Award aspirants create distinctive pregnancy tales
Hollywood put on a fertility clinic this year, with no fewer than seven films, including several Golden Globes contenders, featuring pregnant characters.
And yet, rather amazingly, each pic — most notably “Juno,” “Knocked Up” and “Waitress” — offered a fundamentally different approach to this most fundamental part of life.
“I think the main thing that some people don’t realize, and I really very much realized once I was pregnant (in real life): There is no one way to be pregnant,” says Keri Russell, who had a bun in two onscreen ovens this year, “Waitress” and “August Rush.”
With that many stories to tell — and with the high caliber of writing involved in the telling — Hollywood’s gatekeepers only needed to decide that audiences would be receptive to the different tales. And it’s not as if pregnancy is a topic relegated behind closed doors these days.
“It does sort of coincide with this weird, crazy pop culture infatuation with all these actresses being pregnant,” Russell says. “Have you ever seen so many pictures of (pregnant) actresses?”
“It feels like a few years after Sept. 11, a lot of people got married,” “Juno” director Jason Reitman reflects. “If you were close to someone, you either took the plunge or you broke up. A few years after that, a lot of people had babies. It makes sense that there’d be a lot of films portraying pregnancy.”
Personal experience was definitely a driving force in several of the child-bearing films.
“I was just trying to be truthful to my own experiences,” says “Knocked Up” writer-director Judd Apatow, whose two children appear in the pic. “Every time my wife and I went through the childbirth process, so many insane things happened that I felt a need to at least get a good movie out of it.”
Adds “Juno” scribe Diablo Cody: “When I was a teenager, I had a friend who got pregnant. So experiencing that through her always stuck with me. Because having a baby when you’re 18 is so different than having a baby when you’re 30. You’re treated differently by society, by the medical establishment. It’s kind of a weird situation. And any situation that seems awkward or painful, that’s where I see comedy.”
Shattering preconceived notions about motherhood also came into play, as evidenced by “Waitress” and its writer-director, the late Adrienne Shelly.
“I think she was trying to tell a story that doesn’t get told, which is it’s not all rainbows and unicorns,” “Waitress” producer Michael Roiff says. “Sometimes you get pregnant, and that’s not something you expected or wanted — but that’s OK, too. … I think the character of Jenna really wrestles with that and wrestles with the fact that her friends are appalled that (she’s) not ecstatic. But she’s unapologetic.”
“When you’re pregnant, you’re kind of crazy, so you can be a lot of different things,” Russell adds. “That’s what I loved about the character Adrienne wrote. (Jenna) was so funny — she was so negative. I loved that she was like, ‘This fucking baby — I’m so fucking over this.’ ”
Of course, any take on pregnancy runs up against one of the more cliched scenes you can find in any story: the screaming, cursing, squeeze-your-mate-’til-it-hurts childbirth. But this year’s films found fresh nuances almost effortlessly, even without removing the screams or the curses.
“We certainly didn’t want to have pregnancy scene No. 4,012. … (but) you didn’t want something that was jarringly different,” Roiff says.
Says Apatow: “I didn’t think about it that much — a lot of the (“Knocked Up”) ending actually happened to us. Our doctor didn’t show up because he went to a bar mitzvah in San Francisco without telling us, and the doctor who replaced him kept saying, ‘Do you want to be the doctor? Do you want to be the doctor?’ and yelling at us. I always knew I had an interesting ending because I stayed true to the drama of our particular night.
“My intention was to force the audience to suffer through the childbirth experience. I actually cut it down – it was originally a little bit longer and filled with a few more scary moments … but I had to find a line of how much the audience could actually take.”
In “A Mighty Heart,” which culminates in journalist Mariane Pearl (Angelina Jolie) giving birth to the son of her late husband Daniel, the last thing director Michael Winterbottom fretted over was being clever, because of what the scene itself stood for.
“Mariane is pregnant in the film because she was pregnant in the real story,” Winterbottom says. “It was never intended to be used as a dramatic device, to try and increase the tension. As with all of the film, it was a case of trying to make it as truthful as possible.
“It was a relief, having shown Mariane’s pain on discovering her husband has been murdered, to then show the pain of giving birth, of the triumph of life over death.”
As for the actresses involved, while playing pregnant isn’t the most obvious way to look glamorous, the roles provided a luminous showcase of their abilities. Russell, for example, conveys “a gamut of emotions without resorting to parlor tricks,” according to Roiff. Katherine Heigl of “Knocked Up” “shows a lot of colors you don’t usually see in film, because people are usually working really hard to make everything likable in every moment,” says Apatow. And Reitman remarks that Ellen Page “brings such honesty to heartbreaking scenes” in “Juno.”
Of all the films with prominent pregnant characters this year, which also included Reese Witherspoon in “Rendition” and Emily Mortimer in “Lars and the Real Girl,” none depicted a character having an abortion. Although it has been more than 10 years since the dark comedy “Citizen Ruth” took on the topic, this year’s pregnancy principals didn’t seem to think Hollywood was shying away for political reasons.
“I think you can go ahead and do that if that serves the story,” Roiff says, “as long as you’re not being exploitive.”
Adds Cody: “I’m pro-choice, but the decisions that are made in (“Juno”) are all personal, not political. I don’t think it’s a political movie in any way. … I appreciate the argument that ‘Knocked Up’ and ‘Juno’ both have characters who don’t really give much serious thought to abortion. But, I mean, it’s not like I wrote a scene where she’s sitting in her room reading the Bible and then decides, ‘No, abortion is not for me.’ It was more of a spontaneous personal decision that Juno makes.
“But wouldn’t it be wonderful if the pro-life crowd embraces this movie? It could be the new ‘Passion of the Christ,’ and I’d really love to make that kind of money. … Let’s get all the church groups and bus ’em in. Ten bucks a head.”