getting awfully sick of these debates," Scott says at one point, and only a short time later says, "I'm so tired of this debate." He is speaking for the audience.
"Choices" is an illustrated debate that turns out to be not very illustrative at all. 'Anne of Green Gables'
Thank heaven for feisty and intelligent little girls, even if they have terrible tempers. All these things are true of the title heroine of "Anne of Green Gables," a four-part dramatization of a Canadian childhood classic that premieres tonight, on the PBS "WonderWorks" series, at 8 on Channel 26. Anne Shirley is a chatterbox and a firebrand, but as played by young Megan Follows, she's an insistent charmer as well. So is the film.
Surely just the ticket for little girls everywhere, "Anne" is a children's story capable of enchanting adults as well, at least as directed by Keith Sullivan and written by Sullivan and Joe Weisenfeld. The story is innocuous, yes, and full of nostalgic sweetness, but the adapters never patronize it, and though the characterizations are rather broad, the superb acting ensemble gives them a subtle veracity.
As Anne, Follows is not the quintessential adorable sprite. She can be infuriating, and also infuriated, as when a boy in class on the first day of school calls her "carrot" (for her bright red hair) and she smashes a slate over his head after a huffy, "How DARE you?" Or when, earlier, a gossipy neighbor pronounces her skinny and gawky and she responds with a tirade about how fat, old and ugly a gossip the neighbor is.
An orphan who has already been bounced from asylum to asylum, Anne is adopted by Marilla Cuthbert and her brother Matthew, played with deftly complementary contrasts by a stern Colleen Dewhurst and a warmly rumpled Richard Farnsworth. Their performances are vivid in a completely authentic way, so that an older viewer is transported back to the extreme, perhaps unsurpassable, pleasures of literature loved in youth.
In a crisply starched scene, Anne apologizes to the offended neighbor lady, and even wins her over -- in part by saying, "What I said about you is true . . . only I shouldn't have said it." The gossip, Mrs. Rachel Lynde (the first character introduced in the original 1908 book, by L.M. Montgomery), notes with explanatory pride, "I'm known throughout these parts as a woman who speaks her mind." Hooray for such women, then and now. But especially then.
"These parts" are chiefly Prince Edward Island and vicinity, photographed so lovingly that the film could almost be thought of as "Out of Canada." The picture has the hearty, earthy quality of a folk tale, and the heroine, a mere but formidable 12 when we first meet her, achieves an impressive romantic stature. "Anne of Green Gables" is, roughly speaking, super good stuff.