Of all the hot topics that television dramas can tackle in hopes of attracting lots of viewers, abortion is the most problematic. It’s easy for a made-for-TV movie to take a bold stand against everything from racism to bulimia — television can reduce most subjects to heart-tugging scenes and therapeutic homilies that a majority of viewers will find reassuring, nonthreatening. But the issue of abortion rights is so complicated, so emotional, so divisive, that it resists TV-movie tidying up. One reason A Private Matter is so strong is that it acknowledges the complexity of its subject.
This fact-based TV movie stars Sissy Spacek as Sherri Finkbine, a Phoenix television personality — she was ”Miss Sherri” in a local version of Romper Room. In 1962, at a time when the adverse effects of Thalidomide on fetuses weren’t widely known, Finkbine, then pregnant with her fifth child, took the drug as a sedative. Upon discovering during the first month of her pregnancy that her baby would almost certainly be born severely deformed, Sherri, with her husband, Bob (Aidan Quinn), decided to have an abortion.
Before the operation was performed, however, Finkbine told an Arizona Republic newspaper reporter about her Thalidomide experience — she wanted to warn other women — and was promised anonymity. But after the story appeared, her identity leaked out and the Finkbines’ decision became an instant scandal; Sherri was immediately fired from her Romper Room job. In A Private Matter, Finkbine’s incredulous, nervous boss (Xander Berkeley) asks her, ”We can’t even say the word pregnant on TV, and you want to have an abortion and go on doing this show?”
If that line seems a little stilted, it’s a good indication of the occasionally mechanical quality of A Private Matter’s script, by William Nicholson. The writer’s job is a tough one — he must be faithful to the facts of this case and work in arguments on both sides of the abortion issue, as well as create vivid, sympathetic characters. In this last area, the writer is helped immeasurably by the poignant yet unsentimental performances of Spacek and Quinn, and by the glowingly evocative direction of Joan Micklin Silver (Crossing Delancey).
Watching A Private Matter makes you realize how often TV movies, lacking the budgets of feature films, skimp on atmosphere. Silver lets us luxuriate in the expansive air of the early ’60s — people drive big cars and women wear big hair; suburban families like the Finkbines throw big neighborhood barbeques, and kids pedal big bikes (a nice, funny subplot is the effort of one of the Finkbines’ kids to get ”a big Schwinn” for his birthday). In fact, Silver is so good at summoning up a particular, bygone American era that it has an effect she may not have intended — of distancing us from the movie’s subject, of thinking of Sherri’s difficulties as being outmoded, unenlightened, even quaint.
The very title A Private Matter telegraphs the movie’s point of view on Sherri’s decision, yet the film’s overriding message isn’t so much pro-choice as it is pro-feminism. Matter is filled with scenes involving Sherri’s battles with institutional sexism. Early on, for example, we’re shown that Sherri loves her Romper Room job, but she must endure condescension and leers from the mostly male staff at the TV station. When her doctor wants to raise the subject of abortion, he takes husband Bob aside to talk to him about it first. ”He didn’t want to upset you,” Bob tells an enraged, insulted Sherri later. Surprised by her reaction, he’s presented as a decent, Dagwood Bumstead kinda guy who just doesn’t get it.
The Finkbine case was messy and complicated. As the movie tells it, publicity and protests lead the hospital that is to perform the operation to request a court ruling on the legality of Sherri’s abortion (remember, the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision was then 11 years away). While the procedure is delayed, the Finkbines are harrassed with death threats from anti-abortion zealots all over the country. Sherri, distraught and unwilling to wait longer, is finally forced to go to Sweden for the operation, which was performed in the 12th week of her pregnancy. The movie ends with Sherri and Bob scurrying to get on the plane as a swarm of reporters chases them; it’s a scene that is far from your usual upbeat, triumph-over-the-system TV-movie ending.
A Private Matter deals with abortion as forthrightly as any entertainment programming I’ve seen, but it does so with a few built-in assurances against too much controversy. No one, for example, can accuse the movie of being antifamily or anti-child — the Finkbines are presented as a happy, copious clan. And, as I’ve noted, this 30-year-old case may leave many viewers with a false feeling of ”it can’t happen here and now.”
It’s likely that television still isn’t ready to present a drama that addresses the abortion question without flinching — a show in which a contemporary, childless woman decides to terminate a pregnancy as a matter of personal choice and then either suffers or thrives as a consequence. As good as A Private Matter is, abortion remains the subject that has yet to be contained by the small screen — because it’s so personal, so private, a matter. A-