Call Jane stars Elizabeth Banks as a housewife driven to obtain an illegal abortion in 60s Chicago

Home Arts Call Jane stars Elizabeth Banks as a housewife driven to obtain an illegal abortion in 60s Chicago
Call Jane stars Elizabeth Banks as a housewife driven to obtain an illegal abortion in 60s Chicago

When Texas resident Norma McCorvey became pregnant for the third time, she wanted an abortion. At 21, she was already a mother of two, divorced, and nursing multiple addictions. She wasn’t able to get one – what she got instead was a crusade pegged to her name.

Or rather, her pseudonym. Designated Jane Roe, McCorvey’s case would culminate in the landmark 1973 Supreme Court ruling Roe v Wade, which enshrined abortion as a constitutional right in the United States.

In the several years the case took to reach its outcome, she did not attend a single trial.

McCorvey was hardly an ideal representative of the pro-choice movement. When she began to speak out publicly, she revealed herself to be an unreliable narrator of her own story and, eventually, something of a liability to the cause: An encounter with a born-again Christian minister in the mid-90s led to her changing allegiance in the abortion debate – becoming the most ironical of pro-life converts.

McCorvey’s 180 was spurred in part by a feeling that both her needs and her voice had been sidelined by the lawyers nominally representing her. She thought that the movement’s leaders really wanted “a demure … white glove lady” – a bill she didn’t fit.

Perhaps they would’ve preferred to have as their poster woman someone like Joy Griffin, the chipper upper-middle-class housewife at the centre of abortion drama Call Jane, played by Elizabeth Banks (Charlie’s Angels). Although informed by her doctor that her pregnancy poses a risk to her life, as a resident of Chicago in 1968, she’s unable to access even a “therapeutic termination”.

A blonde middle-aged woman is sitting in her 60s-style car. She's wearing large, dark sunglasses and looks determined.
Call Jane, staring Elizabeth Banks, is Nagy’s second movie, after the Emmy-nominated Mrs Harris, starring Annette Bening.(Supplied: Prime Video/Wilson Webb)

“Just fall down a staircase,” advises the secretary at a psychiatrist’s office, almost offhandedly, between answering phone calls. “It worked for me.” Joy is shocked.

She tentatively investigates alternative options: the phone number on a solicitous-seeming flyer — “PREGNANT? ANXIOUS! GET HELP! CALL JANE” — connects her with a band of women dedicated to facilitating safe back-alley abortions – as safe as an illegal medical operation can be, anyway.

The Janes, as they’re called, are closely modelled on a real collective that operated in Chicago from 1969 to 1973, when the Roe v Wade ruling made them effectively (happily) obsolete. Also the subject of a new documentary by Emma Pildes and Tia Lessin (currently available to stream on Binge), aptly titled The Janes, the group facilitated more than 11,000 abortions in its life span – a remarkable figure, testament to the desperation of women at the time as much as the efficiency of the operation.

A Black woman knocks at a door. She has her arm around a blindfolded middle-aged woman in a coat
“The majority of women who seek abortion health care are already mothers, so it was important that this person be a mom,” Banks told Vanity Fair.(Supplied: Prime Video)

Call Jane extends director Phyllis Nagy’s interest in stories of women operating clandestinely, pursuing desires that put them at odds with the strictures of the patriarchy: She wrote the screenplay for lush lesbian romance Carol, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 novel The Price of Salt, brought to the screen in 2015 by Todd Haynes.

While Nagy’s film lacks the heady affect, and sophistication, of Carol, it has a lamentable timeliness that makes it resonate: that both Call Jane and its non-fiction sister should land so close to the overturning of Roe v Wade – both premiered at Sundance in January, with The Janes landing on streamers in June, just two weeks before the Dobbs decision was handed down – means that their her-story lessons double as calls to action.

A nun sits smiling behind an older woman with dark hair, who sits with a slight smile, her arms resting on a pumpkin
In The Janes documentary, a former member of the collective says: “We were building a new world, one woman at a time.”(Supplied: Prime Video)

Under the guidance of their ringleader Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, spunky and staunch as ever), the Janes attempt to assist any woman on the other end of their telephone line, regardless of her particular motivations – so long as they can front up the hefty fee mandated by Dean, their in-house abortionist (Cory Michael Smith, Carol), who has a Brian Jones bowl cut and a brusque but explanatory bedside manner.

Banks’s Joy is initially sceptical of the Janes’ ideological approach – “I don’t agree with what you’re doing,” she tells Virginia primly after her procedure – but the seasoned agitator knows a potential convert when she sees one. Under a bit of strategically applied pressure, Joy starts dabbling in Jane-dom, collecting young women and driving them, blindfolded for security reasons, to wherever the group has managed to establish a makeshift clinic this week.

A blonde middle-aged woman and a Black woman sit on a set of outdoor steps. They both look concerned and upset.
Wunmi Mosaku (pictured, with Elizabeth Banks) plays a committed activist advocating for Black women in Call Jane.(Supplied: Prime Video/Wilson Webb)

Though she hides her new hobby from her lawyer husband (Chris Messina) and teen daughter (Grace Edwards), her radicalisation does not ultimately compromise her loving relationship with either of them.

With her white-picket-fence family life and a bouffant blonde do that gives her a somewhat bobble-headed look, Joy seems constructed to appeal to viewers who might feel alienated by the convictions of “activist dykes”, as Dean snidely calls the Janes.

Part of the film’s mission, Banks has said, is to “normalise” and “destigmatise” the idea of abortion – and so it’s fitting that her protagonist starts out as the kind of woman whose idea of activism is joining the PTA at her daughter’s school.

(Perhaps that mission is partially to blame for Call Jane’s often overstated dialogue. “You’ve got a knack for this,” Dean tells Joy after she begins to assist him with the actual procedures. “You coulda been a nurse.” There’s no need for her to reply – the sexism in his comment needs only a silent beat to hit home. But screenwriters Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi couldn’t resist underlining the point: “I could’ve been a doctor,” corrects Joy.)

A man in a lab coat hands a medical implement to a middle-aged blonde woman, in a makeshift operating theatre
Call Jane was screened at dozens of abortion clinics in the US, in partnership with Planned Parenthood and the Abortion Care Network.(Supplied: Prime Video)

Norma McCorvey, a lesbian but no social reformer (not one with a coherent, consistent position, at least), was an altogether thornier individual, her story less likely to persuade any abortion sceptics.

The movie that she would inspire – Alexander Payne’s Citizen Ruth, from 1996 – starred Laura Dern as an indigent paint-huffer whose pregnancy sees her involuntarily turned into a political pawn, and brilliantly skewered the exploitative tendencies on both sides of the debate.

In both its tone and its convictions, Call Jane is a long way off Citizen Ruth. That’s inseparable from the fact that, in 2022, access to abortion in the United States is suddenly a long way off what it was in the 90s.

Call Jane is streaming on Prime Video.

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