In Irving’s Apolitical Land of Unwanted Children

Lasse Hallstrom’s The Cider House Rules , from John Irving’s screenplay and based on his novel, represents to my knowledge and in my memory the first American mainstream movie to make an unqualified pro-choice case for abortion. Moreover, its two sympathetic co-protagonists, Tobey Maguire’s Homer Wells and Michael Caine’s Dr. Wilbur Larch, are shown performing surgically safe abortions without being branded as mercenary baby-killers. Even if we consider Alexander Payne’s scruffy Citizen Ruth (1996) a mainstream entertainment on the subject, its arguments for and against abortion cut both ways with a satiric a-plague-on-both-your-houses even-handedness. The Cider House Rules , by contrast, defends the rights of the mother in the 40’s, when abortions were completely illegal, and not protected by Roe v. Wade.

What surprises me the most about this subversive piece of cinema is the absence of any uproar over its frank treatment of a hitherto taboo procedure. After all, this is an election year during which all the senatorial and Presidential candidates are trying to tiptoe past the issue as if they were walking on hot coals.

Perhaps Mr. Hallstrom and Mr. Irving have disarmed the incessantly strident right-to-life ideologues by setting much of the action in a fairy-tale-enchanted Maine orphanage where Dr. Larch presides benignly over the most lovable assortment of unwanted children you can imagine. We follow one such orphan from childhood to adulthood as he becomes Dr. Larch’s protégé and chosen successor despite his never having received a day of formal schooling. There is much off-screen narration from both Dr. Larch and his surrogate son, Homer Wells, to distance us further from humdrum reality. There is also Rachel Portman’s lulling background music fit for a tale told with a lyricism bordering on lethargy.

Although Homer sets off on an odyssey to see the world and learn its ways, he never gets out of Maine, and winds up picking apples with migrant workers in a metaphor-laden orchard. He sees the ocean for the first time, and experiences a first love with a young woman whose pregnancy has been aborted by Dr. Larch. Candy Kendall (Charlize Theron) is engaged at the time to Wally Worthington (Paul Rudd), whose mother, Olive (Kate Nelligan), owns the orchard. Wally is away at war with the Army Air Force, and when he returns from Burma with a crippling case of encephalitis, Homer and Candy agree that they must do the right thing by ending their relationship so that Candy can care for Wally.

The middle of the movie is dominated by Delroy Lindo’s Mr. Rose, a commandingly dignified, black, apple-picking-crew leader, whose incestuous abuse of his own daughter, Rose Rose (Erykah Badu), leads to her pregnancy. When Homer realizes that she intends to self-abort with probably dangerous consequences, he intervenes to practice reluctantly what Dr. Larch had always preached to him was a necessary evil to forestall a greater evil. The full saga of the Roses, père et fille , would have been unbearable to watch, were it not for the relentless stylization of the film as a whole. Even so, Mr. Irving remains a disturbingly facile spinner of yarns in which the most sordid facts of life are glossed over into comfortably didactic homilies about the innate goodness of people. Yet, I was somehow moved when Homer returns to the orphanage after the death of his mentor.

There is almost a Mizoguchian nobility in Homer’s coming full circle to fulfill his preordained destiny as a doctor and as a consoler to the unwanted children in his care. I’d like to believe in characters like Dr. Larch and Homer Wells, but I must confess that Mr. Caine gives me much less trouble in this regard than Mr. Maguire, about whose talent I have a hard time making up my mind. Not so with a trio of marvelous character actresses, Kathy Baker, Jane Alexander and Kate Nelligan, all onetime luminous leads who have lost none of their luster with age. Mr. Lindo and Ms. Badu are also alone worth the price of admission.

A Valjean in South Africa

Marion Hansel’s The Quarry , from Ms. Hansel’s screenplay, based on a novel by Damon Galgut, begins with a white man on the run over a vast empty South African coastal landscape. The movie ends with an African man on the run over much the same kind of terrain. In between, a handful of characters act out the consequences of a murder that was committed without premeditation by a fugitive from justice known simply as “The Man” in the credits, and played laconically by the Irish actor John Lynch.

Ms. Hansel is a Belgian filmmaker with a style of almost Bressonian severity, slowness and spirituality. The sparse dialogue is spoken mostly in English, but with an occasional subtitled smattering of the Dutch dialect adopted by the original Boer settlers. We are never told if the action takes place before or after the end of apartheid. Indeed, we are never told much of anything in the way of historical or sociological information.

At the outset, the Man is given a lift by an alcoholic homosexual cleric known simply as the Reverend (Serge-Henri Valcke). When the cleric starts unbuttoning his shirt, the Man conks the cleric on the head with a whisky bottle, and accidentally kills him. He then buries his victim, takes the dead man’s car and his ecclesiastical identity into the nearby parish, where he is mistaken for the expected new minister. He is welcomed by the local constable, Captain Mong (Jonathan Phillips), whose very deliberate line-readings suggest a perpetually suspicious Javert on the lookout for a Jean Valjean. When two African petty thieves, Valentine and his kid brother Small, played with raffish gusto by Oscar Petersen and Jody Abrahams, respectively, steal the new Reverend’s car, and inadvertently lead the police to the corpse of the real Reverend, the two career criminals are placed on trial for murder.

The false Reverend then tries to intervene with a guilt-ridden confession of his own culpability, but in the confusion of a daring court-room escape by Valentine, both men become fugitives from the implacable Captain Mong, and the action shifts once again to the vast, empty landscape, where the final confrontation takes place. The cosmic overtones of the long-shot-dominated camera style tend to reduce the characters to allegorical figures in a morality play suggested both by Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables and Fyodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment , but without the geographical and sociological specificity of either model.

Since we literally don’t know where the protagonist is coming from in the beginning, we can’t respond emotionally to his climactic sacrificial gesture. For once, a little voice-over narration might have been helpful in making the character more psychologically accessible to the audience. As it is, we must make do with the estheticized characters as mysterious symbols of the human condition.

Before Robinson, There Was Greenberg

Aviva Kempner’s The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg , with Ira Berkow, sports columnist for The New York Times , as the chief sports consultant, revives fond and not so fond memories of my contrarian childhood. In 1935, when I was 7, I saw a picture of Charlie Gehringer of the Detroit Tigers on a package of Kellogg’s corn flakes. The Tigers had just won the World Series from the Chicago Cubs, and so I began rooting for them even though we lived only a few blocks from Ebbets Field. Not that many people in Brooklyn rooted much for the Dodgers until they became pennant contenders in 1938. Until then, the kids were all excited by the Yankees and their new centerfielder, Joe DiMaggio, and their parents tended to remain loyal to the New York Giants and their great left-hander, Carl Hubbell. So there I was, the only rooter for the Tigers in Brooklyn. Or was I?

According to Ms. Kempner’s documentary, the 6-foot-4-inch Hank Greenberg was the great Jewish Golem all over New York and all over Jewish America through the long night of Adolf Hitler in Germany and, eventually, much of Europe. But as far as anti-Semitism was concerned, Hitler had many spiritual allies in America, and Greenberg was endlessly reviled both on and off the field. Unlike several previous Jewish ballplayers, he did not change his name to conceal his ethnic and religious origins. Although he was a secular Jew, he would skip games on the high holy days of his faith.

I was never aware of all this because there was no television back then, and Greenberg for me was just a name in a box score. In the film, Walter Matthau speaks very amusingly about his lifelong admiration for Greenberg. And Michael Moriarty pops up unexpectedly with a stirring reminiscence of his Irish grandfather umpire who threatened to forfeit a game if an opposing team’s bench did not let up on its anti-Semitic catcalls against Greenberg.

Greenberg’s career ended in 1947 just as Jackie Robinson’s was beginning with even greater bigotries from opposing benches. While Greenberg was playing first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates, Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers collided with him. Greenberg took the opportunity to give Robinson words of encouragement and advice from his own prior experiences with the hateful boobirds. Afterward, Robinson told reporters that Greenberg had real “class.” And that word can serve as well as any to define this thoroughly admirable man.

As for missing Babe Ruth’s one-season home-run record by two round-trippers in 1938, not enough attention was paid to the fact that Greenberg, a right-handed slugger, had a harder time with the death valleys in left center in most ball parks than left-handed belters like Ruth, Foxx and Maris had with the more accessible fences in right-center.