The Joanne Vannicola Website

Review : What Makes a Family

Electronic Gay Community MagazineEGCM

Waiting outside of a Florida courthouse, Janine Nielssen (Brooke Shields), an attractive but exhausted looking young woman clutching a pile of papers to her chest, hesitantly approaches high-powered civil rights attorney Terry Harrison (Whoopi Goldberg). She pleads with Harrison to take her appeals case and the lawyer, struck by Janineís vehemence, acquiesces to a meeting. As Harrison coldly questions Janine about her life, the narrative fades to the past, to a day years earlier when a younger, still shy and insecure Janine is shopping in a grocery store and first meets lovely, rambunctious Sandy Cataldi (Cherry Jones). They go for a walk on the beach, where Janine describes growing up in a household in which her parents tried to hide and suppress any signs of her sexuality, and how "it" is still not a part of her life. Sandy explains that she told her parents she was gay while she was in high school and mischievously invites Janine out for a date. Inside the Sunnyview Church, there is the pleasant buzz of a crowd enjoying themselves, and Janine realizes she is at her first gay dance. She meets the instantly likeable Reverend Greg Wasney (George Buza) and wins the approval of warm and funny Nora (Melanie Nicholls-King), Sandyís best friend. Feeling accepted for who she is and more comfortable with herself than she ever has before, Janine falls in love.

Romance leads to an ebullient commitment ceremony, even though the state of Florida does not legally recognize same sex marriage. Sandy and Janine, both dressed in white, exchange wedding vows and celebrate their union with friends. Among the guests are Sandyís parents, Evelyn (Anne Meara) and Frank (Al Waxman) Cataldi, who warmly hug and congratulate the new couple. The women take up their life together in their own house, Janine continuing her work as a nurse and Sandy busy with her security guard dog training business. One day as she is waiting to pick up Janine from the hospital, Sandy helps out a woman coping with her new infant. A sudden light sparkles in Sandyís eyes. Later at home she stuns Janine by suggesting they have a baby. Janine is adamantly opposed. She questions whether they have the right to impose their unconventional life on a child. Sandy responds that love has bound them together forever and that she is proud of who they are. She wonders what is wrong with offering a child goodness and decency. Though Janine still has misgivings, she realizes how much happiness a child would bring to both of them.

At the retirement community where the senior Cataldis live, Janine and Sandy break the news to Frank and Evelyn over Thanksgiving dinner that Sandy is pregnant by artificial insemination. Evelyn, at first startled, whoops with joy at the prospect of a baby. In stark contrast, Janine afterwards sits stiffly in her familyís formal living room on a rare visit with her parents, Claire (Roberta Maxwell) and Michael (Richard Fitzpatrick), and younger sister, Melissa (Joanne Vannicola). Her formal, reserved parents harshly rebuff her appeal for understanding as she tells them about Sandyís baby. Afterwards, Sandy consoles a heartbroken Janine over the Nielssenís rejection. Janine is frightened and uncertain that she can protect a child, but Sandy soothes her. She reminds Janine of her strength and honesty, and of how they will always be together.

Sandy gives birth to a healthy little girl whom they christen Heather at the Sunnyview Church. During the ceremony, Sandy suddenly staggers and almost falls, but everyone assumes it is exhaustion from childbirth and caring for a newborn. She and Janine go see their close friend Peter (Stewart Arnott), a physician who works at the hospital with Janine. He gently explains that blood tests have revealed that Sandy has systemic lupus, an autoimmune disorder which is treatable although the drugs can have bad side effects. Sandy expresses relief that lupus is not necessarily fatal but Janine keeps silent, knowing the chances are not good. One year has passed, and Janine and Sandy are holding a birthday party for little Heather in the backyard. Even though the hot sun can make her sick because of the lupus, Sandy has a wonderful time playing with and videotaping her daughter. But the illness and the drugs take their toll. Her weight balloons and she becomes chronically weak and exhausted. Janine insists Sandy stop working and pulls extra shifts at the hospital to support them, while friends like Nora help out as much as possible. Five years later, Sandyís condition has steadily deteriorated. She knows she is dying, but Janine refuses to talk about the possibility, insisting Sandy can only get well if they keep on fighting. Convulsed by a grand mal seizure, Sandy is taken to the hospital and dies, leaving an inconsolable Janine.

Janineís unswerving resistance to make contingency plans in case Sandy died has unforeseen and even more devastating consequences. She is too grief-stricken to pay attention to the first warning signs of trouble ahead. The Cataldi familyís newspaper obituary notice makes no mention at all of Janine. At the funeral service, there is no space reserved for her in the front pew with the family members. Janine, overcome by sorrow, is listless and depressed. Finally, Peter reminds her that since Sandy did not leave a will Janine needs to establish her legal guardianship of Heather. She calls on a lawyer, Martin Crane (Philip Williams), to draw up the papers, and then discovers the unthinkable-that Evelyn and Frank Cataldi have already applied for custody of their granddaughter. Worse, under Florida State law, blood relatives have more of a claim on Heather than Janine does. Angry and disbelieving, Janine confronts the Cataldis. Itís plain Evelyn wants Heather because she is all they have left of Sandy. But Frank Cataldi reveals a corrosive hatred and fear of gays and blames Janine for "messing up" Sandy. As if it were not painful enough to have the people she loved and trusted turn on her, Janineís attempts to assert her custody rights in court are dismissed outright by a judge, who restricts her to the barest minimum visitation rights and one phone call per week. Janine surrenders a crying, screaming Heather, who wants desperately to stay with her, to the Cataldis and has a nervous breakdown.

For weeks, a silent, remote Janine lies at a psychiatric hospital while a bewildered Heather waits in vain to hear from her. The Cataldis have abandoned their original promise to the court to buy a house in which to raise Heather, and instead she spends her days isolated from other children. At last, Noraís stinging accusation that Janine does not deserve to have Heather penetrates Janineís catatonic state. She does have a reason to live after all. Slowly she recovers, and Terry Harrison agrees to help her fight to get Heather back. Janine beseeches her parents for their support by testifying in court, but if anything they are more unrelentingly hostile. The stage is set for a courtroom battle before one of the most conservative judges in the state. At the custody hearing, Janine has a revelation that strengthens her resolve. She knows now she is not only Heatherís parent but also her mother, and that is a bond she will do anything to save. At stake is the idea of family. Can only people related by blood ties call themselves a family? Or, can steadfast love and devotion make for just as enduring a family that, in the eyes of the law, has the same legal rights?

"We canít go by Ozzie and Harriet anymore," stated Maggie Greenwald, director of the LIFETIME Movie "What Makes a Family." A profoundly moving and heartfelt drama based on the true story of a gay womanís passionate fight to regain custody of her child from her dead partnerís parents.

"What makes a family in this country today is completely different from what it was 25 years ago," Greenwald continued, noting that she herself is the adoptive mother of a little girl born in China. "There are more single-parent families than ever before. There are surrogate mothers and families created from remarriage. The variations of parent and child have become infinite. Thatís why the story of this case is even more relevant now to us and our society, because the landscape of what we call a family has changed so much."

The essential point, Greenwald emphasized, is that "to have people denied the right to parent their child, regardless of how the child came into their lives, because of arbitrary legal exclusions based on sexuality is at best archaic."

"I donít believe blood makes a family" Brooke Shields asserted firmly. "And I would never narrow it down to a mother and a father as the only definition of a family. Janine and Sandy share an honest, loving, supportive relationship and they are devoted to their child. They know they will not have an easy time because they are a same sex couple, and anything that is not conventional has to overcome scrutiny and suspicion. But if they can stick together they can survive in the face of rejection and adversity and judgement."

"The most important words to me are unconditional love," Cherry Jones added. "I am gay, and I have to admit I was uncertain about gay people having children for years because I was brought up to believe that you need a mother and a father if you want everything to be right when you have a child. And now, as an adult, I realize that what you have to have most of all is a deep, deep desire to want to be a parent and the ability to give a child unconditional love."

Jones was awestruck by Janine and Sandyís decision to raise a child at a time when it was a rare and isolated occurrence. "The bond that these two women had must have been extraordinary. They were unbelievably brave to have had a child as a gay couple in 1979 because it took great courage to do it then."

Shields also observed that part of Janineís struggle was to make a fundamental change in how she perceived her own relationship to Heather. "She loved this little girl as a parent, but she needed to own up to the fact that she was Heatherís mother as well and that she deserved the right to fight for her child and not let the system or her own anger deter her." The turning point, in Shieldsí view, comes as a reaction to a remark from Evelyn Cataldi (Meara). "It became what I thought was unfair to the child when Evelyn says, ĎSheís all weíve got.í Itís as if Heather was going to have to spend the rest of her life taking the blame and making it up to them for the homosexuality and the lupus." It also leaves Janine as an outcast and as non-family. Added Greenwald, "Janine at the beginning of her journey feels ashamed and questions her entitlement because sheís a lesbian. She had to grow and learn to accept herself, and then to realize that Heather is, in every sense of the word, her daughter."

Itís also true that in the world today most people do not take the prospect of raising a child for granted. "Most of the married couples I know who have kids resisted the idea at first," Executive Producer Craig Zadan said in relation to Janineís reluctance to see herself as a parent. "When they considered the notion of a child in the abstract, they saw problems. But once they were raising and caring for a child, they fell in love. It changed their lives. With this movie, we see what happens with the people on a personal level. We care about them and put the politics aside. Itís not an abstraction anymore." Anne Meara considered the story of Janine and Sandy in a broader context. "Janine is not accepted as the surviving spouse, whereas if she had been the husband, she would have been accepted," she commented. "Even if the child were not the husbandís, or if she had been adopted or was from a previous liaison, there would have been no question that he had the right to raise the child. Why should Janine and Sandy be put under the microscope when we donít have heterosexual couples who are parents under the microscope? Janine and Sandy are a family because they care about and love their child and they love each other." Meara underscored the meaning of family from a childís point of view. "Children all need to have people who love and support them. This movie shows that the traditional mom-and-dad idea is not the perfect or the only ideal of a family. Not everybody has to have the same lifestyle or orientation." Jones reiterated the basic inequality of gays and lesbians just in terms of their civil rights. "We donít have religious rights, we donít have anything that in societyís eyes bonds us together legally. This film dramatizes how important it is for gay people to write their wills and protect their families. I hope the movie will encourage greater tolerance of a sensitive issue and bring a sense of possibility to those gay people who are still living closeted, difficult lives." The actress carefully chose her words as she described what the movie seeks to accomplish. "What makes a family is people who are there for each other, no matter what, through thick and thin. They may not like each other very much sometimes, but they always know the love is deep and the love is there. Thatís the real answer to the question."

For more information contact: Liza Rindge-Peterson; 310-556-7541 voice; email.

Except where noted, the entire contents of The Electronic Gay Community Magazine are Copyright 2001 by The Land of Awes Information Services at but may be reproduced by any means without permission from the publishers provided that this copyright notice remains with each article.


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