'My Breast' faces cancer with irreverence

May 14, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Washington -- She was the Bridget who loved Bernie in th early 1970s, the baby-boomer big sister named Nancy in "Family" during the late '70s, and then Alex P. Keaton's mom, Elyse, on "Family Ties" throughout the '80s.

She's only 46 -- a lightly tanned, blond and terrific-looking 46 -- but Meredith Baxter has already had one of the longest and most successful runs of any actor in the history of television. And, tomorrow night, she adds another distinguished performance to her resume -- as journalist Joyce Wadler in "My Breast," a made-for-TV movie airing at 9 on CBS.

"My Breast" is about breast cancer, specifically, the cancer Wadler fought and wrote about in her best seller of the same name. The book conveys a story that is brave, funny, informative and, ultimately, life-affirming.

Wadler was 40ish, single and involved in a troubled relationship when she discovered she had cancer. Her life got worse before it got better. But it did get better, in part because she fought so TC hard to make it so. "My Breast" is about that battle.

Baxter says she decided to co-produce and star in the film because she likes "to do things that kind of scare me and that the networks are afraid to put on." She saw this project as a challenge and an opportunity.

But Baxter is worried that some viewers might be scared off from watching because of the subject matter. This is one of the reasons why she was in a suite at the Loew's L'Enfant Plaza hotel in Washington on a dark and rainy day last week doing interviews to promote the film.

"I think that if you say, 'OK, now here's a movie that deals with breast cancer,' some people are going to say, 'Oh, God, no -- the weeping, the sobbing.'

"Not that that isn't a part of the trauma of breast cancer. But that's not the movie I was interested in making," Baxter says.

"In fact, I wouldn't even call it a movie about breast cancer," she adds. "No, it's a movie about a period in this woman's life. And she has this relationship with this guy that she keeps thinking is going to get better, and it doesn't. And she also gets cancer, which she also thinks is going to get better, and actually eventually it does. . . . So it's also a relationship movie."

Wadler's relationship with a sportswriter, Nick Di Stefano (Jamey Sheridan), is near the center of "My Breast." He brings romance to her life and excites her.

Unfortunately, he's also unreliable, immature and self-centered. Ten minutes into the film you have a pretty good hunch he's not going to be there when she really needs him. But it seems as though she's never going to be able to dump him, either. It all comes together in a great speech from Wadler about "not settling for scraps" in life.

"I don't like to play victims," says Baxter. "And I've played my share of them. But I'm not interested in doing that any more. I think there's so much to explore in the human psyche besides being a victim that it just doesn't have any allure for me."

Baxter says among the things that impressed her about Wadler's book "was that her voice is so distinct. There's &L irreverence, humor.

"She says, 'Whoa, what's going on with me? I don't like this. I'm not going to just lie down and take it. I'm going to get involved and fight.' That's very attractive, and I think viewers will get drawn in by that voice in the film."

Baxter hears herself selling the film, and jokingly says, "And, there's always our sensational hook. The film has an adult advisory."

One of the reasons for the advisory is that Baxter's breast is shown in one scene -- during an examination by a doctor, and completely separated from any sexual context.

That's an important point, because one of the most impressive things about "My Breast" involves its politics, especially in terms of the female anatomy.

The film lets women define the context for discussing the breast, as opposed to its being presented in the sexually charged context traditionally used by male producers and directors. From Baxter and co-producer Diana Kerew to screenwriter Wadler and director Betty Thomas (of "Hill Street Blues" fame), the key players are all women.

"I think it's important that Diane Kerew was the producer, because of her sensibility. And I don't think anyone could have given us the screenplay that Joyce Wadler did.

"Betty Thomas was our first choice as director. I can't tell you she was chosen because she was a woman. She was chosen because she had the same kind of irreverence and energy [as Wadler]. She had a great sense of style and pace. That's not to say a guy couldn't have done it, but these were the first choices and they were women," Baxter says.

Baxter says she's chosen to stay with made-for-TV movies for a while -- both producing and starring in them. She has no plans to return to a weekly series

"I've been very lucky," she says. "I've had some terrific films that have stood out because of the content -- films like this one. But what it's done is spoiled me in a sense, because I don't want to do some of the pap that's out there . . . You never know, but I hope the scripts keep coming."

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