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Into the Line of Fire

Swede Lasse Hallström steps into America's abortion controversy with The Cider House Rules

Lasse Hallstrom chuckles heartily as the skeleton tumbles out of his closet. Yes, he admits without a trace of shame, he helped to launch the global superstardom of ABBA, the disco darlings from his native Sweden. He directed many of the band's most infamous music videos, including "S.O.S." and "Dancing Queen," and called the shots for its one and only rockumenatry feature, ABBA: The Movie, a fawning account of the group's smashingly successful 1977 tour of Australia.

Rather than dismiss those dubious credits as the products of a misspent youth, Hallstrom remains almost defiantly proud of his handiwork. And he takes special delight in knowing that ABBA hits have survived and thrived in campy motion picture soundtracks (Muriel's Wedding, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) and those ubiquitous CD anthologies hawked on late-night cable TV.

"I think of it as ABBA's revenge," Hallstrom jokes over coffee in a quiet corner of The Houstonian's spacious lobby. "Back in the '70s and '80s, we were frowned upon. The fact that I was involved with them -- many people in Sweden, the cultural elite, thought I was involved with evil, because they were so successful, so commercial. So I'm glad they're having a revival, so people can appreciate their music. I love that music. And they're still very popular.

Stephen Vaughan
Not wanting to tell John Irving how to adapt his novel, director Lasse Hallström initially rejected The Cider House Rules.
Michael Caine as Dr. Larch (left) and Tobey Maguire as Homer were the perfect choices for their roles. So says Hallström.

"In fact, I think that there would be a reunion if they could just get the girls on board. But they're so not interested in touring. And I think [Agnetha Faltskog] has retired to family life. She's been secluded -- she's turned into a kind of Greta Garbo character."

In sharp contrast, Hallstrom has become a citizen of the world, dividing his time between homes in Stockholm and upstate New York while working as a feature filmmaker. He first attracted international attention with his poignant My Life as a Dog (1985), a heart-rending comedy-drama about a 12-year-old boy who's forced to cope with grown-up matters of life and death. When this beloved Swedish production proved capable of finding a U.S. audience far beyond the usual art-house crowd, Hollywood beckoned. And Hallstrom answered.

"I could have retired right after My Life as a Dog," Hallstrom says, "and sailed along on the wave of warmth and goodwill I received from that movie. But then they asked me to come here and make other movies. Which you really have to do -- make American movies -- if you want to reach an international audience.

"It was so fantastic to come to America and have this unreserved warm response, totally without reservation. I still look back on that as the most wonderful period in my life. And there still are smaller versions of that wave that lick at me from time to time."

In the weeks ahead, however, Hallström may have his spirits dampened -- indeed, he might be drenched by a tsunami of angry disapproval -- as The Cider House Rules, his latest made-in-the-U.S.A. effort, rolls into theaters nationwide. Even an ABBA II: The Reunion would have far less potential for igniting controversy.

Based on the best-selling novel by John Irving, who artfully distilled the book's epic narrative in his very own screenplay adaptation, The Cider House Rules is unabashedly pro-choice in its depiction of a New England orphanage's doctor who performs illegal abortions in the 1930s and '40s. Irving makes no apologies for his incendiary subject matter: "The people who consider that controversial," he recently told an interviewer, "are extremists working outside the law. Abortion is the law of the landŠ Get over it."

Hallstrom, however, is not so quick to dismiss the potential for an anti-abortion backlash directed at Miramax Films, which recently sold the theologically pointed Dogma to another distributor to avoid being targeted by militant Catholic groups, and everyone else connected with The Cider House Rules.

"The movie hasn't opened yet," he says, "so I don't know what to expect. But I'm little nervous about over-reactions to it.

"Coming from Sweden, and having grown up in an atmosphere where the pro-choice stance is viewed as the only reasonable stance for a human being, none of this seemed at all controversial to me. I've been maybe naive enough to underestimate the possibly inflammatory response. To me, the movie doesn't make a big fuss about it. It's sort of the natural standpoint. And it's presented confidently, in a sort of soft-spoken way. It's not in your face; it doesn't make a militant statement. It's just one part of the story, and it has its specific weight in the story.

"And, of course, I dread that anyone will now see the movie and blow it out of proportion. Because it has the right proportion for me as part of the whole story."

Strictly speaking, The Cider House Rules isn't really about abortion. Rather, the movie, like the novel that inspired it, is a picaresque tale of an inquisitive young man who must rebel against his destiny before he can embrace it. Tobey Maguire (The Ice Storm, Pleasantville) stars as Homer Wells, a foundling who grows up to become the surrogate son for Dr. Wilbur Larch (Michael Caine), the worldly, wise operator of St. Cloud's Orphanage. Dr. Larch sees nothing wrong, and much that is right, in performing illegal abortions for women -- most of them poor, almost all of them unmarried -- who are ill-equipped to care for children. But Homer has grave misgivings about his mentor's methods. And he refuses to accept his predetermined fate as Dr. Larch's successor.

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