Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Deep in My Heart (Konigsberg Company/Lifetime, 1999)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran a movie from the Lifetime backlog that actually turned out to be surprisingly good: Deep in My Heart, not the 1954 MGM biopic of Sigmund Romberg starring José Ferrer but a 1999 production directed by Anita W. Addison from a script by Ronni Kern, with supposedly at least some basis in real life, about Boston housewife Geraldine Eileen Cummins (played as a young woman by Cara Buono and as a, shall we say, “mature” one by Anne Bancroft), who just four months after having had her second child with her husband Bob (Kevin O’Rourke) goes out alone to see an Elvis Presley movie and is jumped by a Black man who rapes and, it turns out, impregnates her. She gives birth to the baby — it’s 1966, abortion is still illegal and even if it weren’t, she and Bob are heavy-duty Catholics who take the church’s teachings way too seriously even to consider it — but soon decides, whether it’s because looking at her daughter’s dark skin would remind her of the rapist who fathered her or because she can’t face the task of explaining to her friends and neighbors how she has a Black child when she hasn’t been unfaithful to her husband, to put the child up for adoption because she thinks the girl, whom she and her husband have already named Barbara Ann (after the Beach Boys’ hit? We’re never told but we guess so), would be better off being raised by people who look like her.

The state puts Barbara Ann (Olivia Kassardjian) with a Black foster mother, Corrine Burrell (Lynn Whitfield), who’s by far the most morally superior person in the movie, and for seven years she raises Barbara Ann as her own — until, reflecting the argument novelist Ann Padgett made when I interviewed her (based on her own experiences working for San Diego County Child Protective Services) that you want to avoid getting involved in systems because systems have their own priorities and the people running them tend to make the decisions they think are best for the system rather than the people unlucky enough to be under its jurisdiction, the state takes Barbara Ann away from Corrine and places her with Wisconsin couple Paul and Annalise Jurgenson (Albert Schultz and Anna Krige). Annalise is the closest thing this movie has to a villain, a self-righteous and self-centered white liberal who’s always marching for one cause or another and whose latest cause is adopting an “unadoptable” Black child and giving her the advantages of a middle-class white home — an arrangement her husband reluctantly goes along with (their agreement has been that he’ll work as an architect so she won’t have to have a job at all and therefore can be an activist full-time) until she gets the bright idea that Barbara Ann would be better if they moved to the Black part of town. Paul reacts by leaving her, and if the intent was to make things better for Barbara Ann, it backfires big-time.

Whereas in an otherwise all-white neighborhood she attracted attention and some friendships as a novelty, in a Black neighborhood she’s “just another Black girl” — rejected by whites because she’s Black and by Blacks because she’s half-white, and shunned by virtually everybody until in high school she meets a nice young Black guy, Don Williams (Jesse L. Martin from the later cast of Law and Order), who picks her up in church, gets her pregnant but turns out to be a good person after all; they marry and she has four more kids by him, and the two of them end up with a stable middle-class lifestyle (though just how they make their living is a mystery — like all too many movies, this one hardly gives us a clue about what sorts of jobs most of these people have). “I have a stable Black family,” Barbara Ann tells us later in the movie (when she’s an adult and is played by Gloria Reuben); “a lot of us do, but we don’t make the 6 o’clock news.”

Eventually Barbara Ann’s dormant interest in her biological forebears is awakened by a doctor who warns her she may have chronic asthma and in order to diagnose her properly, he would like to know her family history to see if that runs in her family — only she has only the dimmest memory of her real mother even though she’s held the memory of Corrine but still hasn’t tried to contact her. Finally Barbara Ann files a legal request for her adoption documents and through them is able to trace Gerry Cummins, whose husband died when he had a heart attack while driving in Florida (the state to which they’d retired — a neat irony in Ronni Kern’s script since they met while she was in high school and he was the school bus driver, so they’re brought together by driving and also permanently separated by driving!), whereupon she moved back to Boston, moved in with her fraternal twin brother Gerald (Peter MacNeill), who takes the call Barbara Ann places from Wisconsin, then goes to Hawai’i for a week and leaves Barbara Ann tense while the message sits back in Boston before Gerald returns from his trip and finally tells his sister that a woman claiming to be the daughter she gave up years before has called. “She says she’s your daughter,” Gerald says; “She is my daughter,” Gerry replies, and there’s a tense confrontation between the two women and a final Cummins family reunion — with the Black relatives of Barbara Ann’s husband mingling with the white Cumminses as if it’s the most natural thing in the world — that edges towards the sappiness Kern’s script and Addison’s direction have mostly avoided.

There are a few bits of overwrought and unduly obvious symbolism — like the umbrella the young Gerry was carrying when she was raped, which slips out of her grasp and blows down the street (we get it — the umbrella symbolizes the sheltered existence she’s previously been leading and its loss symbolizes the loss of that shelter) — and a few odd loose ends (we never learn whether she reported the rape — though we assume she didn’t; to this day rape remains the most underreported of all the major crimes) — but for the most part Deep in My Heart (despite the sappy title) works surprisingly well and, in a quiet, un-underlined way raises some interesting issues about just what constitutes a “family” and to what extent love trumps biology and when and how emotional connections become more important than genetic ones. It also shows how far we’ve come on family law; in 1966 not only was abortion illegal but there was also no such thing as “open adoption,” no way a parent could give up a child for adoption while still remaining involved in the child’s life — adoption was flat and final and you were expected, if you were a mother who gave a child up for adoption (the use of the phrase “give up” itself says much about how the process was seen!), you were supposed to let the child pass out of your life and go on as if you’d never had him or her at all.

Deep in My Heart is also unusually well done in that Kern is able to use real-life political events (like the anti-busing demonstrations in Boston and the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King, as well as the subsequent race riots) as background and reinforce the story with them without making them overly important and turning the movie preachy — and, in the middle of the current debate over whether casting directors deserve an Academy Award category, this film’s casting director, Tina Gerussi, is one of its unsung heroines: it’s not easy to cast a movie that takes place over so long a period of time that several of the roles have to be played by different actors to reflect the same characters at different ages, but she managed to pull it off and assemble a team of actors for each multi-cast role who are fully believable as the same person.