Long before lesbians came to prime time television as recurring characters, they were featured as sensational draws for movies of the week. A triad of these movies aired in the late 1970s, beginning with The War Widow, which aired on PBS in 1976, and told the story of a woman who falls in love with another woman while her husband is fighting in World War I.
NBC followed up in 1977 with In the Glitter Palace (aka A Woman Accused), in which Barbara Hershey played a lesbian on trial for murdering her blackmailer.
But the best-known early television movie about lesbianism is the 1978 drama A Question of Love (ABC), based on the real-life story of lesbian mother Mary Jo Risher’s unsuccessful battle for custody of her youngest son after her divorce from her husband.
A Question of Love established a tried-and-true formula for television movies about homosexuality that have been followed up until today: Hire Oscar-caliber actors, write a sensitive script “based on a true story,” and be tasteful about showing sexuality on-screen (in other words, don’t show it).
Countless TV dramas since 1978 have followed that formula, ranging from the AIDS dramas of the 1980s to the 2001 Lifetime movie What Makes a Family.
One thing has changed, however, since 1978: Lesbians are now allowed to have a somewhat happy ending.
A Question of Love was written by William Blinn (Brian’s Song, Roots), and directed by Jerry Thorpe, who was best known for a series of television movies with titles like I Want to Keep My Baby and The Dark Side of Innocence. Gena Rowlands, who had been nominated for an Oscar for her role in A Woman Under the Influence (1974), played Linda Ray Guettner, the divorcee based on Mary Jo Risher. Jane Alexander, who had been nominated for an Oscar for her role in All the President’s Men (1977), starred as Barbara Moreland, Linda Ray’s lover.
The film opens when Linda Ray, along with her two sons, teen David and younger Billy, moves in with her lover, Barbara, who has her own teenaged daughter. David soon discovers that his mother shares a lot with Barbara, including a joint checking account, and he becomes disturbed by their close relationship. When he asks her if she is a lesbian, his mother replies, “Yes I am…me and Barbara, we just care for each other, it’s just as simple as that.” This response doesn’t exactly please David, who decides to move back in with his father, Mike Guettner, an airline mechanic. Soon afterward, his father sues for custody of Billy, and Linda Ray and Barbara’s relationship is forced to go public.
Linda Ray hires a young male-female team of attorneys to represent her in the court case, in which her ex-husband argues that she is an unsuitable mother due solely to her homosexuality. The trial—and the preparation for the trial, in which Linda Ray is interviewed by a number of hostile psychiatrists—is unpleasant and rough for both Linda Ray and Barbara. At one point Linda Ray tells Barbara, “I wish to hell I had never met you—all I’d be is a divorced woman.”
During the trial it is revealed that Mike Guettner was never an ideal father or husband. He not only broke his wife’s nose once, but was also arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol, and (most damning at the time) paid for an 18-year-old girl to have an abortion when he thought she might be pregnant with his child.
All of these facts, unfortunately, are true—the movie’s court scenes are based on the actual court proceedings from Mary Jo Risher’s custody trial. But despite all of these marks of shame, the court sides with Mike Guettner, who gains custody of both of his sons. In real life, Mary Jo Risher appealed the court’s decision, but lost a second time.
When the movie premiered on ABC, New York Times television critic John J. O’Connor situated the movie in the context of a period of increasingly sexed-up television: “Clearly, television’s sex bandwagon keeps rolling,” he wrote. He grouped A Question of Love with a number of other TV movies that aired during 1978 and were focused on sex, including Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery (NBC) about a wife who decides against committing adultery when her husband is paralyzed from the waist down; Betrayal (NBC) about a woman who has an affair with her psychiatrist; Lady of the House (NBC) about a San Francisco madam; and Return Engagement (NBC) about a female college professor who has a relationship with a student.
What O’Connor failed to note about these films was that they not only focused on sexuality, they focused specifically on women ‘s sexuality—a reflection of the rising tide of the women’s movement and sexual liberation in the 1970s.