Oscar night puts film guerrilla in clothing quandary

March 14, 1993|By Sue Hutchison | Sue Hutchison,Knight-Ridder News Service

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- As she curled up on the overstuffed couch at her Menlo Park, Calif., home, surrounded by flowers from well-wishers, Dorothy Fadiman mulled over a perplexing political dilemma -- what should she wear on Oscar night?

Ms. Fadiman, a filmmaker whose documentary "When Abortion Was Illegal: Untold Stories" has been nominated for an Academy Award, is a little reluctant to go Hollywood. After all, documentary makers are supposed to be the guerrilla warriors of the film business. Sequins and decolletage seem so . . . establishment.

"I'm into jeans and sweat shirts. I don't see myself as a celebrity," Ms. Fadiman said. "I have misgivings about [dressing like Morgan Fairchild]. Documentary makers are Hollywood outsiders. We're sort of proud of that."

Nevertheless, it's obvious that Ms. Fadiman, 53, is proud of the nomination. It's been a long haul since she began making documentaries in 1976, scrambling for funds and editing videotape at home.

It's hard to imagine that Ms. Fadiman is a Pittsburgh native. Her metamorphosis into a Californian, which began 30 years ago, seems complete. She rhapsodizes about creativity and spirituality. She and her husband, Jim, a psychologist and author, have turned their home into a studio. She does all her preliminary editing at one end of the house, and he does much of his writing at the other.

Far from dismissing her community as a creativity-numbing suburban enclave, Ms. Fadiman says her neighbors have inspired her. One of her early films was shot at a Palo Alto City Council meeting in 1983 where citizens gathered en masse to decry nuclear proliferation. "The passion was amazing," she said, smiling.

Years ago, Ms. Fadiman veered away from her initial film themes of celebration and joy to delve into her own pain. "When Abortion Was Illegal" is no exception.

When Ms. Fadiman was a graduate student at Stanford medical school in 1963, she had an illegal abortion. She brought $600 in cash to a Reno motel room, where she was blindfolded and driven to the man who performed the abortion without anesthetic. She ended up in intensive care for 10 days. Still, she told no one.

Thirty years later, the women Ms. Fadiman interviewed for her film told similar stories of mutilation -- for the first time ever.

The film may sound Teutonically bleak, but Ms. Fadiman's sense of intimacy transcends it, turning horror into catharsis.

"Every film I've made has been [about a subject] that has touched my life," she said. "A feeling of great relief comes with it."

Ms. Fadiman decided that it was time to make the film when Roe vs. Wade seemed in danger of being overturned. And she had the rights of her 23- and 25-year-old daughters in mind.

"That's what's so terrific about this [nomination]," she said. "The film will be shown in so many theaters. It won't be treated as propaganda but as a serious film.

When Ms. Fadiman travels to Los Angeles to attend the Academy Awards ceremony on March 29, she will be thinking of the women she interviewed and how the film's nomination is a victory for them as well. Meanwhile, she'll try to get used to being a celebrity. And get a gown.

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