Those comparisons are inevitable, and understandable. But in some ways, Hollywood helped get us here.
Part of the right wing’s genius over the 48 years since Roe v. Wade legalized abortion has been to play the refs, which included demonizing the film industry as a redoubt of reflexive, out-of-touch liberalism. Eager to avoid controversy (not to mention taking a hit at Bible Belt box offices), filmmakers habitually treated abortion as the Great Unmentionable, despite the fact that most Americans have consistently favored keeping Roe’s protections in place.
When abortion has been represented in a movie, it’s usually as an unthinkable option, if only to keep the plot moving: The 16-year-old heroine in 2007’s “Juno” might well have chosen to end her pregnancy if the women’s clinic she visited hadn’t been so skeevy; “Knocked Up” (also 2007) depended on Katherine Heigl’s character taking her pregnancy to term, so writer Judd Apatow included an unsavory scene of her brittle mother telling her to “take care of it” to pursue her career. The movie’s male protagonists couldn’t even bring themselves to say the word, instead resorting to the bro-tastic euphemism “shmashmortion.”
There have been exceptions, of course: In 1982’s high school comedy “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” a teenager has an abortion without hysterical breakdowns or farcical high jinks ensuing. In 1987, “Dirty Dancing” screenwriter Eleanor Bergstein made sure to make an illegal abortion integral to the plot as a reminder to young viewers not to take the right to choose for granted. (It’s a matter of interpretation as to whether Rizzo’s “false alarm” in the movie version of the 1950s musical “Grease” was a similar procedure.) Film director Alexander Payne’s 1996 debut “Citizen Ruth,” starring Laura Dern, was a brilliant political satire about a woman who becomes a mascot for both sides of the enforced-gestation divide. More recently, a new generation of female filmmakers have insisted on bringing the Great Unmentionable of women ending their pregnancies fully into the discourse, whether in comedies like “Obvious Child” and “Plan B” or the artfully limned dramas “Premature” and “Never Rarely Sometimes Always.”
As smart and acutely observed as these films are, perhaps the most progressive, sensitive and accurate movie to address abortion came out more than 30 years ago: “Parenthood,” Ron Howard’s 1989 comedy about the pitfalls and pratfalls of raising kids.
In “Parenthood,” Steve Martin plays Gil Buckman, a St. Louis sales executive who is frantically trying not to do to his three kids what his own demanding, withholding father (Jason Robards) did to him. Written by Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel from a story they wrote with Howard, “Parenthood” is a sweet, surpassingly wise portrait of parental fears and foibles, from Rick Moranis’s compulsively high-achieving dad to Dianne Wiest’s single mom, who is coping with a withdrawn adolescent son (played by an unrecognizable Joaquin “Leaf” Phoenix) and the burgeoning sexuality of her teenage daughter (Martha Plimpton).
Granted, some things don’t age all that well in “Parenthood,” including a comic set piece involving the fantasy of a campus shooting. But 32 years after its release, Howard’s movie holds up with remarkable sturdiness: It’s often hilariously funny, thanks to Martin’s comic timing and some choice line readings by Keanu Reeves, who plays Wiest’s daughter’s boyfriend. While holding an honest mirror to the competition, insecurity and self-doubt that plague most parents, the movie brims with understanding and forgiveness. When Gil realizes that he needs to spend more time with his troubled 9-year-old son, he asks for a lighter load at the office — a rare depiction of a man seeking work-life balance. When his boss doesn’t cooperate, Gil quits, just before his wife, Karen (Mary Steenburgen), tells him she’s pregnant.
What ensues is a scene that isn’t played for embarrassed laughs or garment-rending melodrama. Instead, the two engage in a thoughtful, if palpably tense, conversation about what to do next. Karen asks Gil if he wants her to have an abortion; he says it’s a decision “every woman has to make” for herself. “Are you running for Congress?” she asks sardonically. They continue to debate the issue, clearly aware of the downsides of each path. If “Yes” entails its own form of loss and grief, they implicitly understand, so will “No.”
In other words, abortion is portrayed in “Parenthood” much like it occurs in actuality: not as a crisis that can only end in tears and traumatized remorse, but as an unwelcome, sometimes necessary part of life.
And, not incidentally, as a part of family life: According to the research and advocacy nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, of the 1 in 4 women who have abortions in the United States, around 60 percent are mothers already. Despite its relatively prosperous, White middle-class setting, “Parenthood” manages to acknowledge those universal realities — within the wholesome warmth of a PG-13-rated film, no less. (The subject was handled with similar straightforwardness in the “Parenthood” television series in 2013.)
As a family-friendly comedy, “Parenthood” qualifies as an all-time classic. But as an ode to human imperfection and suboptimal choices, it now looks as anachronistic as the X-rated VHS tapes Phoenix’s character stashes in his closet.
With the Supreme Court’s decision to allow Texas’s law to proceed, and with similarly restrictive laws being embraced throughout the country, what might have once been considered stranger than fiction has finally gone topsy-turvy. While Hollywood made abortion either a punchline or an icky, unthinkable plot hole, we were on our way toward the world of “Minority Report” and “The Handmaid’s Tale” all along. It’s the sheer normalcy and clear-eyed compassion of “Parenthood” that now looks like the alien artifact of an unrecognizable age.