Fire in the Belly - The Culture Files Blog - Los Angeles magazine
 
 

Fire in the Belly

When a lead actress has a baby on board, Hollywood gets creative

Illustration by Sean Mccabe

Even as Kerry Washington entered her third trimester, the creators of Scandal needed the character she plays, political strategist Olivia Pope, to appear as her usual svelte, strategic, world-dominating self. So they gave the pregnant actress a humongous purse and an A-line overcoat and cut four episodes out of her shooting schedule.

On Homeland the war on terror wasn’t going to stop for Claire Danes’s impending maternity leave or for costar Morena Baccarin’s, either. For two seasons in a row, therefore, the producers hid the baby bumps of the actresses—who depict, respectively, a CIA agent and the wife of a rescued POW turned terrorism suspect—so well that even the U.S. Army’s Special Ops couldn’t find them.

And in the raunchy world of House of Lies, no one could afford to let Kristen Bell’s soon-to-be bundle of joy interrupt the R-rated high jinks. At seven months pregnant, Bell—who plays Jeannie Van Der Hooven, an up-and-coming management consultant—gamely did sex scenes with the help of some deft camera work and lighting. Her costar Adam Brody, out of deference to the unborn child, called the scenes “threesomes.”

Mad Men, Parks and Recreation, Bones, Girls—TV has been near to bursting with pregnant leads of late. It used to be that almost the only women who appeared pregnant on set were made to look that way. These days, as the clout of certain female stars has grown, producers have perfected all sorts of sophisticated tricks to keep actresses working, at times even using body doubles and computer graphics. Cinematographers frame shots to obscure a protruding abdomen, hiding it behind a counter. Costume designers use not just forgiving wardrobe choices but magician-like misdirection.

“It could be holding something in front of the belly: a package, books, a bag, a purse, flowers,” says Janie Bryant, the costume designer for Mad Men (and Deadwood before that), who knows just what to do when faced with a physique that bulges out where it is normally cinched in. Another bit of sleight of hand: “The more you’re showing the cleavage or the décolletage, the more you can hide what’s going on under it.”

It’s different in the movies. When cast in a big-screen project, a bankable A-list star is more likely to see a film’s entire shooting schedule rejiggered because of her pregnancy, since the movie’s financing depends at least in part on her.

Series TV, however, allows no such delay. Which is why Spot the Baby has been the parlor game of TV watchers for years. Fans used to try to spy Sarah Jessica Parker’s growing midsection under all her flouncy dresses in Sex and the City or to discern Ellen Pompeo’s bump beneath her Grey’s Anatomy surgical scrubs. These days the game is the same, but technology lets us play in new ways. Fans of Scandal frequently posted GIFs—those repeating snippets of video—that catalogued various sightings. But even the most hawkeyed fans couldn’t do that with Homeland, because in key scenes Danes was replaced from the neck down by a slim body double. On camera, whenever Danes walked across the frame, a crew member would yell “Belly pass!”—and a double would retrace Danes’s steps exactly. Then, as Danes has merrily admitted, special effects engineers would “literally cut and paste her torso onto mine.”

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It hasn’t always been this way. Not so long ago actresses who found themselves “with child” risked losing their jobs. In 1941, director Preston Sturges confronted Veronica Lake—better known for her figure than her acting chops—about rumors of a pregnancy before shooting his classic Sullivan’s Travels. Despite her stardom, Lake feared she would be fired if she told the truth, so she didn’t. When she showed up on set six months pregnant, Sturges was outraged, but it was too late to make a casting change. Legendary costume designer Edith Head hid the pregnancy beautifully, and a body double was brought in for some scenes. But costar Joel McCrea was so angry about Lake’s deception that he refused to work with her again (plus he said she couldn’t remember her lines). It gets worse. In 1942, Judy Garland—20 and pregnant—was encouraged by MGM executives to have an abortion rather than sacrifice her girlish image. The studio’s publicity chief accompanied her to the procedure.

The pressures on television actresses would soon prove just as bad. The first visibly pregnant actress on TV was the star of the 1948 sitcom Mary Kay and Johnny. The second was Lucille Ball, who had become so powerful that she could force the issue on her show, I Love Lucy. Far from provoking controversy, as the CBS network had feared, Ball’s pregnancy story line generated huge interest. The episode in which “Little Ricky” was born was watched by 44 million people. (The inauguration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which aired the next day, drew 29 million viewers.) But the word “pregnant”—deemed too vulgar—was never uttered on air. Lucy was said to be “expecting.”

In the years to come, Hollywood’s top female stars gradually began to enjoy more leeway. Barbara Eden swathed her pregnant body in mystical scarves on the late-’60s hit show I Dream of Jeannie, while Sally Field hid her girth under her habit in The Flying Nun. Not until 1978 did Congress amend the Civil Rights Act to include protections for pregnant women. But still, says attorney Gloria Allred, “many actors lived in fear that they would be blacklisted if they protested any kind of pregnancy discrimination.” In the final season of the girl-power sitcom Laverne & Shirley, Cindy Williams (who costarred with Penny Marshall) claimed her role in the show had been diminished because of her pregnancy. She filed suit against the producers in 1982 and settled out of court.

When pregnancies were accommodated, the workarounds became increasingly elaborate. In season three of The Cosby Show, which aired from 1984 to 1992, a pregnant Phylicia Rashad was often laid up in bed because of her character Clair Huxtable’s back pain. In fact, sheets were pulled over her stomach and a hole was cut into the mattress below, so that she could sink down and appear as slender as ever. (The Huxtables’ kitchen was also remodeled to make the counter higher and better conceal Rashad’s condition.)

As female stars became indispensable to their shows’ success, producers began to work around their actresses’ pregnancies rather than forfeit ratings. In 1992, Julia Louis-Dreyfus continued to play Elaine on Seinfeld throughout her pregnancy (the show hid it). In 2000, the character of Daphne on Frasier, played by Jane Leeves, was simply said to be putting on weight. (Leeves’s Daphne even went to a fat camp, where she was described, in a cringe-inducing punch line, as having lost “nine pounds, ten ounces.”) Meanwhile on Friends, which premiered in 1994, the pregnancy of Lisa Kudrow’s Phoebe was explained like this: She was serving as a surrogate for her brother on the show.

Even when a pregnancy couldn’t be made to mesh with a story line, some producers created excuses for their heroines to temporarily disappear from view. On The X-Files Gillian Anderson’s Scully was abducted, for example, and missed one episode. Then, as now, how a pregnant actress was treated depended on how much leverage she had.

In 1997, Allred brought what is believed to be Hollywood’s first pregnancy discrimination suit to trial, against Spelling Entertainment Group. The actress Hunter Tylo, cast on Spelling’s Melrose Place, had become pregnant before shooting began. “Although we wish you much joy in this event, your pregnancy will result in a material change in your appearance,” the producers wrote in a letter terminating her contract. “This character is by necessity not pregnant and your material change would not meet the requirements for the portrayal of the character.”

In court the judge chastened the defense for asking irrelevant, invasive personal questions. “When people start gaining weight,” Spelling said in a deposition, “we say, ‘Watch it, it’s changing your appearance’ and they stop.” His team alienated the jury by displaying charts of Tylo’s week-by-week weight gain “as if she were a prize cow,” says Allred.

“We demonstrated at the trial that there was a way to deal with a pregnancy without terminating the actors,” says Allred. She got an assist from Tylo’s costars Heather Locklear and Lisa Rinna, who had appeared on the show while pregnant. The jury awarded Tylo $4.9 million. That was likely the last case to make it to trial, though it’s possible there are actresses who have settled out of court since then. “It was a teaching moment for other producers,” says Allred. “Hollywood does not have any special license to discriminate.”

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No genre of television has been friendlier to pregnant actresses than daytime soap operas, where female stars (and audiences) rule. Soaps typically film around 250 episodes a season, so there’s no downtime for actresses to schedule maternity leave. Given that extreme contrivances aren’t exactly a problem in the overheated world of soaps, however, a pregnancy is just more grist for the outlandish-story mill. Each pregnancy has birthed a wacky plot twist. The problem, though, is that soaps don’t want all their characters to be parents. What to do after the baby is born?

The solution is one of entertainment’s most gruesome traditions: Many soap stars have acted out their characters’ miscarriages before their real-life due dates. Lynn Herring became pregnant twice while filming General Hospital; her character, Lucy, miscarried both times. “Lucy cried over a baby that I, as Lynn, hadn’t really lost,” she told a reporter, acknowledging how odd that was.

Lately, as audiences have become savvier about Hollywood artifice, television comedies have begun to play their pregnancies for ever more self-aware laughs. How I Met Your Mother had fun hiding a larger-than-usual Alyson Hannigan behind increasingly absurd props, from basketballs to guitars, before revealing her actual body onscreen (it was said to be the overstuffed result of a hot dog-eating contest). On 30 Rock Jane Krakowski didn’t just conceal her pregnancy in loose clothing; she mocked the whole costume conceit by donning a giant dog outfit.

In dramas, meanwhile, the pregnant body has at times enabled edgy storytelling. During the first season of the lesbian-themed series The L Word, in 2004, Bette and Tina (Jennifer Beals and Laurel Holloman) try to have a baby. Tina becomes pregnant via artificial insemination and then miscarries, which leads to their breakup. When Holloman actually became pregnant, the show’s writers saw it as an opportunity to confront a taboo. In the second season Tina surreptitiously inseminates herself again with the same sperm sample, then strikes up a hot affair with a new woman, Helena. “Helena, in classic pro-woman lesbian style, fetishizes Tina’s pregnant body,” says one of the show’s writers, Ariel Schrag, recalling “a crazy-hot sex scene in a pool where Helena splashes and licks water off of Tina’s bursting belly.” The episode was a sensation, but you can’t rely on groundbreaking pregnant sex every time. When Beals decided to have a child a few years later, Schrag says, the production team just posed her “standing behind conference tables” and used “a lot of long blazers.”

But camouflage will get you only so far. Consider the case of Busy Philipps, who planned for her first baby to be born during the 2007-2008 writers’ strike to minimize the impact on her career. Three months after her daughter, Birdie, arrived, she tried out for a show and was rejected because of her weight. “I remember getting the call so clearly—in my daughter’s nursery,” she says. “I was a producer and writer’s first choice for a TV series. It was picked up, and the network said, ‘No. She’s too big. We appreciate that she just had a child, but it just won’t work.’ ” Philipps was heartbroken, even as she took note: If an actress is going to procreate, she’d better have an ironclad contract in hand. “I was mad at myself, mad at my body—when my body had just done this incredible thing,” she says. But Philipps got lucky. She enjoyed being a stay-at-home mom for a year and then landed a better gig. “That other show isn’t on the air anymore,” she says, “but I got Cougar Town.”

On Cougar Town Philipps planned her second pregnancy so that her later months would coincide with the show’s hiatus. It made things easier that she had an ally in the producer Courteney Cox, who had hidden her own pregnancy on Friends and knew the stress that could cause. Philipps shot her first love scene with Dan Byrd while 14 weeks pregnant. Nobody seemed to notice.

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