In "Sexual Advances," a television movie about sexual harassment, Stephanie Zimbalist portrays a rising-star marketing executive for an athletic shoe company who unknowingly incurs the ire of her immediate superior and working partner. She has begun to perform better than he.
When the man asks for a hug one day after a top athlete severs his relationship with the firm, she readily takes him in her arms for comfort and sympathy. But the hug turns sour as he suddenly, unexpectedly starts to stroke her hair.
It is the only time in the two-hour movie, airing Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC, that he touches her.
Try explaining that to the company chief, as Zimbalist's character attempts to do later in a pivotal scene--well, he hugged me and that was OK, but he touched my hair and that wasn't. She also tells him she has had to endure comments about various parts of her anatomy.
"As we say in the movie, sexual harassment is not about sex, it's about power," said producer Carol Polakoff, who made the movie in association with Spelling Entertainment. "More often than not, people who want sex and/or want to have a relationship with someone approach it differently."
In the wake of October's Senate hearings pitting U.S. Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas against his harassment accuser, Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill, there was a rush to film stories about the issue. TV series ranging from "Designing Women" to the high-tech puppet sitcom "Dinosaurs" dealt with it.
ABC Entertainment President Bob Iger pushed to get a movie ready for the May sweeps; "Sexual Advances" is the result.
"Those hearings hit such a nerve," said Judd Parkin, ABC's senior vice president of motion pictures for television and miniseries. "It was such a societal bomb . . . . I remember it took over an entire staff meeting. All of a sudden we were an hour and a half in, and we realized we hadn't done any other business except discuss that issue."
Though the Thomas-Hill hearings inspired the making of "Advances," the movie, written by Emmy Award winner Michele Gallery ("L.A. Law," "Lou Grant") is fiction, set in Tacoma, Wash. Neither Hill nor Thomas is mentioned.
"We obviously made a deliberate choice not to do the Hill-Thomas story," Parkin said. "(It) had been played out. I think it would have been overkill."
Doing a fictional treatment on the subject was quicker and gave the network "a little more latitude to dramatize," he said.
He called the production "about the fastest development I've ever worked on."
The network insisted on women for key behind-the-camera roles to ensure that "this be from the woman's point of view," Parkin said. Polakoff was on board by the end of October, and shortly thereafter she and ABC hired Gallery, who began writing around Thanksgiving. Before the New Year, she had a working script.
Donna Deitch was hired to direct. "Two and a half weeks before the first day of principal photography (Feb. 12 in Vancouver)," she said with a laugh, "we had no cast, no crew and no locations. We were just gearing up."
In "Sexual Advances," Zimbalist's Paula Pratt is married to an out-of-work football coach, who has an 18-year-old son from a previous marriage. While she clearly loves her job, she also needs the money. "The problem the husband has only exacerbates her problem, which is she's less free to quit or to fight," Polakoff said. "We layered the movie so that there was the highest risk possible emotionally."
"She's very healthy," Zimbalist said of her character. "She enjoys her sexuality, she has a healthy relationship with her husband, which bleeds into her self-esteem in the workplace. (Yet) it seemed to me the overriding emotion the character feels, on and off, is shame, always thinking maybe it's her fault."
Like a lot of women in harassment--or rape--cases, the movie's pivotal character questions what she is doing to provoke it.
"It begins in a way that's oftentimes non-confrontational and not very obvious, as though it may be a joke," said Deitch, who noted that during the Thomas hearings she was dismayed how much people "misunderstood the process" of sexual harassment. "Often a woman will say, 'I'm not interested,' 'You must be kidding' or 'I'm married,' and then it takes on a little speed. It might just disappear for a while, as it does in our story, and the women thinks it's over, and then it's back again."
That the harasser barely touches Pratt physically was a "deliberate choice," noted ABC's Parkin. "Michele made that very clear--that this was not going to be a borderline rape film, because that's not what the issue was. This is how sexual harassment is used as a controlling force."
"It's more insidious (that way)," Deitch said.
Asked about something some might consider a jarring note--the basically good-guy head of the company giving Pratt a friendly whack on the behind--Polakoff said: "It's kind of a joke. It's not meant to be serious. It's not sexual. It happens all the time in that atmosphere. And she's touchable. The difference is the motivation and the intention."
Polakoff said the goal of the film is to depict the emotional consequences of sexual harassment, not the legal aspects.
"What I really wanted to do was to stimulate a discussion afterward," she said, "and I wanted very much to bring in the whole audience--men and women--because it doesn't just affect the woman, it affects her whole family. When something happens to the woman, hopefully that marriage will support her throughout. Or whatever relationship she's in."
The end of the movie advises viewers that "sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964" and that those who want more information should contact their employer or the local office of the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission.