Saturday, February 13, 2016

#225: The Baby (Ted Post, 1973)

Why hadn't I seen The Baby until last night? Generally speaking, I'm a big fan of '70s movies, all things weird, and films with multiple roles for women, and The Baby has all three of those bases covered. Worthy of its cult classic status, The Baby is a funny, strange, unpredictable 90 minutes of perversity. Every character is at least a little unhinged, but with recognizably human motives. Ted Post is not a visually innovative filmmaker, and the look of The Baby betrays his origins in network television, but the straightforward, graceless lack of elegance and beauty here suits the material. This kind of thing is right up at least four of my many alleys. (Hmmm, that sounds a little obscene, now that I've written it down.)
The Baby begins with social worker Ann Gentry (Anjanette Comer) visiting a nice suburban home that houses her newest client. Ann is a very idealistic, very gung-ho worker, and she has specifically requested her new client, even though most social workers assigned to the case quickly quit and the most recent worker disappeared. Inside the home, Ann finds a situation reminiscent of Grey Gardens Grundle-fly-spliced with Jack Hill's Spider Baby. Ann's client, Baby (David Mooney, then going by the name David Manzy) is an adult male who behaves like a baby and sleeps in a man-sized crib. He is obsessively, protectively, and sinisterly cared for by his tough-talking, chain-smoking mother Mrs. Wadsworth (Ruth Roman, veteran of '40s and '50s westerns, Strangers on a Train, Bitter Victory, and many television shows) and his two adult sisters, Germaine (Marianna Hill) and Alba (Susanne Zenor). (Factoid: Zenor appeared in the original Three's Company pilot but was replaced by Suzanne Somers in a second pilot that finally made it to air.) The sisters have no jobs and live at home, though Germaine says she sometimes gets money together by appearing in TV commercials.
The sisters are as strange as their mother is intimidating. Alba acts like a petulant pre-teen girl, though her wardrobe mostly consists of short-shorts and low-cut shirts. She has a sadistic mean streak and is extremely cold toward Ann. Germaine, the TV commercial actress, has a penchant for long gowns, bizarrely elaborate hairdos, dramatically strange speech patterns, and intense, unblinking stares. She is initially aggressively fond of Ann. All three Wadsworth children have different fathers, and all three fathers mysteriously abandoned the family after their child was born.
Ann suspects that Baby is a normally functioning man who has been trapped in his baby-like state through psychological torment, punishment, and reward, and she gently but strongly pushes the Wadsworths to get Baby some professional help in the hope of advancing his mental and physical development. She meets some pretty intense resistance. That's all I will say about the plot, other than to say things get much, much weirder, and that Ann has some bizarre circumstances and motives of her own. All four women are great in their roles, particularly the husky-voiced Hollywood vet Roman, and so is Beatrice Manley in a small but fascinating part as Ann's mother-in-law. It's still a bummer that more films aren't made with a varied cast full of women playing roles besides worried, nagging, or supportive wives and girlfriends or sex objects or women getting their grooves back or  girls'-night-out posse members. Get it together, Hollywood.
The Baby is one of those delightfully unselfconsciously strange films that flourished in the 1970s and '80s that our present culture is poorer for lacking. We are both too sophisticated and too unimaginative as a culture now to create honest unaffected weirdness, with some notable exceptions. As always, take my grand pronunciations with a grain of salt, but I'm at least half-right here. I miss the pre-Internet world, even though I also love (and hate) the modern possibilities the Internet provides.
Let's steer this slowly sinking ship back to the movie. It's a surprise how strange the film is, because its director, writer, and stars tended to work on more conventional projects. Screenwriter Abe Polsky's other credits include the delinquent motorcycle gang movie Rebel Rousers (starring a young Jack Nicholson, Diane Ladd, and Bruce Dern, a slightly less young Harry Dean Stanton, and an older Cameron Mitchell) and episodes of Bonanaza, The Virginian, Kung Fu, and Fame. (To be fair, his mercenaries vs. hippies B-movie Brute Corps sounds like it might be kind of nutty, but I haven't seen that one.) Director Ted Post, who died in 2013 at the age of 95, had a long, successful career in television and made several films as well. His string of television work began with an episode of Danger in 1950 and ended with the TV movie Stagecoach in 1986, with credits in between on Perry Mason, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Twilight Zone, Peyton Place, Columbo, Cagney & Lacey, and dozens more. His films include the Clint Eastwood western Hang 'Em High, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, The Harrad Experiment, the Dirty Harry sequel Magnum Force, the Chuck Norris movie Good Guys Wear Black, and Go Tell the Spartans. 
I really enjoyed The Baby. It's a deeply strange entertainment with a director that stays out of the way of the material and a cast that commits one hundred percent to each oddball part. People tend to say "they don't make 'em like that anymore" too often (I'm one of the guilty parties here), but they really don't make 'em like The Baby anymore.
I will now leave you with a highlight of the film's dialogue from the awesomely '70s birthday party scene, in which Ann is hit on by Dennis, a boyfriend of Alba's played by the late Michael Pataki, one of the great go-to character actors when directors needed a sleazeball.
Dennis: "I'd like to pay you a sincere compliment. You've got beautiful skin."
Ann: "Don't tell me. You're a dermatologist."
Dennis: "No, just a skin freak."

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