The great suspense of the Academy Awards was not whether Annette Bening or Hilary Swank would win the Oscar, but whether Ms. Bening, if she won, would have her baby on the way up to the stage or on the way back. Would the water break for our pregnant Cinderella before or after midnight? We won’t accuse the fabulously fecund actress and her soon-to-be father-of-four husband, Warren Beatty, of timing their lovemaking to coincide with Oscar ceremonies, but the spotlit pregnancy was an almost-too-fitting climax to a year of baby mania, movies in which fetuses and newborns were major players in plots of aliens and whores redeemed by procreation.
Ironically, America’s first pro-choice movie, The Cider House Rules , appeared at the same time as dozens of quirkier non-mainstream movies ended on ecstatic notes of reproductive bliss. Pregnancy is the new romance, madonna (upper and lower case) with child the ultimate couple. Maternal duo endings foretell of infinite joy with as little thought of the morrow as the old boy-girl love stories which were sealed with a kiss and the promise of happiness forever after.
Two Mike Nichols movies trace the arc from one kind of romance to the other. In 1967’s The Graduate , Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross thumbed their noses at convention from the back seat of the bus; in What Planet Are You From? , the couple (Ms. Bening and Garry Shandling) takes a back seat to the gurgling baby in the rear, the little gift from heaven that has sanctified their union and redeemed each from the respective plights of alcoholism and extraterrestrial infertility.
In the new plot, boy meets girl; boy and girl don’t marry; girl has baby anyway. Contraceptive devices from the old pill to the new pill, RU486, are nowhere in sight. Abortion is not a choice for the hip new heroine, who-since it’s her choice-chooses to keep the baby, with or without its father. In Wonder Boys , the normally astringent Frances McDormand (who did a wonderful comic turn as the pregnant policewoman in Fargo ) decides to keep her baby whether or not her flaky paramour (Michael Douglas) chooses to participate. The Earth Mother-ish ending is a sappy conclusion to a joyously original comedy that includes dog killing among its wacky proceedings.
Bravura pregnancies and touchy-feely woman-and-kid stuff are crucial elements in Pedro Almodóvar’s woman-idealizing Oscar winner, All About My Mother , and Madonna’s single-mom-and-gay-dad comic soap opera, The Next Best Thing . And Being John Malkovich ends with two girls and a baby, Catherine Keener and Cameron Diaz having inhabited Mr. Malkovich long enough to get whatever it takes.
Having a baby has become the salvation of choice in independent and foreign films, for masochists and whores, as in Catherine Breillat’s pornographic Romance , where the promiscuous but emotionally rejected heroine finds love with a baby, and Claire Dolan , in which the hooker played by Katrin Cartlidge gets out of the trade and into motherhood. Both women are presumably purified by pregnancy, able to turn their backs on sordid sex and think about daycare, schools and S.A.T.’s. Then there’s the old chestnut, the prostitute who turns a trick to support her illegitimate child-one for which weeper heroines like Ruth Chatterton and Helen Hayes won Academy Awards back in the 20’s and 30’s. Who would have thought that this version of the golden-hearted whore would turn up in a “radical” Dogma 95 movie like Mifune in which the pretty woman is turning tricks to keep her kid in an upscale prep school?
Life hasn’t been the same since a pregnant Demi Moore appeared nude on the cover of Vanity Fair . In the old days, pregnancy had so little sex appeal that the studio heads used to send their pregnant stars into hiding-or to Europe-so as not to mar their seductive auras with associations of mewling, suckling newborns. In fact babes and babies were mutually incompatible concepts, motherhood and sexuality separated by longstanding taboo.
Nor did viewers want to see movies about babies and children. In fact, they fled to the cinema precisely to escape the turmoil of domestic and parental responsibilities. Only one screwball comedy, My Favorite Wife , featured children, and that was about a woman (Irene Dunne) who’d been marooned on a desert island and had managed to miss out on several stages of her offspring’s developmental crises. When her reunion with her husband (Cary Grant) plays second fiddle to the rediscovery of her children, romance goes out the window and domesticity lumbers in.
Now, whether because of our postmodern determination to discuss all that previously remained concealed, or because there are so many aging dads and moms proud of their healthy sperm and ova, childbearing and the subject of children have moved front and center, always depicted in terms of glowing epiphany rather than sleepless nights.
Those of us not transported by the sight of a prospective father listening to kicking sounds in the pregnant mother’s tummy, or sonograms showing the gender of the incipient miracle child, may be accused of churlishness or in my case-being “childfree”-of lack of empathy. The fact is, I feel the same way about sex scenes, and I’m not “sex free.”
Childbirth may be a blessed event, but the problem is, it’s not a dramatic event-that is, unless something goes wrong, like, say the infant is sired by the devil. And as an emotional resolution to life’s crises and feelings of worthlessness, it’s about as surefire a vehicle for automatic happiness as an engagement ring and possibly less efficacious than Prozac. Childbirth is not the end, a place that, once you get there, problems disappear, but a beginning in which there is as much terror as delight. Women like TV’s Murphy Brown have a child to prove a point-that they are single and can do it-but there’s no follow up. The implication that having a baby is a solution instead of the beginning of a difficult journey is barefaced propaganda, as is the convenient omission of any distinction between the privileged pregnant, on the one hand, who are rich enough to afford plenty of help, and lower and middle-class women struggling to combine work and child-rearing.
The pregnant woman, rich or poor, immediately becomes not freer and more empowered, but less free, a hostage to fortune, indentured to the vulnerable life that issues from her womb. Hopefully, a great love, possibly the greatest love, will envelop mother and child, but that, as we all know, is no sure thing.