In Hollywood, the urge to publicly espouse a cause is resisted only as long as it takes the celebrity to get his or her hands on a microphone, as this year's Oscar telecast once again demonstrated.
Joanne Woodward was just about to yield to that urge and evangelize on behalf of her newest cause, babies of drug-addicted mothers, when a miracle of good sense intervened and stopped her. She thought: I am an actress, not an orator, not a politician, not a debater. I work in films; that should be my vehicle.
And so we have "Blind Spot," a drama about the consequences of drug addiction experienced by three generations of one outwardly perfect, unsuspecting family. The movie airs Sunday as a CBS "Hallmark Hall of Fame" presentation. Woodward's passion was ignited three years ago in Washington, D.C., while she attended a conference on drug abuse and its effects on infants. She was there as a board member of the Scott Newman Center founded after her stepson died of a drug overdose in 1978. Woodward and Jean Kennedy Smith, head of a group that helps children born with mental defects, toured a hospital and were given an up-close view of the terrible consequences of drug use by pregnant women.
"We saw nurseries full of these little bits of humanity with tubes and wires and everything attached to them, shaking. And then we went into a nursery full of babies, some adorable and healthy, some still showing effects (of their exposure to drugs in the womb), who had either been abandoned there by their mothers, or through some problems of the courts or whatever, who had never been out of there. Its's awful."
Woodward felt the need to act, but how? Lectures? Speeches? A new-hued ribbon? "Originally we were thinking about my going around and giving speeches and that sort of thing. However that wasn't very sensible because, in the first place, I'm not a very good speaker and, in the second place, I hate flying. There wouldn't have been a lot of speeches.
"So I said why don't I just do what I do, which is, I act, I write, I direct." She knew it could be done. In 1985, the actress gave an Emmy-award winning performance as an Alzheimer's patient in the film "Do You Remember Love?" The movie, Woodward said, "had a very effective response in terms of feedback from people saying they hadn't known about the problem and they learned a lot. ... As we know, television at its best is a great teaching toll." Woodward didn't look long for backers.
She took her idea to producer Richard Welsh, who instantly recognized the drama inherent in the plight of the babies whose short lives already had been scarred by drugs. Welsh, who has produced several Hallmark films, knew Hallmark would be interested in the subject matter and in Joanne Woodward as a star. He was right.
Woodward the associate producer didn't mind leveraging Woodward the actress when "Blind Spot" was in the development stages. When it tured out that the most interesting character in the story was a male politician--and not the nurse she was supposed to play--Woodward made herself the politician.
"I said, 'Well, associate producer's prerogative,' " Woodward said, laughing. The switch kept Woodward from pulling out of the project and besides, she said, it made the movie more timely with women politicians highly visible now.
Such maneuverings suggest the 800-pound gorilla scenario, which Welsh, one of "Blind Spot's" executive producers, is quick to dispel. "Actors of her caliber have a keen sense of what works for them and what doesn't," Welsh said.
"Joanne is like a secret ingredient for any project. I've come away from 'Blind Spot' with absolute admiration for her. She never stops," he continued. "And there's no ego there. We always had to be after her about her clothes and how she'd look... One time I said, 'You look like you've been run over by a truck. I don't want you to look that bad."
In truth, Woodward and Welsh can't say enough good stuff about each other, so it's not surprising that a collaboration has developed. Next month, Woodward and James Garner start filming novelist Anne Tyler's "Breathing Lessons." which Welsh is producing for a Hallmark presentation. The actress then plans to star as an elderly stroke victim in Welsh's television version of the Off Broadway play "Wings." The two are discussing a feature as well.
Is Woodward steering her career toward television, given her upcoming commitments and the fact that "Blind Spot" is her second movie for the small screen this spring? In March she starred in "Foreign Affairs," a TNT comedy as a snobby professor who, during a sabbatical in England, is romantically pursued, much to her embarrassment at first, by a plumber from Oklahoma.
She said her career has taken that turn on its own. TV and cable seem to be coming up with better roles for women--"for women my age certainly."
Woodward isn't objecting. "I like it because it's timely," Woodward said of TV, "and it doesn't take forever, which film seems to do."
\o7 "Blind Spot" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on CBS.\f7