James Bridges, the eclectic but sensitive filmmaker whose cinematic career peaked with The China Syndrome (1979), marked his directorial debut with this intimate drama about a hippie chick who becomes a surrogate mother for an affluent but childless couple. Even within the confines of its small story, the picture is a bit too ambitious for its own good, trying to situate the lead character within the zeitgeist of the ’60s/’70s counterculture. Nonetheless, nuanced performances and sincere curiosity about the emotional lives of the characters make the movie worthwhile. Plus, since a huge aspect of the counterculture involved people discarding old inhibitions about sexuality, the notion of a freespirited young woman exploring various dimensions of her reproductive identity represents a fresh approach to familiar subject matter. More specifically, The Baby Maker exists a world away from the myriad ’60s/’70s pictures about May-December romances between hippies and straights (Breezy, Petulia, etc.); this picture is tender instead of tawdry.
Barbara Hershey stars as Tish, an upbeat flower-child type who lives with her stoner boyfriend, Tad (Scott Glenn). He makes handcrafted leather goods, but he’s prone to losing time on drugs and parties. Through a broker, Tish arranges to carry a child for Jay (Sam Groom) and Suzanne (Collin Wilcox-Horne). They’re a loving couple, but Suzanne is infertile. Some of the best scenes in The Baby Maker are the early ones, which have the feel of a procedural: the first meeting and initial negotiation, the dinnertime conversation during which Jay and Suzanne learn about Tish’s background, the laying out of concerns and expectations. (It’s worth noting that Bridges handles the actual conception scene with restraint.) Adding a layer of unspoken tension to these early scenes is the possibility of Tish falling in love with the unborn child and reneging on her promises. Another effective trope involves Tish’s steadily deteriorating home life with Tad. At first, he accepts her choice and even indulges himself with some of the money that she’s paid in advance. But later, jealousy and old-fashioned notions of gender roles make Tad bitter—a believable repercussion for men in Tad’s unique situation.
Not everything works in the picture, with a jarring protest sequence and a too-long psychedelic lightshow scene contributing to the movie’s sluggish pacing. However, the pluses easily outweigh the minuses. Hershey has many luminous moments, conveying a sense of innocence tinged with sadness, and the supporting cast is excellent. (Glenn reteamed with Bridges years later to play a villain in the director’s 1980 movie Urban Cowboy.) More than anything, The Baby Maker strikes an effective balance between capturing the sociopolitical vibe of a historical moment and telling a specific story about individuals.
The Baby Maker: GROOVY