Cover Story

The plots thicken

As Roe v. Wade turns 35, some in Hollywood are changing their minds about "choice," and it's showing up on the silver screen

Issue: "The plots thicken," Jan. 12, 2008

In the movie Knocked Up, blond-and-beautiful television producer Alison is tapped for her on-air dream job, but while celebrating she gets pregnant during a one-night stand. She decides not only to keep the baby but also to build a relationship with the father.

In Bella, a soccer star's life is upended when he kills a young girl in a traffic accident. Realizing a new reverence for life, he convinces a friend to carry her unplanned pregnancy to term.

In Noelle, a priest whose job is to shut down ailing parishes encourages an unmarried woman to keep her baby, the fruit of a liaison with the arrogant heir of a wealthy family.

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In the comedy Juno, the title character, a pregnant teenager, decides to carry to term and place her child for adoption-because a pro-life teen picketing the abortion clinic where Juno had gone to terminate her pregnancy points out that Juno's baby already has fingernails. The film is nominated for a Golden Globe Award.

Has Hollywood tilted off its reliably pro-abortion axis? With the 2007 debut of these films, has the American abortion debate finally reached a tipping point, where more art now imitates pro-life?

Yes, says Steve McEveety, producer of Braveheart and executive producer of Bella and The Passion of the Christ. He believes moviegoers will see "a lot more films" with an underlying reverence for the unborn "and a lot more pro-life people coming into the film industry based on pure logic."

McEveety is among those working in Hollywood who say a subtle cultural shift, one that also reaches into television, is underway. Some peg the change to ultrasound technology, others to a changing of the guard among filmmakers. But all agree that Hollywood has awakened to this fact: Abortion is not only unarguably un-sexy, but also un-heroic. And without sex and heroes, Hollywood would have few bankable stories to tell.

The New York Times in June raised an alarm about the pro-life current threading through recent hit films. In a story headlined, "On Abortion, Hollywood is No-Choice," writer Mireya Navarro maintained that since data from federal surveys show that nearly two-thirds of unwanted pregnancies end in abortion, then Hollywood's rash of films showing unexpectedly pregnant women keeping their babies is a sign the movie industry is going out of its way to sidestep real life.

In the 2007 hit indie film Waitress, for example, the lead character Jenna (Keri Russell) is about to leave her abusive husband when she learns she is pregnant. Jenna is "more likely to ponder selling the baby than to consider having" an abortion, Navarro pointed out. In Knocked Up, television producer Alison "is torn over whether to keep the man, not the baby," and the closest anyone comes to uttering the A-word is to say, "it rhymes with 'smashtortion.'"

But are such films avoiding reality?

No, said screenwriter and Biola University film professor Michael Gonzales. Despite attempts by Planned Parenthood and other pro-abortion groups to depict abortion as no more uncommon or morally fraught than having a tooth pulled, filmmakers realize that even after 35 years of legality, abortion has not shed its "ick" factor.

"To make a movie on abortion is just not sexy," Gonzales said. "To hear Meg Ryan, for example, say at a party, 'Oh, I really want to do this abortion movie'-people would just kind of shriek inside. They kind of shudder."

Further, from a dramatic standpoint, abortion not only makes it difficult to create a sympathetic character; it also ends the story. "You might deal with the aftermath, the psychological trauma the character has to go through," Gonzales said, "but that's a story nobody wants to hear."

Paradoxically, Hollywood-with its stock in trade the kind of sex that leads to unplanned pregnancy-may be subtly turning away from the easy fix. Instead, in movies like Knocked Up, twentysomething, party-animal anti-heroes like Ben (Seth Rogen) are stepping up to meet their responsibilities as new parents. And though Knocked Up is a coarse, profanity-filled film, it may affect its Gen-X and Millennial target audience in ways that reach beyond cheap laughs.

"Stories work in society by putting in front of us better than the real-ideal choices that shame us about the choices we really make," said screenwriter Barbara Nicolosi, chairman of Act One, a group that trains Christians for the film industry. "Audiences bond to the heroic choices made by the main character."

That seems to be the case with Juno, the film in which a spunky teen (Golden Globe nominee Ellen Page) changes her mind about abortion after hearing about her baby's fingernails. Inside the clinic, as Juno fills out the necessary forms, she suddenly becomes conscious of all the women waiting with her-nervously tapping their nails, clicking their nails, biting their nails. As the disparate sounds gel into a kind of heartbeat, Juno suddenly realizes her fetus is a human being.

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