Labor Daze

All this occurs at the beginning of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, and ostensibly provides the motivation for Victor to create a monster by borrowing an ear from this corpse, a rib section from that one. I myself didn't get the connection. At any rate, Victor is soon seen with a bucket in hand under a woman whose water has just broken (she's in one of those pre-electric chairs, too), so he can gather up the precious amniotic fluid he needs to perpetrate the most ghastly birth scene in memory. The monster (supposedly played by Robert De Niro, but I'd swear it's Jim Belushi under all that stuff) comes gushing out of his birth chamber screaming, writhing in slime and getting progressively pissed off at his creator.

I figure a whole new generation of girls has been put off childbirth by Branagh's film just as Paula and I were by Otto Preminger's.

To be fair, though, Branagh's crime is merely one of the more outrageous in a long line of similar cinematic offenses. Somehow, when I see childbirth presented realistically in public television documentaries on the wonders of life, I don't cringe in horror at what are, admittedly, daunting biological displays. Only when Hollywood takes it upon itself to dramatize the miracle of birth do I wish I were dead. Women don't just die in childbirth--their insides get ripped out. They can't make do with routine deliveries--they have breech births, babies choking on umbilical cords, babies with gigantic heads!

Let's get back to the '60s, the decade that picked up on the promise of the much earlier Gone With the Wind with its famous "I don't know nuthin' 'bout birthin' no babies" birth event. In Hawaii (1966), Julie Andrews, who had previously lifted our spirits with Mary Poppins and The Sound of Music, plays the wife of dour missionary Max von Sydow, who takes her to live among the heathens he wants to convert. Julie is sassy and sweet and everybody loves her, even though Max makes them all cover up and quit being so happy. When Julie begins to give birth you can only imagine that everything's going to be hunky-dory, since she has, after all, saved deformed babies from being buried alive by the carefree Hawaiians. Julie lies there, belly flat, looking strong and ready for anything. Max won't let the island midwives in because he knows that they're pagans and can do it better by himself. Julie starts to experience a lot of pain, and she's sweating and panting like Jim Belushi. Then she starts to yell, "What's wrong with the baby?" Julie shrieks. Her husband tells her that the baby is in the dreaded breech position, and all Julie can do is yell and cry far a really long time. Fade to black. When we come back, Max is holding the kid aloft, smiling and saying, "It's a boy," as if it was he who accomplished something akin to passing a bowling ball out the end of his penis. We find out that the mid-wives, according to custom, would have killed the baby, proving they're no Catholics. Julie goes on to have more kids, but at least we don't have to watch. Max proceeds to champion laws forbidding booze and sex, which, under the circumstances, does not seem so unreasonable. Hawaii, the island, has never fully recovered.

Rosemary's Baby (1968), which may, come to think of it, have been on some metaphorical level about the fear engendered in women by seeing films like The Cardinal and Hawaii, concerns the maternity adventures of a young Catholic woman played by Mia Farrow. Mia and her husband, John Cassavetes, move into the spooky old Dakota building in Manhattan and befriend the creepy Sidney Blackmer and his wife Ruth Gordon, who keeps bringing over chalky desserts. After eating one of Gordon's mousses, Farrow passes out and dreams she's making love to a monster while her husband and the neighbors look on. This is probably the kind of thing that happens in the Dakota all the time--after all, it has been home to everyone from Lauren Bacall to Yoko Ono to Rex Reed. Farrow gets pregnant, and instead of turning chubby and radiant, she grows ghastly pale, gets dark circles under her eyes, and loses so much weight she looks like she'll end up giving birth to a tiny white mouse. Instead of pick-les and ice cream she takes to eating raw meat. And why not, since it's the progeny of the devil inside her. Just as she's about to go into labor, Mia figures out who the dad really is, but nobody believes her (shadows of things to come decades later) and when she starts to give birth, the devil worshipers tie her arms and legs to the bedposts, drug her and bring in dozens more devil worshipers to grab at her breasts while chanting witchy lyrics. Mia passes out, and when she wakes up they tell her the baby's dead. She soon learns better. Sidney Blackmer refrains from announcing, "It's a boy!" saying instead, "He has his father's eyes. Hail Satan!"

Less believable than Rosemary's Baby, and yet a relief from the usual childbirth agonies, is the classic 1980 remake of The Blue Lagoon--in which, you recall, two little cousins get shipwrecked without benefit of adult supervision and grow up to be Brooke Shields and Christopher Atkins. (Chris is the one in the large diaper; Brooke has her hair glued to her breasts.) They figure out how to have sex, and before long Chris finds Brooke squatting by a tree, howling. They don't know what's going on, and he keeps asking, "What can I do?" but Brooke can't answer, and all of a sudden a baby plops out on the ground. It's a boy.

But back to the real world. Remember the '86 remake of The Fly, starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis? Even before David Cronenberg created the Jeremy Irons/Jeremy Irons twin obstetricians in Dead Ringers he filmed a memorable childbirth scene that addressed every woman's worst fear. No, not having Jeff Goldblum's child, though that's high on the list. I'm talking about, yes, having a not-quite-a-baby. When scientist Goldblum gets in his transporter accidentally with a fly and starts growing hair on his back, walking on the ceiling and throwing up on his food before he eats it, his girl-friend Geena sagely opts for an abortion. Except, uh-oh, they didn't get it right, and soon Geena is push, push, pushing until she fights and tries to get off the table. Then, something that resembles a large, insufficiently cooked pork roast comes shooting out of her. The doctors hold it up for her approval. Ahhhhhhhh-hhhhhhh! Oh wait, that was all just a bad dream. Whew, what a relief. Thanks, David, That was really fun.

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