A Month after Roe v. Wade, Cloris Leachman Tackled Pregnancy in A Brand New Life

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A Month after Roe v. Wade, Cloris Leachman Tackled Pregnancy in A Brand New Life

From 1969 to 1975, ABC put out weekly films. They functioned as TV pilots, testing grounds for up-and-coming filmmakers, and places for new and old stars to shine. Every month, Chloe Walker revisits one of these movies. This is Movie of the Week (of the Month).

She was kidnapped—twice. She discovered her husband was a murderer. She discovered a different husband had given her syphilis. She even found herself trapped in hell

Yes, poor old Cloris Leachman had a rough ride of it during her seven appearances in editions of the ABC Movie of the Week. In comparison to her other MOTW misadventures, dealing with an unexpected pregnancy was a fairly mild obstacle. Nevertheless, A Brand New Life would still send her on a journey rife with its own kind of turmoil.

Leachman’s character, Vicky, works at a prestigious opera company. She’s been happily married to businessman Jim (Martin Balsam) for 18 years. They wanted kids, but came to the conclusion that nothing was going to happen for them in that department, and have since settled into their fulfilling professional and personal lives. The news that a baby is in fact on the way, long after she stopped hoping for one, throws Vicky’s fulfilling life into chaos. Will she lose her job? At 40, is she too old? And after all this time—does she even want a child anymore? There are decisions to be made, and quickly.

Thanks to their rapid production schedules, MOTWs were often more timely than their big-screen counterparts. Roe v. Wade was decided on January 22, 1973, legalizing abortion across America for the next 49 years. A Brand New Life aired on February 20, 1973. Vicky suddenly had a choice that she wouldn’t have had—or at least, would have been far more difficult to take—just a month earlier. As we’ve seen previously however, ABC MOTWs would be ever-cautious in their reaction to such hot-button social issues.

It’s worth nothing that Vicky and Jim’s choice is made unquestionably easier by their evident wealth. Their apartment is palatial. Jim’s office is cavernous. The two meet their friends on terraces and in yachts. And as soon as he understands she’s pregnant, Vicky’s sweet boss (Wilfred Hyde-White) immediately and sincerely promises he will do everything possible to make her life easier when she’s back at work. The couple clearly have the luxury of contemplating this enormous decision without factoring in the finances.

Yet there’s a lot they’re not protected from—primarily, the destabilization of making such an upheaval in their lives so long after they’d considered those lives settled. Leachman is terrific at embodying the various stages of Vicky’s emotional journey: The initial gut-punch, the subsequent confusion and fear, and first few glimmers of excitement. It’s a quiet, unshowy and yet totally engrossing performance—it would be the only one of her ABC MOTWs to net her an Emmy—pulling you along beside her as she searches for an answer. Although Vicky has plenty of people in her life, there’s a real loneliness to her situation. Everyone’s squarely either pro-abortion or pro-birth; nobody’s willing to properly help her hash out her options from her confused middle ground. 

And while she’s scouting for opinions, she’s met with further emotional blindsides. Her mother confesses she would have probably aborted her if it were an option back then (“Having an abortion is so much easier than it was in my day”), as Vicky pushes her along in a wheelchair outside her nursing home. The way Leachman plays Vicky’s subsequent, silent crumbling is heart-wrenching. But Vicky’s mother is not trying to hurt her, she’s just being honest. Though the movie siphons off the more radical sentiments to supporting characters, letting leading lady Leachman be softer in her own views, it still leaves plenty of space for women to express the ambivalence or downright antipathy towards motherhood that was a major factor of feminism’s second wave. 

In A Brand New Life, men are the ones who get to be dewy-eyed about the magic of childbirth, whereas women are lumbered with the decidedly less magical practicalities. It’s clear from the outset that Jim wants the baby, and his insensitivity towards Vicky’s uncertainty is frequently frustrating—not least, when he announces her pregnancy to their friends Eleanor (Marge Redmond) and Howard (Gene Nelson) hours after she’s heard the news, and she has explicitly asked him not to. 

As he discusses his thoughts with Howard when the two are alone later, his friend espouses the joys of childrearing, before making it very clear that he farmed off almost all the rearing of his daughter to both his wife and a boarding school; he wouldn’t even change her diapers because “that upset [him] just a little too much.” Both Jim and Vicky may ultimately end up Team Baby—as conflicted as she is, there’s only ever a fleeting moment when it seems Vicky might actually go through with an abortion—but we’re left in little doubt that only one of their lives is about to be turned completely upside down.

A Brand New Life winds up in an unusual, fascinating middle ground between emotional brutality and sentimentality. By the homestretch, the couple have both gotten used to the idea of the baby, and are looking forward to its arrival. Jim may have been a frustrating figure until that point, but Leachman and Balsam have such a lovely, warm chemistry, it’s easy to get caught up in their excitement. In some of these later scenes, where Vicky and Jim getting gooey about babies to the accompaniment of a typically florid MOTW score, it starts to feel like a different movie entirely.

And yet as they prepare, Vicky is devastated by the news that Sarah (Karen Philipp)—a sweet younger woman she’d met at the doctors’ office, and the sole woman in the movie uncomplicatedly thrilled by the idea of having children—has had a miscarriage. Vicky goes to see her in the hospital as soon as she hears, and Sarah’s fragile attempts to still be optimistic in the face of such a crushing tragedy are almost unbearably sad to witness. However schmaltzy it sometimes seems the MOTW is in danger of becoming, it never loses sight of the complex and often cruel realities of motherhood. 

As obsessed as it was with murder and mayhem, the ABC MOTW didn’t often engage with the less spectacular aspects of day-to-day existence. A Brand New Life demonstrates why that was a real shame. While the movie was undoubtedly limited by the inherent conservatism of network TV, its willingness to deal frankly with the inner struggle of a pregnant middle-aged woman—not to mention the hallowed state of motherhood in general—still feels bracing today. 

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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