It's unfortunate that Barbara Hershey's early career was dogged by bad publicity relating to her free-spirited ways and temporary name change to Barbara Seagull because it overshadowed her fine, early-career work in films such as Frank Perry's Last Summer, Paul Williams' Dealing, and James Bridges' The Baby Maker. If and when the Warner Archive is able to locate the elements to properly restore Last Summer, they will have nearly cornered the market on the early feature films of Hershey, as they have already released the aforementioned Dealing and The Baby Maker, as well as Lee H. Katzin's Heaven With a Gun (Hershey's feature debut).
With that out of the way, I'd like to delve a little more into Bridges' The Baby Maker, as I'm a longtime admirer of this filmmaker and I've only recently--finally--caught up with, this, his first feature film. In the title role is Hershey, playing a sweet-natured college dropout happily living in free love squalor with her layabout, aspiring leather craftsman boyfriend (a very young Scott Glenn in his feature debut)--what Peter Boyle's Joe would disdainfully refer to as "HIPPIES!"--in a ramshackle Santa Monica (I believe) apartment / storefront. Hershey's Tish is matched up by elderly fixer Mrs. Culnick (Lili Valenty) with square, upper-middle class couple Suzanne and Jay Wilcox (Collin Wilcox and Sam Groom) to carry Jay's baby. What could easily come off exploitative and sleazy, is instead handled with a lot of sensitivity and nuance.
The then-new concept of surrogate motherhood is no longer envelope-pushing, nor does the suburbanite vs. hippie dynamic carry the same weight, but these aspects are still fascinating to me in an anthropological sort of way. Unlike, say, Clint Eastwood's Breezy, though, Bridges' portrayal of the youth culture feels more knowing and even-handed. More importantly, in spite of these dated elements, Bridges' story, characters, sense of place, and knack for convincingly realistic depictions of SoCal folk remain in full force over 40 years later. Tish's maturation, her growing bond with Suzanne and Jay, and her burgeoning personal strength...the way these things were portrayed by Hershey and Bridges was incredibly moving to me. Forgive the hyperbole, but Hershey is incandescent here. It's a great, unsung performance. We've seen many birth scenes dramatized over the years, but I can't recall an actress so convincingly portraying the pain of childbirth and truly putting aside personal vanity, as Hershey does here. This is the first of Bridges' progressively-conceived and well-written female leads, followed by the likes of Jane Fonda in The China Syndrome, Debra Winger in Mike's Murder, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Perfect.
Now, after I've just listed Tish as one of Bridges' strong female characters, I'll take a step backward for a moment to comment on just how naturally beautiful Hershey is in this film...it's enough to make me genuinely sad that it was Hershey who would be credited with the collagen implant craze, when she had her lips injected for Beaches.
September 30, 1955) registering quite strongly after they initially appear as stiff as their characters, but it's due to their abilities and Bridges' tendency to dispel stereotypes, that they emerge well-rounded and quite sympathetic.
Bridges deserves credit for unearthing Glenn, who appears startlingly young and beautiful here, for this, his actual film debut, and then--years later--when Glenn emerged from a two-year hiatus from Hollywood in Bridges' Urban Cowboy, the "debut" of the second, more fruitful part of his onscreen career. Glenn is alternately charming and abhorrent as Tad, reflecting the oft-mentioned (by me, anyway) New American Cinema brand of realism and honesty...may it rest in peace.
|Glenn and Hershey hang out on Santa Monica Pier years before Hershey's harrowing moments there with Michael Douglas in Falling Down.|
Some other noteworthy Bridges-ian things that I liked in The Baby Maker:
* Valenty's Mrs. Culnick, an elderly, wealthy, and forward-thinking mother figure of unsaid European (possibly Jewish) origin who lives alone in a fancy house in the hills and has connections with the hippie counterculture. It is through Tish's radical friend Charlotte (Jeannie Berlin) that Mrs. Culnick meets Tish. Seeing the underclass Tish visit Mrs. Culnick's posh house high above the city is reminiscent of underclass Mike sleeping at motherly music producer Paul Winfield's mountaintop manse in Bridges' Mike's Murder. Like Winfield's character (based on Winfield himself), I suspect Mrs. Culnick is also based on someone Bridges knew in real life.
* The experimental movie and flashing light-watching party attended by Tish, Tad, and assorted other riffraff, which is like the 1970 equivalent of the punk / New Wave performance art party put on by Richard (Dan Shor) in Mike's Murder.
Odds and Ends:
*Part of the aforementioned "anthropological" stuff: I really enjoyed and must mention the scenes with Berlin's Charlotte and her fellow commune dwellers, particularly the piece of agitprop anti-gun public theater that they stage outside of a toy store.
*It's been awhile since I've watched Cisco Pike with Kristoffersen, Hackman, and Black, but, as I recall it, Kris and Karen's Venice Beach grungy abode reminds me of Scott and Barbara's pad. There's lot of interesting-looking locations in The Baby Maker, something Angelinos should have a fun time spotting and ID'ing, which I can't do with any authority, being a New Yorker.
*'70s Hollywood aficionados will appreciate the appearance of Helena Kallianotes, belly dancer (which she demonstrates in The Baby Maker) and sometime actress. She's in the famed diner scene in Five Easy Pieces, William Castle's Shanks, Rafelson's Stay Hungry and Head, and a few others.
*Future Motel Hell and CHiPs co-star Paul Linke appears in a couple of amusing scenes as one of Glenn's whacked-out pals.
Befitting its low-budget origins with another studio (National General), it's unsurprising that the Warner Archive's no-frills DVD-R comes from an un-restored, aged source. Almost looks like a release print, but I couldn't say anything definitively, of course. It's in the correct OAR, which is good, and, frankly, I'm surprised this (unjustly) forgotten, low-profile film came so early in the Warner Archive timeline. If not one of the initial releases of the label in March 2009, it's close. Again, due to its non-WB origins, it's not surprising, though no less disappointing, that there is no original theatrical trailer attached to this DVD-R. Overall, though, The Baby Maker is firmly in my wheelhouse so I hope some others check this disc out. Now, someone please get that Bridges retrospective off the ground!