In my house as a child, there were three VHS tapes in heavy rotation. All three were actually compilations of movies my grandmother thought we’d enjoy, taped off of HBO or if we were lucky, the Disney Channel, and sent to my sister and myself usually with a box of cookies packed carefully in buttered popcorn and stuffed in an empty cereal box. For some reason that I will never fully understand, one of these tapes was Baby Boom, a 1987 romantic comedy cum workplace comedy cum empowerment manifesto that belongs in my all-time top 5: a classic, sandwiched in between 10 Things I Hate About You and Mulan.
In Baby Boom, Diane Keaton plays J.C. Wiatt, a powerful business executive, dressed to conquer the corporate world and break that glass ceiling once and for all. Dressed in sharp-shouldered, wasp-waisted suits, and toting a sharp-edged briefcase, she’s a paragon of late ’80s Yuppie success: her partner, Steven (Harold Ramis) is a watered down Patrick Bateman, and they have a beautiful if not extremely dated apartment from which they both stare at sheafs of paper in manila folders while wearing round tortoiseshell glasses.
J.C.’s life changes dramatically when, via the magic of cinema, she inherits a baby named Elizabeth who belonged to distant cousins in England that have since passed on. After a halfhearted attempt to put Elizabeth up for adoption and a full-throttle attempt at having it all, J.C. is pushed out of the partner track at her management firm; her spot is given to her assistant, and she finally gives it all up, buying a farmhouse in Vermont. What follows is a tightly-edited romantic comedy, featuring Sam Shepherd, baby applesauce, and a gentle ribbing of the trend of assholes from New York City going to the country for a weekend and relishing in all things quaint. In short, it is a perfect film.
Directed by Charles Shyer and written with his then wife, America’s foremost chronicler of upper-class white people problems, Nancy Meyer, it is a startlingly prescient look at the anxieties of motherhood. It is a movie I feel every person should watch at least once in their life. My coworker Hazel Cills had never seen this movie. Eager to convert another neophyte to the glory of this film, she watched it and then we had a nice chat.
HAZEL: Despite being a Diane Keaton x Nancy Meyers collab fangirl, I had never seen Baby Boom for some reason. I only knew that it starred Keaton as an ’80s power-boss who inherits a baby and somehow apple trees were involved. Admittedly, I was kind of expecting this to be some sexist, retrograde tale about how “ACTUALLY WORK ISN’T ENOUGH FOR WOMEN TO BE HAPPY, THEY WILL ALWAYS LONG FOR BABIES!” So I went in with my guard up. But it’s actually a movie about how nearly impossible it is to be a working mother and get taken seriously in the corporate world??? J.C. does everything you’re “supposed” to do: she hires a nanny, she’s mingling with all the right annoying men, and keeping her personal life as discreet as possible (since god forbid anyone realizes she has a life/family outside of the office.) And still it’s not enough for her boss, who promotes the junior and predictably smug James Spader over her! The minute anyone realizes she has a baby it’s like, whoops, guess you can’t do your job anymore.
Admittedly, I was kind of expecting this to be some sexist, retrograde tale about how “ACTUALLY WORK ISN’T ENOUGH FOR WOMEN TO BE HAPPY, THEY WILL ALWAYS LONG FOR BABIES!”
MEGAN: As noted, Baby Boom is one of my favorite movies of all time. Rewatching said movie has made me realize how much of the messages I’ve internalized and carried with me through to my adult years. Who doesn’t want a beautiful farmhouse decorated in Laura Ashley’s castoffs? Who wouldn’t want to inherit an apple-cheeked baby who will eventually serve as the face of a wildly successful artisanal baby applesauce brand? These are aspirational, linen-draped mommy blog aspirations before that kind of lifestyle was glamorized, and for that, Baby Boom is revolutionary. But your point about how… advanced the movie’s message is feels important.
What struck me most about my zillionth rewatch is how everything J.C. does is representative of the anxieties of new motherhood—and how also depressing it is to realize that this conversation is one that we are still having today. I couldn’t help but think of the 2011 Sarah Jessica Parker vehicle, I Don’t Know How She Does It, a movie that touches on similar themes. Perhaps this movie was the groundwork for that film, or maybe it’s just that these issues are as old as the redwoods, and we will be dealing with them forevermore, until empowerment feminism, Lean In, and the unrealistic and unhealthy notion of “having it all” are banished forever from the cultural lexicon.
HAZEL: Gosh, now I have to watch that Sarah Jessica Parker movie, too! I definitely feel you on the idea that these issues are as old as time, which is such a bummer. I also think what’s so great about Baby Boom is that it really hits a home run on this domestic farmland fantasy that I think so many uptight New Yorkers possess deep down inside (ah, yes, I’ll just move upstate and renovate an old barn and never look at Twitter again!) but also is sure to portray how ridiculous this fantasy is in reality. I love, love, love when Keaton is screaming in the snow next to her dried-up well (not the subtlest of metaphors but I’ll take it) about how she JUST wants the faucets to turn on with water and she DOESN’T want to know where it’s coming from!
Nobody acts out anxiety and exasperation like Diane Keaton. All I want to do is watch movies where Keaton is freaking out on multiple levels, tugging at her turtlenecks (always turtlenecks) or trying to get a word in edgewise in a loud conversation. She is the master of a nervous laugh. Also, can we talk about the incredibly cute Elizabeth? What INCREDIBLE baby acting, which I just realized was portrayed by twins:
That explains the masterful craft. I was also dying when J.C. made her pasta with some perfectly shaved parm on top for dinner. Classic baby food!
MEGAN: I would love to start a campaign for the Academy to award the Kennedy twins the Achievement in Small Baby Face Acting Oscar they certainly deserve. They are excellent actors. But really, Keaton shines! I loved capable, confident, business woman Keaton in the first half of this movie, because you’re right—she plays exasperation so well. But what also struck me is that you never really get to see Diane Keaton play competent.
Sure, she has a meltdown in Vermont when her really nice house breaks down, but please do NOT forget that for the first half of the movie, she is wheeling and dealing and clinging to her sanity while trying to do right by a cute baby, and you know what—she kind of handles it. When is the last movie we saw Diane Keaton being anything other than a lovable basket case? Justice for young Diane Keaton, I say.
Something that struck me about this movie is how ambitious it was. The first half is essentially a workplace comedy and then the second, a very satisfying romcom. Would it have worked better for you if it had stuck to one or the other?
HAZEL: Honestly, I really love the balance of the two. I admit that once it got into applesauce production time and the plot sped up, I was like whoa whoa whoa slow down, even though the point is to show how quick her success is. I would have liked just a little more time with her getting to know hot town vet Sam Shepard (RIP!), but we all know the REAL romance of this movie is Elizabeth and apple sauce, and we get plenty of that, so I’m fine.
Now let’s talk about that ending. What was it, a $350,000 salary, a free apartment… Wait, let me pull up the script. Here’s the deal:
“Naturally, we’d like to retain your services as Chief Operating Officer, with a base salary of $350,000 a year, with a bonus tied into the company’s earnings of up to 150% of your salary. Which means, young lady, that if Country Baby performs as expected you’re looking at close to $1 million a year in salary alone…Paragraph four: The Food Chain will purchase an apartment for you of your choice. Naturally, there are various perks: a six-week vacation, golden parachute clause, pension plan and, of course, use of the company jet.”
Damn, girl. Yes, it is undeniably badass to turn all of that down, even if there’s a small part of me that thinks J.C. should have taken it because I still see all that and think of the “old” her who desired this. Maybe the real “having it all” is possessing the privilege of getting to reject it all at any moment just to humiliate a boardroom of men?!
MEGAN: I mean… it’s a great deal… but is it that good? According to this site, which is surely a reputable source, $350,000 in 1987 is roughly $780,845.25 today. The bonus is pretty good. The apartment is pretty good. The golden parachute, the pension, the (LOL) company jet, also good. Had she taken that offer, she would’ve resold part of her soul back to the assholes that drove her out AND she would’ve had to deal with James Spader’s smug little face for the rest of her working life.
Here’s what I envision happening in the future for J.C. and her applesauce empire: Having rejected the men and made them feel small, she returns to Vermont to do Sam Shepherd and make applesauce. She sells out eventually, but on HER terms—the baby food is still made in Vermont, she’s the C.E.O instead of the C.O.O., and she is able to oversee the production and the company’s growth. Instead of ending up like Burt Shatz, the founder of Burt’s Bees who got freaking SHAFTED (please watch this documentary, it’s so good), she would’ve been a successful and extremely wealthy entrepreneur—GOOP, but for baby food, and also not an asshole.
Maybe we should pitch a sequel?