Demi Moore, Sissy Spacek, Cher the female headliner power that energizes If These Walls Could Talk is a testament to the passion that accompanies any discussion of issues surrounding legal access to abortion. Hitting religious, political, and sexual hot buttons at one pop, abortion is a subject ripe for sisterly actresses to weigh in on and tricky for the brotherhood of American TV programmers to handle. In fact, few TV outfits would even try: The big networks are too dependent on ad revenue to mention the A-word, which is why pregnancy crises on nighttime dramas inevitably end in miscarriages. Skittish public television, meanwhile, succumbs to pressure to demonstrate ''balance,'' which is why documentaries focus on safe wildlife sex.
This leaves the field open for HBO, which has done a canny thing possibly, in this conservative climate, even a brave one: It has fashioned a star-packed movie that cloaks its polemic in the guise of a history lesson. The three stories that make up Walls take place in 1952, 1974, and 1996, all in one house that is evidently the most fertile piece of suburban real estate in America. In each episode, a (white, educated, resourceful) woman faces an unplanned pregnancy. In each, the era in which she lives shapes her fate. And in each, the message, to varying degrees of subtlety (don't forget we're talking about Moore, Spacek, and Cher), is this: Women should have the legal right to choose abortion or childbearing.
Thus, in 1952, when the procedure was illegal and illegitimacy shameful, Moore (also an executive producer) plays a recently widowed nurse who, pregnant from a one-night stand, has to seek out classic back-alley assistance. In bra-free, post-Roe v. Wade 1974, Sissy Spacek (who delivers the best performance) plays a cop's wife and mother of four who learns she's pregnant just as she finally returns to school to get her degree. Abortions are available but does she want one? And in 1996, when legal family-planning clinics have increasingly become demonstration sites, a college student (Walking and Talking's Anne Heche, doing nice work) becomes pregnant by a married professor. Opting for a first-trimester abortion (against the moral objections of her nevertheless supportive best friend, played by Jada Pinkett), she makes her way through an angry crowd to the soothing offices of an angel with copper curls Cher, playing the world's saintliest clinic doctor and acts on her rights while the violence outside escalates to a boiling point.
What, Walls asks rhetorically, seems more humane: Dewy, determined Moore, mutilating herself with a knitting needle and then opening her legs on her kitchen table to a creepy stranger wielding dirty tools, in a horrifying, hard-to-watch scene? Dewy, extraterrestrial Cher (in her directorial debut), suffering the mob's fury with Christ-like compassion? Or dewy, maternal Spacek, who, given access to safe medical procedures, is the movie's one ''proper'' woman (i.e., a good wife, mother, and student) free to demonstrate what choice really means? Watch this interesting cultural artifact (written in large part by True Love and Household Saints filmmaker Nancy Savoca, who also directed the first two stories) in a spirit of sympathy, even curiosity, and what you may enjoy is a parade of cool actresses (Eileen Brennan, Lindsay Crouse, Joanna Gleason, CCH Pounder, and Rita Wilson among them) participating in a drama about a serious and controversial issue.
Squint at it with even a mote of skepticism, and all you may see are Demi, Sissy, and Cher (as a gynecologist!) in a women's horror story right out of a Sanctuary catalog. B-