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TV Reviews : 'Babies' Shows Popularity, Exploitation of Quints

November 19, 1994|RAY LOYND

A picture calendar of the quints, with their distinctive brunette ringlets, adorned almost every family's home in the 1930s. The Dionne Quintuplets were bigger than Shirley Temple, a beacon of hope in the middle of the Depression.

They were also shamelessly exploited, literally ripped from their parents' arms and turned into media freaks whom tourists flocked to ogle, like monkeys in a cage.

The incredible chronicle of their early captive years, when an adoring public took scant note of their regimented life in a glorified laboratory, is dramatized in "Million Dollar Babies," a richly told, two-part biographical movie on CBS.

Beau Bridges stars as an affable country doctor dragged out in the middle of the night to deliver not one or even twin babies, but, in a dramatic sequence using animatronic dolls as infants, the first case of surviving quintuplets in recorded history.

The quints were born two months premature in 1934 in a raggedy farmhouse in backwoods Ottawa, Canada. The stunned parents are a poor French Canadian couple, the soon-to-be victimized and embittered Oliva and Elzire Dionne (played with quiet integrity by Canadian actors Roy Dupuis and Celine Bonnier).

The insightful movie (written by Suzette Couture and directed by Christian Duguay) paints the earthy, loving pair (who already had five kids) as targets of racism. Canadian authorities politically branded the parents as incompetents because, as the couple's defense attorney later argues, "they're impoverished, French and Catholic."

Behind all the maneuvering, of course, and violating this very real miracle of a birth, were five bundles of money waiting to be plucked. Bridges' physician (the self-promoting Dr. Allan DaFoe) is a curious Jekyll-and-Hyde character who snared legal custody of the quints and beamingly commercialized his good fortune.

Deliciously spurring the gouging and the media hype--in a feeding lather that clearly echoes the O.J. Simpson blitz--is a fictional but savvy sob sister (the ripely haughty Kate Nelligan). An early-day version of a talk-show sniper, she extols the homespun values of the births on her popular American radio show, where the studio scenes are an Art Deco hoot.

* "Million Dollar Babies" begins Sunday at 9 p.m. and concludes Tuesday at 9 on CBS (Channels 2 and 8).

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