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Loving ‘Annie’ : ‘HALLMARK’ FILM STIRS SISSY SPACEK’S SOUL

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Under the threat of rain, spectators stand patiently on a quiet residential street hoping to get a glimpse of Sissy Spacek, Joan Plowright and Mary-Louise Parker. The three acclaimed actresses star in “A Place for Annie,” the “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentation airing Sunday on ABC.

On this cool, cloudy morning, fans watch for hours as Spacek performs a birthday party sequence with co-star S. Epatha Merkerson on the front lawn of a two-story house. The scene is filmed over and over until lunch break is called. As the actors and crew head for the catering truck, the fans also disperse.

The 181st “Hallmark Hall of Fame” presentation relates the touching story of how a baby who tested positive for the AIDS virus changes the lives of several people. Though the story and characters are fictional, it draws upon historical medical information.

The story begins in 1986, when a city hospital receives its first HIV-positive baby, Annie Marsten, abandoned by her heroin-addicted mother, Linda Marsten, played by Parker. The baby also is addicted to heroin.

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As the weeks progress, Susan Lansing (Spacek), the supervising nurse in the neonatal intensive care unit, finds herself increasingly attached to little Annie. Against the advice of her good friend, social worker Alice Blakely (Merkerson), Lansing becomes Annie’s foster mother.

In trying to find a full-time baby-sitter, Lansing, a divorced mother of a teen-age boy (Jack Noseworthy), encounters fear, prejudice and misunderstanding. Finally, a headstrong Irish widow named Dorothy (Plowright) agrees to become Annie’s nanny. A year passes, and as Lansing is about to file legal adoption papers, a drug-free Marsten returns and wants custody of Annie. The opposite of Lansing, Marsten is slovenly, unloving and mean-spirited. Much to Lansing’s shock, the judicial system awards Marsten, who is dying of AIDS, custody of Annie.

Director John Gray (“An American Story”) believes “Annie” is not just a film about pediatric AIDS. “It’s more of a story of these two mothers and how they come to terms with each other,” he explains. “I think it is brave for Hallmark to do this. I think they are moving toward these contemporary, socially conscious movies.”

“Annie” marks Oscar-winning Spacek’s (“Coal Miner’s Daughter”) first network TV movie in nearly 20 years. “I’m a sucker for a (good) project,” Spacek says with a smile. The petite, down-home actress is relaxing in her trailer during the lunch break. Resting on a the table is a half-finished plate of spaghetti. Classical music wafts through the trailer.

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“John Gray is a wonderful director,” Spacek says, “but I must say television is harder (than features) because of the time element.”

The production lost a lot of precious time working with unpredictable babies. “The irony is when they are supposed to be crying, they laugh,” Spacek says. “It never fails. Where we had the most difficulty was working with our little precious 22-month-old twin girls. They are just angels. They are precious, but they are 22 months old. What a child is experiencing then is separation anxiety from their mother. That has been really hard on us. It’s like, ‘Oh no! A scene with the babies.’ ”

To prepare for the role before production began, Spacek accompanied doctors on rounds in pediatric intensive-care units. She recalls one baby who just had an AIDS test. “They hadn’t gotten the tests back, but she was a heroin addict,” Spacek says quietly. “The mother also took cocaine during her pregnancy. The baby didn’t have a chance. It was born with so many physical problems. It was interesting to see the doctors’ and nurses’ emotions. This is just a fact of life for them.”

Frequently, though, Spacek found that the medical staff became attached to their tiny patients. “Different nurses become more attached to certain babies,” says Spacek, who is the mother of two daughters. “They love for the parents to spend a lot of time in ICU, but they did tell me something I wasn’t aware of--some of the babies are so premature they can’t handle a lot of physical stimulation. But they get to a certain point, and they thrive on it.”

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Spacek was touched by Annie’s situation. “She was the hospital’s first HIV baby and everybody was afraid of her. They had all the training, but they didn’t know what to do. They had her in isolation and nobody wanted to handle her. The mother abandoned her, and if they couldn’t find foster care for her, she was going to go to this really horrible, state-run hospital where they send babies to die.”

Spacek pauses. “Our society has for so long pushed away the idea of death,” she says firmly. “It’s something that is such a part of life, that we are all going to have to face. It’s a very different thing to think Susan is going to take this baby, so it has a place to die. But in fact, that is what she does. There are a lot of people who do that very thing, who give AIDS babies a place to live and a place to be nurtured for as long as they live.”

The actress says she’s appalled at the state of foster care in the United States. “We have all heard these horror stories about foster families who become emotionally attached to a child, and then that child is removed from them because the family is not supposed to be emotionally attached. That just infuriates me. Somebody has to get emotionally attached. I think we really have to take a look at our foster-care system in our country. I feel so strongly about that.”

Just as Lansing becomes attached to Annie, Spacek has developed a great affection for Lansing. “This is a wonderful character,” she says with enthusiasm. “She’s very strong, doesn’t mince words. Maybe four or five times in the script, she is telling people how to do their jobs.”

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Lansing also is someone who is willing to change. And in the film, she learns she’s really not very different from Marsten.

“I think she comes around in her relationship with the birth mother whom she loathes,” Spacek explains. “In the beginning, she hates her because of what she did to this child whom she loves. When she loses the baby to the birth mother, which also infuriates her, she decides to invite the birth mother to live at her house, and in doing so gets to know this young woman. I know it brings her closer to her baby because in knowing her daughter’s birth mother, she gets beyond her hatred for her and loves and respects her. She grows emotionally.”

“A Place for Annie” airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on ABC.


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