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Firm View, Subtle Approach

The unapologetic abortion-rights message in 'Cider House Rules,' presented with nuanced filmmaking and marketing, has escaped the ire of anti-abortion advocates.

February 11, 2000|LORENZA MUNOZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

From the ads showing cherubic children holding hands and a flirty blond riding piggyback on a young boy, it might appear that the film "The Cider House Rules" is just a sweet-natured, coming-of-age story set in the 1940s.

It is a coming-of-age story--but that's only a part of it. The movie actually deals head-on with incendiary subjects like abortion and incest. Some audience members have come out of the movie theater saying they were unprepared for what they saw.

Unlike "Dogma" and "Citizen Ruth," movies that tackled religion and abortion with an in-your-face, sardonic boldness, "Cider House" has quietly put forward its controversial message. It is unapologetically in favor of abortion rights without using a bullhorn.

The film has avoided any picketing or negative publicity from anti-abortion groups. This is due, in part, to the film's marketing but mainly because the filmmakers wanted to convey their message softly, without political baggage.

"I wanted to be as gentle and tasteful as possible without backing off from the message," said director Lasse Hallstrom.

So far, "Cider House" has done fairly well at the box office; the movie, which cost more than $20 million, has grossed about $21 million so far. Miramax, the film's distributor, is hopeful the film will garner Oscar nominations next week and help it become a breakout hit. Supporting actor Michael Caine was nominated for a Golden Globe as was author John Irving, who adapted the screenplay from his novel.

Whether in film or real life, the entrenchment of both camps in the abortion debate and the volatility of the issue have made it a topic rarely brought up in movies. Polls show that many Americans are conflicted about the topic and want to see more of a middle ground, but abortion has again become a polarizing topic in the presidential debate, forcing candidates to take extreme positions in either camp.

Nuance and ambiguity was exactly what Hallstrom, Irving and producer Richard Gladstein wanted to convey.

"I would never portray the subject of abortion as morally simple--it's morally complex," said Irving, who, nonetheless, advocates abortion rights.

It was also important to the trio that the film receive a PG-13 rating. The filmmakers hope to educate younger audiences about what it was like when abortion was illegal in the U.S., from 1846 to 1973. The filmmakers have also held several screenings for Planned Parenthood members.

"I'm as active as I can be for Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights League--that's my politics and people know that," Irving said. "But the subject of a novel is the novel, the subject of a film is how good the film is. You can't harangue people and pretend that you are telling them a story. That is why I left the right-to-life argument out of the movie. I didn't want to engage in the shrillness of that argument."

"Cider House" is told through the eyes of a young boy, Homer Wells (played by Tobey Maguire), who is raised in an orphanage by the resident physician, Dr. Wilbur Larch. Homer is unwillingly trained as an obstetrician/gynecologist/abortion provider by Dr. Larch, who notices the young boy's potential as a doctor.

As he grows older, Homer feels the need to see the world outside the orphanage.

Through his experiences, he realizes that life's circumstances sometimes force unwanted events--like abortion--to occur.

"He learns that the real world is not all so black and white--it's very gray," Gladstein said.

By selling the film as a romantic coming-of-age story, Miramax has deflected some of the obvious negative publicity such a topic could bring. In the television campaign, Michael Caine's voice-over narration makes the movie sound almost fable-like, with dreamy, uplifting music in the background. The heavy themes in the movie are not alluded to.

But perhaps the most important factor was Hallstrom ("My Life as a Dog") and Irving's decision to soften the abortion-rights message, which never dominates the story. As Irving noted in his book "My Movie Business": " . . . All of the novel's crude moments are missing from the movie." Hallstrom's film offered no stomach-turning medical procedures; no characters whose internal organs are disintegrating from swallowing aborticides like oil of tansy or turpentine.

The screenplay went through several incarnations and four directors over 13 years, until finally Hallstrom and Miramax signed on to the project. As Irving tells the story, 10 years ago he and the late director Phillip Borsos were working on the screenplay, hoping to persuade Paul Newman to portray Dr. Larch.

That Borsos/Irving screenplay was much more political. As Irving notes in "My Movie Business": " 'Cider House Rules' was not a love story . . . it was the history of illegal abortion."

Indeed, Irving said Newman could not stomach scenes in the original screenplay where Homer dumps several aborted fetuses in the orphanage incinerator.

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