Friday, February 3, 2012

Of the Pill, Pregnancy, and One Perfect Baby

Unexpected pregnancies pop up in scores of movies. But though the Pill, which revolutionized women’s sexual behavior, has been marketed to American women since 1960, the moral implications (and complications) of this reliable method of birth control only rarely appear on screen. It fell to the British, at a time when Swinging London was still considered the height of hip, to try wresting social comedy from the easy availability of oral contraceptives. Prudence and the Pill, released in 1968, plunked such dignified English actors as David Niven and Deborah Kerr into a tale in which mother’s pills are stolen by daughter, who puts fakes in their place. There’s also a longtime mistress who sabotages her lover’s wife’s pill-stash, which is then borrowed by the housemaid. And so on.

This connubial roundelay, ending in multiple pregnancies, was meant to be fresh and funny, but Hollywood wasn’t amused. Upon the film’s release, its producer announced that when he’d sent the script to the MPAA for its approval, “they were horrified by the whole idea and said the picture shouldn’t be made. Then I sent the script to the British censor. He said the story was charming, delightful entertainment.” Ironically the British censor board had been quick to ban American films like The Wild One and The Trip (which remained outlawed until 2002), fearing these would help undermine civil authority. But I’m told the British view intimate relations as a personal matter, quite acceptable if not carried out in public. They tend to enjoy rowdy sex farces on stage and screen, so Prudence and the Pill -— with its marital hijinks and prim avoidance of actual passion -- promised to be their cup of tea.

The U.S., needless to say, has deep Puritan roots. (England overcame its flirtation with strait-laced Puritan types in the seventeenth century.) And the MPAA historically has worked hand in glove with the Catholic Church to promote traditional moral standards. Always more tolerant of screen violence than sexual matters, the MPAA in the Sixties was queasy about the light-hearted treatment of a contraceptive method good Catholics shunned. But though the British producer was banking on Prudence and the Pill winning notoriety in the U.S. by being denied a code seal, a recently revamped MPAA chose not to kick up a fuss, and the sloppily-made film sank without a trace.

In American movies of the Sixties, even those like The Graduate that dealt frankly with sex, the Pill was generally not discussed. In fact, even today the subject remains largely hush-hush, with viewers assuming that female characters with active sex lives are quietly taking care of their contraceptive needs off-camera. This suggests the degree to which moviemaking remains a male enterprise, reinforcing the happy fantasy of sex without consequences. Occasionally, though, the demands of a plot dictate otherwise. Judd Apatow’s 2007 comedy, Knocked Up, is explicit about a birth-control lapse that triggers an hilarious and ultimately heartwarming series of (blessed) events. Knocked Up’s view of life is a rosy one, much like that of Prudence and the Pill, in which relationships are vastly improved by surprise pregnancies. But at a time when most movies buy into the notion of casual sex with no strings attached, the fact that Knocked Up contains traces of an old-fashioned cautionary tale is a development that women like me can certainly appreciate.

This post is my left-handed tribute to Adrian Zev Grayver, born January 24, 2012. Adrian’s conception was by no means unplanned, and his arrival has caused great joy (as well as many sleepless nights). All hail to the fresh prince of Manhattan Beach!


  1. Awwww, hello to Adrian! Not only does he look like a corking cool fellow - he also prompted another fun look at 60's cinema with one of my favorite students of same - thanks, AZG!

  2. Thank you, sir. Adrian has grown a whole lot since this photo was taken. He smiles, rolls over, and does all sort of good things (and a few bad ones).