What a massive bummer: it's not trash, goddammit, it's a romance. Yeech. Usually cool Scorpion Entertainment, for some unknown reason, has released Baby Sister (original title: Tainted Love), a 1983 made-for-TV movie starring Phoebe Cates, Ted Wass, Pamela Bellwood, and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr, that originally aired on the ABC network in 1983. Within the first ten minutes of Baby Sister, all signs pointed to a TV-safe but enjoyably pulpy little romp...before it went all pear-shaped and turned distressingly serious and moony and even clean-minded, for god's sake. Pity, considering sexy Cates never looked naughtier. The re-title (and an ITC logo at the head) might explain a potential shorter running time here―is this possibly an overseas theatrical print? No extras for this okay-looking transfer.
Just-turned 19 (I'm going to faint...) Annie Burroughs (Phoebe Cates) has dropped out of college and is headed to L.A. to stay with her older sister, Marsha (Pamela Bellwood). Marsha, the distracted, harried owner of a soon-to-open art gallery, has a long-term (but no ring) relationship with David Mitchell (Ted Wass), a doctor who says he wants to go into private practice, but who really wants to stay at his rundown barrio clinic. Apparently owning the only luxury seaside apartment in Santa Monica that has no air conditioning, perfectly glowing Annie arrives at sweating-like-a-pig Marsha's apartment and meets shirtless David...and that's when everyone's tummy starts feeling funny. Soon, David is giving baby sister a job at his clinic, and running on the beach with her, and hanging out at her crappy, rundown rented house, and going to the opera with her, while Marsha finds more excuses to keep busy at the gallery while not letting David get busy with her. You know what happens next.
I'm not going to spend a lot of time on Baby Sister...because there's not a lot of things worth discussing in it. Hey, look; I'm sure the people involved in Baby Sister or Tainted Love or whatever meant well and were sincere in making this little TV romance. It's all perfectly respectful and quiet and tasteful and palatable to even the most prudish viewer. The acting is appropriately dialed-back, while the story, as old as the hills, is predictably plotted and worked out, with everyone making nice at the end as they act noblely and unselfishly to make sure no one's feelings get hurt. Stiff-upper lips are stiffen as bridges are crossed, misunderstandings cleared, and old hurts healed. Fine. It's a perfectly ordinary romance, conventional and bland as all get-out, with zero surprises but with no major missteps, either. Great.
And that's why I despise it. Okay, now...maybe everything I'm looking for in Baby Sister and can't find is in those (possibly?) missing 10 minutes or so, according to the other run times I've seen for Tainted Love. If that's the case, chalk up my anger to a bad post edit job. If not...I really hate Baby Sister because it's a knowing little tease with zero payoff. I don't like getting my chain jerked (you can take that anyway you want...). If you've got a TV movie from 1983, I know there are going to be limits as to what you can show; I know Phoebe Cates isn't going topless here (if she did, Baby Sister would get our highest ranking here at DVDTalk). I'm not talking about nudity or simulated humping. What I'm talking about is filth. Salacious garbage. Tittering innuendo and smarmy-but-G-rated sexploitation. Don't give me a movie featuring Phoebe Cates in all her 20-year-old glory, putting her in shorts and tube tops, turning off the air conditioning so that in every scene there's a delicious sheen of sweat on her perfectly tanned limbs...and then have her be a "good girl," of all things. What the hell is wrong with you?
The screenwriters, Jo Lynne Michael, Paul Haggard Jr., and Susan Title, and director Steven Hilliard Stern (some big-screen misfires like Running and The Devil and Max Devlin, but a lot of good TV, like The Ghost of Flight 401, Portrait of a Showgirl, Mazes and Monsters), know exactly what they're doing to us (and what they're promising) when they repeatedly linger lovingly over Cates' form (at one point, Stern gives us a helpful pan up the entire length of Cates' backside; he can't even resist a bouncy no-bra highlight when she wears a choking high-collar Holly Hobby dress). And they know what they're teasing us with when they start the story slow, building up our expectations for a blow-out when wuss Wass finally makes a move on Cates. This isn't your basic Waltons storyline. After all, it was called Tainted Love for chrissakes. And I want that "love" tainted (well...actually "love" isn't necessary). You've got this perfectly-cast little sexpot Cates; you dress her down in provocative clothing; you oil her up so she actually shimmers in every scene; you set up the can't-miss dirty story so she's stealing her sister's man...and then you say, "screw you" to the viewers; we're not going to give you what we teased and promised...here's a cheapjack love story that June Allyson would have been proud of? What in god's name for? That is criminal negligence.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.