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Katherine Heigl (far left, with Leslie Mann) in 'Knocked Up' and Keri Russell (right) in 'Waitress' (right)
Young working women played by Katherine Heigl (far left, with Leslie Mann) in "Knocked Up" and Keri Russell (right) in "Waitress" go through with pregnancies even though each has serious concerns about the father of her baby. (AFP/Getty Images (left); Alan Makfield (right))

Studios choose to play it safe

Hollywood may vote pro-choice, but the message of three current films seems closer to Florida's anti-abortion license plate

They're keeping the baby.

The movies are, that is. Abortion is one of the last taboos in mainstream American film -- a no-flyover zone of many years' standing. No matter how realistically presented, it's just not something that's done if you want to keep the sympathy (and ticket sales) of multiplex audiences. That said, each moviegoing generation confronts and/or backs away from the subject in its own fashion, and three current releases have opted to carry to term, whether it makes dramatic sense or not.

Are we at a fulcrum in the pop discourse? Is Hollywood backing away from Roe v. Wade? Probably not, since the matter has more to do with the studios' terror of giving offense than active sermonizing. Yet there the films are, and in the fall will come "Lake of Fire," a documentary that stands to aggravate matters by offending just about everybody.

In the pulpy thriller "Mr. Brooks ," the buttoned-down serial killer played by Kevin Costner learns his college-age daughter (Danielle Panabaker ) is pregnant by a married man. "There will be no abortion," he thunders, but then softens his tone, successfully convincing the girl that "a grandchild would be a wonderful gift to your mother and me."

In "Waitress ," written and directed by the late Adrienne Shelly , a diner waitress (Keri Russell ) in the deep South gets pregnant by her crude lout of a husband (Jeremy Sisto ). She sublimates her desperate sense of entrapment into making "I Don't Want Earl's Baby" pies and a raging crush on her obstetrician (Nathan Fillion ), but the word "abortion" is never once mentioned.

It is mentioned in "Knocked Up ," but the raucous comedy about a young professional (Katherine Heigl ) impregnated by a schlubby bonghead (Seth Rogen ) is acute enough to have it both ways. One of the bonghead's friends advises him to "get it taken care of," and when a second friend doesn't want to even hear the word, the first insists the couple should "go to the schma-schmortion clinic and get a schma-schmortion."

That's how dangerous this subject is in the pop mainstream: The word alone would bum everyone out. "Knocked Up" is honest enough at least to raise the possibility of ending a pregnancy -- a procedure that, last time anyone checked, was still legal in this country -- but it can only speak in code. That the film makes our nervousness into a joke, and one with an edge, doesn't ease that nervousness one bit.

For how likely is its scenario to play out in real life? "Waitress" avoids dealing with abortion because Shelly was more interested in examining the fears and anxieties of mothers-to-be. In "Mr. Brooks," the anti hero's right-to-life stance is offered as a ghoulishly satiric contradiction of his homicidal impulses (and one we're unironically meant to admire in the bargain).

But "Knocked Up"? Let's get real for a moment. An ambitious career woman who has just been promoted into a highly public dream job decides to have the child and form a relationship with the immature slob who's the father? It could happen. It would be nice if it did happen. But it probably wouldn't.

Despite some hand - wringing and hosannas from commentators at various stations of the abortion debate, these three movies don't represent a political sea change so much as a profoundly skittish disengagement from the topic. The religious right hasn't infiltrated Hollywood, but religious people and other audiences with strong right-to-life views do buy tickets, and lots of them. The studios turn out entertainment built to factory specifications, and anything divisive dulls the lathe. When you're trying to please everyone, you can't afford to anger anyone.

This is a step back, though. Films have dealt with the subject of abortion in various ways over the years, even during the classic era. The 1934 Clark Gable hospital melodrama "Men in White " dropped large hints about a nurse's panicked resort to a back-alley procedure, and 1951's "Detective Story " has a subplot about an abortion doctor that's surprisingly frank. "Love With the Proper Stranger " was the "Knocked Up" of 1963, but, tellingly, it's an observant drama that addresses head-on the question of whether Natalie Wood's character should terminate her pregnancy.

In "The Godfather, Part II, " released in 1974 (a year after Roe v. Wade), abortion is used as an instrument of revenge, the worst possible punishment Kay Corleone (Diane Keaton ) can visit on her dead-souled mobster husband (Al Pacino ). By the time of "The Cider House Rules " in 1999, melodramatic sturm and drang still surrounded the subject, but the film's sensibilities were solidly pro-choice, even if the kindly doctor played by Michael Caine was killed off at the end.

There have been documentaries about abortion (HBO's 1996 "If These Walls Could Talk "), art house fantasias (Todd Solondz's 2004 "Palindromes "), even the stray satire: In "Citizen Ruth " (1996), Alexander Payne dared to poke fun at both sides in the abortion wars before chickening out and letting the glue-sniffing welfare mom played by Laura Dern suffer a miscarriage before she could come to a decision.

Much rarer are those movies like "Vera Drake " (2004) that realistically portray the emotional turmoil and hard decisions women actually experience (let alone acknowledge that they may have made the right choice).

Ironically, one of the more honest accounts can be found in a teen comedy: 1982's "Fast Times at Ridgemont High ," in which the freshman played by Jennifer Jason Leigh gets knocked up by a sleazeball (Robert Romanus ) who won't pay for half the abortion or even drive her to the clinic. There's a banal, ordinary sadness to these scenes and their aftermath -- a numbed sense of mistakes made and coped with out of sight of parents and friends.

A similar sensibility pervades Tony Kaye's "Lake of Fire ," only it's real. Toward the end of this remarkable documentary, which is coming off the festival circuit to theaters in October, the director interviews a working-class woman minutes after she has had an abortion. The camera records her pose of tough resilience cracking from exhaustion, stress, and sadness.

The maverick director of "American History X " has made what may be the most honest film yet on the abortion wars. Appropriately, it's nearly unwatchable. It nevertheless demands to be seen by anyone who purports to hold an opinion on the subject, left, right, or center.

"Lake of Fire" shows abortion procedures and their grisly aftermath; the footage is distressing in the extreme and mitigated only slightly by the use of black and white film. Kaye interviews right-to-life extremists, letting their lunacy speak for itself. He locates Norma McCorvey, the "Jane Roe" of Roe v. Wade, now a born-again evangelical Christian and "reformed lesbian," and listens to her story. (In one of the great "reveals" in recent movies, Kaye slowly pulls his camera back from an interview with a right-to-life minister to show McCorvey working at the next desk over.)

"Lake of Fire," in other words, forces audiences to confront what abortion is and what it means to both women who have one and people who oppose it, and it does so in ways that are devastatingly fresh. If the film has a position, it appears to be both pro-life and pro-woman, equally aware of the humanity of a fetus and of the person carrying it.

That's a political paradox, but Kaye very nearly makes it work. At the least, he comes closer to the heart of the matter than all the Hollywood movies desperately looking the other way.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. For more on movies, go to boston.com/ae/ movies/blog.

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