The War Widow premiered on PBS on October 28, 1976. It was part of the Visions series of original teleplays. A repressed housewife (Pamela Bellwood) waits for her husband to return from World War I. She meets a photographer (Frances Lee McCain) who awakens her hidden passions. This lesbian period drama borrows elements from Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House. Both protagonists must choose between the artificial safety of domesticity and the risk of an independent life. It could benefit from some humor to cut through the melancholy, but it features a rare optimistic ending.
The War Widow had fallen into obscurity until it was restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It is a groundbreaking work that merits attention. Learn more in this spoiler filled recap.
Act One: A Gilded Cage
Scene One: Mother’s Home
MOM (Chatty): Don’t you think being a woman is fun dear? I just love knitting and arranging flowers.
ANNA (Depressed): Sure.
MOM: Ever since your husband went off to war I’ve been so lonely. Thank goodness you and your daughter moved in with me.
ANNA: I’m going to the movies.
MOM: Movies? Isn’t this 1860?
ANNA: My husband’s at the Great War. Not the Civil War.
Scene Two: Tea Room
ANNA (sobs): I feel so trapped!
JENNY (bold): ‘Scuse me miss. I can’t ignore a pretty lady sobbing. I take photographs for a magazine. Why don’t you come to my studio?
ANNA (smiling for the first time): I’ve never met a woman who worked.
Act Two: Adventure
Scene Three: Photo Session
MOM: I could not possibly have my picture taken in this dress. I must change.
ANNA: While she’s changing why don’t you tell me about yourself?
JENNY: Well, I grew up on a farm. I broke away to find adventure.
ANNA: (I’m so turned on right now. But I don’t know the words to express it.)
Scene Four: Beach House
ANNA: I’d forgotten what it was to be happy. I like the sea! I like opera! I like horseback riding!
JENNY: I like you.
ANNA: I have this cracked teacup. And I still drink from it. Even though I know it’s about to break. Because I’m like that teacup.
JENNY: … Meaning?
ANNA: Give me time.
(Cut to the women lounging in bed in their night gowns.)
JENNY: I guess time has passed.
ANNA: I guess so.
(Anna kisses Jenny’s hand.)
Act Three: Pioneers
Scene Five: Lesbian Party
OLD LESBIAN COUPLE: Have a cigar and a cognac! Let’s loosen our corsets and dish!
ANNA: I feel seen and it terrifies me. I have to go.
JENNY: Please don’t. They’re the liveliest characters in this movie.
ANNA: You want to live together. Like they do. But I can’t give up my daughter! (Flees.)
Scene Six: Mother’s Home
ANNA: I’m giving up my daughter.
MOM: So, you love a woman. Big deal. You’re lonely. Once your husband gets home, you’ll forget this nonsense.
ANNA: Baby your mother has to go away. I promise I’ll write.
ANNA: Not much of an actress, are you?
Scene Seven: Tea Room
(Jenny sits alone. Anna walks up. Jenny smiles.)
JENNY: This is just like the end of Carol.
ANNA: Like what?
JENNY: Never mind.
(They take hands.)
A Doll’s House
“The necessity to leave behind family, tradition and comfort, to accept ostracism and disgrace, was devastatingly portrayed. But these were stories of survival, and the message was that gays were survivors.”Vito Russo, The Celluloid Closet
Controversial when aired (the PBS program included a disclaimer noting that it was funded entirely by grants, not tax dollars), the resulting moving drama (produced by TV pioneer Barbara Schultz) represents a significant milestone in the realistic, positive depiction of lesbians on primetime television.UCLA Film Archive
Screenwriter Harvey Perr told the UCLA Film and Television Archive that he left his own wife and daughter when he came out as a gay man. The teleplay was a way for him to process it. The lead actresses were warned the film would hurt their careers. They took the risk and played their roles without self-consciousness. Pamela Bellwood would soon be cast in the hit series Dynasty. Frances Lee McCain continues to work on film and television. I know her best as the resourceful mother in Gremlins. Nan Martin and Barbara Carson do lovely work as the longtime couple. Often same-sex romances isolate their leads in a heterosexual world. Here Anna gets a brief introduction to a larger community.
I’ve watched countless coming out scenes. But Amy’s coming out to her mother (Katharine Bard) took a clever turn. Her mother already knew what was going on. She rationalized the relationship as a natural response to loneliness. But also clung to the hope that it would end once the menfolk returned. Neither woman has the language to describe a lesbian relationship. But they communicate regardless.
You can watch The War Window at the UCLA Film and Television Archive. You can find more of my reviews on The Avocado, Letterboxd and Serializd. My podcast, Rainbow Colored Glasses, can be found here.