Copyright (c) 1996, Roanoke Times

DATE: Saturday, September 21, 1996           TAG: 9609240014
SOURCE: Knight-Ridder Newspapers


Eighteen years ago, ABC pushed the envelope of public acceptance with a made-for-TV movie called ``A Question of Love,'' in which Gena Rowlands played a mother fighting for custody of her young son while living in a lesbian relationship.

Sunday night the same network revisits the same issue with ``Two Mothers for Zachary,'' (airing at 9 on WSET-Channel 13) in which Valerie Bertinelli is the gay mother battling to keep her infant son while living openly with her lover (Colleen Flynn).

Comparing the two tells us much about the way lesbians are perceived in this country today - or at least about the way a network thinks they are.

In 1978, when lesbians were a rare topic for TV drama, ``A Question of Love'' was considered a bold film. But it stopped short of siding with the lesbian mom, even though the film clearly wanted us to see that she was a good mother, living in a caring relationship with her lover (Jane Alexander) that in all other ways resembled a conventional marriage.

In fact, the 1978 film gave plenty of weight to the opposing point of view, especially in courtroom scenes where the lesbian mom's ex-husband (Clu Gulager) and his militant lawyer (Ned Beatty) brought out convincing evidence that a boy raised in such a home might suffer serious psychological damage trying to cope with community reaction to his mother's behavior.

In sharp contrast, ``Two Mothers for Zachary'' is decisively on the side of divorced mom Jody Ann Shaffell (Bertinelli) as she fights to prove her fitness in a state where the law considers a lesbian relationship evidence of unfitness for maternal custody. (The movie is based on the Virginia custody battle between Sharon Bottoms and her mother, Kay Bottoms.)

In this film, the villain isn't the ex-husband but the child's disapproving grandmother (Vanessa Redgrave), who obtains a court order, takes little Zachary away from Jody and hires a powerful trial lawyer (James Gammon) to keep him.

``Two Mothers for Zachary'' characterizes Jody as a woman for whom recognizing her sexuality is the key to maturity. She becomes a more devoted mother and a more stable person once she settles into the relationship with co-worker Maggie (Flynn). When her mother challenges her, it unleashes her strength of character.

The film assumes public approval of stories that take sides with gay characters fighting for their civil rights. ABC no doubt has observed the generally positive reaction to other recent films with similar themes, including the much-honored 1995 NBC film ``Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story,'' which advocated acceptance of gays and lesbians in the military.

In ``Two Mothers for Zachary,'' the women even appear to have a satisfying physical relationship, an area the 1978 film scrupulously avoided. Bertinelli and Flynn are openly affectionate; Rowlands and Alexander barely touched in ``A Question of Love.''

(In fact, screenwriter William Blinn included a scene in that film kidding his inability to show the women being physical. After a brutal ordeal in the courtroom, Alexander verbally comforts Rowlands in the women's restroom as journalists crowd the hallway outside.

(``Let's go give that herd of photographers what they've been waiting for,'' says Alexander, ``a picture of two lesbians coming out of the ladies' room together!'')

Sunday's film is discreet. The two attractive female stars aren't shown in bed together and there's no discussion of their sex practices. Their physical need for each other is obvious, but it's handled tastefully.

ABC's first film about a lesbian mother was a milestone because it got us emotionally involved with a woman whose sexual orientation might have been alien to a majority of us, but whose maternal instincts seemed completely mainstream. By making us find common emotional ground, ``A Question of Love'' took a giant step toward promoting better understanding of alternative lifestyles.

``Two Mothers for Zachary'' takes a much more aggressive posture - criticizing laws that penalize gays and condemning those who would brand a woman unfit for motherhood simply because she's lesbian.

Like the 1978 film, it makes us see a controversial issue through someone else's eyes.

LENGTH: Medium:   82 lines
ILLUSTRATION: PHOTO:  Valerie Bertinelli has the lead role in ``Two Mothers 

for Zachary,'' airing Sunday night at 9 on WSET-Channel 13. Adam

Rehman co-stars.

by CNB