The 1970's yielded many great and not-so-great moments in American television history, but aside from being a decade dominated by Norman Lear sitcoms, the Fonz, Donny and Marie, BATTLE OF THE NETWORK STARS, THE GONG SHOW, and ROOTS, the seventies was also the golden age of a now-lost art form, namely the made-for-TV movie. Some iconic moments in American trash TV occurred in the made-for-TV movie genre, overwrought, cheesy spectacles full to the brim with violence, sleazy goings-on, cheapjack horror, lurid melodrama, and cautionary tales that walked the thin line between public service pieces and outright exploitation of hot button issues. Falling into that latter category is 1975's SARAH T.-PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC, one of the all-time classics of the genre, starring a fresh-from-The Exorcist Linda Blair, and directed by Richard Donner, who would soon graduate to helming big-budget hits such as THE OMEN (1976), SUPERMAN (1978), SUPERMAN II (1980), THE GOONIES (1985), and all four of the LETHAL WEAPON flicks.
I just saw SARAH T.-PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC again last night, for the first time since it originally aired some thirty-three years ago, and I recalled some of its sequences with crystal clarity. I remember being quite alarmed by some of the material at the time — I was just four months shy of my tenth birthday — and even now it still holds the ability to shock, though some of the content comes off as more than a bit over-the-top. However, considering some of the drunken excesses witnessed during my formative years in that chi-chi playground of the well-off, Westport, Connecticut, none of the depicted events would surprise me if someone related them to me as having come from their own personal experiences.
The film opens during a Christmas party at the home of fifteen-year-old Sarah Travis (Linda "Your mother sucks cocks in Hell" Blair), her mother (Verna Bloom, perhaps best remembered as the wife of the Dean who receives a serious, drunken deep-dicking from the lovably-sleazy fraternity's famed cocksman in NATIONAL LAMPOON'S ANIMAL HOUSE), and step-father (William Daniels, the guy who provided the fey voice of the car in the eighties trash classic that inflicted David Hasselhoff upon the world, KNIGHT RIDER). The party is one of those typical seventies soirees full of leisure-suited types who kick back tumblers of Scotch like it was Kool Aid, and during the course of the party we witness Sarah sucking down the remnants of the partygoers' drinks as she helps the maid clear away bottles and glasses. The following morning, Sarah isn't very hungry but is okay, while her somewhat-hungover mom and step-dad regale themselves with recaps of how wasted their guests got. This sequence makes it clear that Sarah has been drinking in secret for some time, later revealed to be two years, in an effort to cope with her parents' divorce and her separation from her beloved artsy "dreamer" of a dad (a post-I DREAM OF JEANNIE/pre-DALLAS Larry Hagman), as well as her insecurities over having recently transferred to a new school and feeling unable to fit in with the other kids.
We're then treated to Sarah's shy and awkward behavior when she auditions for the school's glee club, only to get politely shot down, after which she begins a campaign of scamming the local liquor delivery man for regular orders of vodka and Scotch; this very educational portion of the film shows us how to pretend your mom is at home but in the shower, meaning you leave the shower on so the door-to-door booze dude will hear the water and won't question you asking into the open bathroom door for the whereabouts of mom's purse in order to get money to pay the guy. A brilliant maneuver that I’m sure was put to good use by enterprising teens across the nation, or at least in areas that had door-to-door hooch merchants.
Having established that Sarah comes from a family situation that more or less condones drunkenness as a way of life and that Sarah’s a typical insecure adolescent, the plot really thickens with the introduction of a pre-STAR WARS Mark Hamill as Ken, a local lad with a beloved horse named Daisy, who gets hooked up with Sara through the machinations of their yenta mothers.
Ken’s an all-American boy type who at first isn’t too keen on getting stuck with Sarah the wallflower, but once she loosens up with booze at a house party he starts to see her in a new light. But as her boozy ebullience wins her acceptance, Sarah indulges in at least ten very large shots of Scotch and gets shitfaced drunk and obnoxious, even smearing a plate full of potato salad across the rack of the girl that Ken would prefer to be with.
When Ken takes her home, Sarah’s folks aren’t pleased, so he takes the rap for Sarah’s inebriation, making him persona non grata in the Travis household. But now Sara’s in with the popular crowd and finds herself invited to the parties of the cool kids, so her drunkenness escalates to the point boozing during school as well as at home and damned near everywhere else, and continuing to see Ken despite her mother’s banning him as boyfriend material. Sarah also briefly spends some quality time with her jobless dad in hope of moving in with him, but that tender moment degenerates as we realize the guy’s pretty much a bum, a point driven home as he cracks open a beer while walking down the street in broad daylight with his doting daughter, a real Kodak moment if ever I saw one.
And once she starts to get that her dreams of living with her dad may never come true Sarah crawls deeper into the bottle, causing her to skip school (which catches the attention of her guidance counselor who arranges a disastrous meeting with Sara’s mom) and eventually seduce Ken during a beach party, then passing out during a babysitting gig after a row with Ken (he rejects her claims of being in love with him and explains that they aren’t a couple because of his interest in the other girl from the first party, and Sarah loses her shit, kicking him out despite the fact that they’ve only known each other for maybe five weeks).
Reluctantly waking up to the fact that Sarah is indeed an alcoholic and has been one for two years, her folks, on the recommendation of a no nonsense counselor, send her to an AA meeting where she is awakened to her own problems while hearing a ten-year-old prodigy discuss his own alcoholism, a state nurtured by his amused family from the time he was two. But Sarah’s not yet ready to face the truth, so she again resorts to some hard drinking, but by now the owner of the booze delivery service has figured out her little charade and allows her to get away with it one last time before forever barring her from his list. Desperate for a drink, Sarah runs away from home and hangs around outside a local liquor store, begging passersby to buy her some hooch, but she repeatedly gets turned down so she attempts to boost a bottle, only to end up busted and ejected by the shop-owner. What’s a girl to do? That question is answered when a dune buggy carrying four legal-age jock types pulls up and Sarah begs them for a bottle in exchange for letting them “do anything” with her. Our heroine then ends up on a secluded beach where the boys play a game of vodka bottle keepaway with Sarah before resorting to a round of “spin the bottle” to determine which one of them gets first crack at the underage souse. Three of the quartet are overcome with a last minute bout of human decency, but the last guy declares that he’s “won the Cupie doll” and has his vile way with the willing-but-strung-out girl.
A brief aside: imagine being a not-quite-ten-year-old and seeing this apple-cheeked, wholesome-looking cutie whoring herself out for a bottle of what was probably Popov, the Piels of vodkas. Sure, it was done within the tasteful parameters of what you could depict on network TV in those days, but that’s some seriously harsh shit. I found the bloody “You’re gonna let Jesus fuck you!” sequence in THE EXORCIST less disturbing, bloody, thrusting crucifix and all, simply because even at that tender age I believed the scenario in SARAH T. was within the realm of things that could happen to any of the girls I knew (this was about four years before I ever saw THE EXORCIST for myself, but it was the subject of much detailed discussion among my parents and those of my contemporaries at the time, so I knew of the questionable content). Such stuff is now the commonplace stock-in-trade of shows like LAW & ORDER: SVU, but back in 1975 it was a real kick to the head and heartstrings.
Having sunk low enough to allow a guy to fuck her so she could stay wasted, Sarah ups the tragic ante when she finds her way to Ken’s house, steals Daisy the horse and rides the confused beast onto the highway.
In an incredible shot that I have no clue how they achieved it, the poor horse and Sarah are struck by an oncoming car, instantly crippling Daisy while an unharmed Sarah lands on the highway’s shoulder. As Sarah loses her lunch in the crabgrass, Ken arrives in time to see a state trooper put a bullet through Daisy’s head, after which, shell-shocked, he rejects Sarah, presumably forever. Reunited at the hospital, Sarah and her family agree to start over and try to move past their boozing ways, with Sarah finally accepting the aid of some underage AA members.
SARAH T.-PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE ALCOHOLIC rocked the collective consciousness of kids my age at the time and is still fondly remembered for its own admittedly loaded (no pun intended) merits, as well as for being one of the made-for-TV movies that got a legion of us hooked to such fare in hopes of seeing more such outrageous material. The other films which fueled that interest are many, but those most often cited by fans include the previous year’s BORN INNOCENT (in which Linda Blair’s young nether regions are again violated by a foreign object, this time being the handle of a toilet plunger wielded by an inmate at an all-girls juvenile detention facility), DAWN: PORTRAIT OF A TEENAGE RUNAWAY (a followup to Sara T. featuring Eve Plumb, better known as Jan Brady, in the role of an eventual child prostitute), THE NIGHT STALKER (a terrific and actually scary vampire flick that spawned a series and is a strong contender for the title of “best made-for-TV movie of all time”), BLACK MARKET BABY (a pregnant Linda Purl staying one step ahead of scumbags who want to sell her unborn baby for big bucks), DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK (Kim “True Grit” Darby against a remote house full of small, malevolent, onion-headed creatures armed with straight razors who can see in the dark), PRAY FOR THE WILDCATS (who wouldn’t want to see a movie about a biker gang fronted by Andy Griffith and William Shatner?), and TRILOGY OF TERROR (justly famous for it’s third segment, featuring Karen Black in blistering mortal combat against a vicious Zuni fetish doll), so what I want to know is why the majority of these well-known and fondly-remembered classics of trash remain unavailable on DVD. These and many others would make a killing in a series of nostalgia-themed boxed sets, so hopefully someone with the power to do something about this glaring omission will make it happen sooner or later. If other seventies-era junk TV can find a place on the shelves of DVD retailers, it’s only fair that the mighty made-for-TV movie should have its turn. Would you rather have a boxed set of the second, awful season of WONDER WOMAN (Lynda Carter’s fine as all hell, but…), or a set containing hours of sleazily-depicted sex, atrocious and unintentionally hilarious acting, gratuitous violence, substance abuse, T & A, UFO’s, horrendous ‘70’s fashions, and bargain basement monsters? I think you can guess where I stand on that debate.