As pure pulp melodrama, A Mother’s Right: The Elizabeth Morgan Story is brutally effective. Bonnie Bedelia (Presumed Innocent) stars as Dr. Elizabeth Morgan, the Washington, D.C., plastic surgeon who spent more than two years in jail rather than disclose the whereabouts of her young daughter, Hilary, whom she insists had been molested by her former husband, Dr. Eric Foretich. Based on a real-life case that has received massive media coverage, A Mother’s Right is a made-for-TV movie that’s made for martyrdom. This production is an all-stops-out effort to make Morgan seem like the noblest parent imaginable, while Foretich is portrayed as a seething, shifty-eyed, unstoppable evil force.
A Mother’s Right is a model of TV storytelling. It doesn’t waste time setting up the case or dramatizing what led up to Morgan’s plight. Instead, the movie goes for our guts by beginning with a scene in which Foretich, embodied by Terence Knox (Tour of Duty, St. Elsewhere), comes to Morgan’s home to take 4-year-old Hilary (played by Caroline Dollar) for a court-approved stay at his house in 1986. The little girl begins squirming in fright as her father approaches her, squealing, ”Daddy, please! Leave me alone — you know why!” Foretich and Morgan’s father (played by Rip Torn) exchange harsh words, and we’re shown that Morgan and her parents are videotaping this scene in an attempt to have his visitation rights denied.
This wrenching opening scene plunges us into the story, telling us nearly everything we need to know about the high emotions and dubious behavior of the people involved. Soon after, we see Judge Herbert Dixon (Al Wiggins) at a court hearing, reaffirming Foretich’s rights and commenting that the Morgans’ videotapes are ”an unfortunate combination of reality and theatrics.” Bedelia as Morgan will later complain, ”What happens to me depends solely on the whim of a judge who hates me; it’s not fair.” Indeed, in the script, by Lucretia Baxter and Alan Landsburg, this perpetually glaring, growling Judge Dixon is made to seem almost as malevolent as Foretich.
Bedelia, with her sad eyes in the middle of a heart-shaped face, is expert at conveying a mother’s pain. The movie alternates depictions of tender affection between Morgan and Hilary with Morgan’s jolting confrontations with the legal system. In an intricate plan detailed here, Morgan and her parents finally spirited Hilary off to New Zealand, where the girl and her now-freed mom live today.
Indeed, if A Mother’s Right were fiction, I’d have no trouble saying it’s one of the better TV movies of the year; strongly acted and written as a passionate manifesto against child abuse, it’s the sort of television that steamrolls over sophistication to achieve rare emotional power.
But because it bends the details of real people’s lives, there’s a level on which so biased a piece of entertainment is also despicable. Director and co-executive producer Linda Otto has made a career of taking real-life cases of children in jeopardy and turning them into rabble-rousing TV movies; her previous projects include Adam (1983) and Unspeakable Acts (1990). Otto has said that she has devoted her life to child advocacy, and no one can question her sincerity. What can be questioned, however, is Otto’s — and by extension, ABC’s — sense of propriety.
A recent Washington Post article about the movie quoted her as saying, ”I feel my films are no more fiction than watching the evening news,” but she certainly doesn’t strive for any sort of journalistic objectivity. Otto never bothered to talk to Foretich, an oral surgeon now living in Virginia, while making A Mother’s Right, and she virtually ignores his side of the story. She cast Knox as Foretich claiming to have ”completely forgotten” that the actor’s best-known role was as a serial rapist on St. Elsewhere. Otto has Knox play Foretich with his eyes sprung open in constant, maniacal alarm; his voice is always high and strained, and he yells whenever anyone disagrees with his behavior.
All fact-based TV movies traffic in inauthentic dialogue and chronologic alterations — they have to, in order to fit the demands of dramatic structure and the time segments of commercial television. I have no idea whether Foretich molested Hilary or not — neither does Otto — but I’d have more respect for the director if she presented her movie for what it is: a shrewd, even cynical piece of propaganda designed to vindicate Elizabeth Morgan, rather than the undisputed truth. The scene in which Hilary tries to chop up her favorite doll with a toy sword while babbling about how her father said he would ”poke” her may make you feel like a voyeur, but there’s no denying its effectiveness in communicating the agony of such abuse.
Although, for legal reasons, there’s a printed statement at the end of the movie noting that ”no court has ever ruled that (Foretich) sexually abused (Hilary),” this fact arrives too late for A Mother’s Right to have any claim to fairness. I know, I know: Life — and art — aren’t fair. Still, I’d feel better giving this well-crafted B movie its due if A Mother’s Right didn’t stink of self-righteousness. B