By JOHN J. O'CONNOR
Published: December 7, 1987
IN June 1969, Ethel and James Lee were officially allowed, after a six-year struggle, to adopt a child they had been bringing up. The case was significant because the Lees are blind. Tonight at 9 on Channel 4, the Lees are brought to prime-time television by way of a "based on fact" movie called "Eye on the Sparrow." Lovely performances by Mare Winningham and Keith Carradine as the Lees lift the film well out of the ordinary.
Actually, Barbara Turner's script focuses on Ethel, the former Ethel (Cissie) Hollars, who was born into a large and poor family that usually found itself living somewhere near the Mississippi River. The Hollars are independent types, refusing to accept charity and not wanting to send their young daughter away to a special school. But after the death of her father, 11-year-old Ethel is taken to the Missouri School for the Blind in St. Louis.
As usual in this kind of television exercise, details are fudged. Suddenly, at age 23, Ethel has an operation that lets her, with the aid of strong lenses, see for the first time in her life, realizing that "nothing looks like it sounds." Just as suddenly, she loses most of this new-found sight. "How many times can I start over?" she cries, "I don't know what I am." There are references to two suicide attempts.
With some light perception but legally blind, Ethel meets Jim Lee, a musician and a teacher at the Missouri School. Despite enormous efforts by his relatively well-off parents to find a cure, Jim has been blind since birth. Jim and Ethel finally decide to marry despite the warnings of friends who believe that one blind person should never marry another because "you'll limit each other."
Wanting children, Ethel is distressed when a doctor diagnoses Jim as sterile. Eventually, the couple decide to adopt a child and quickly discover that blind people are not considered proper candidates to be parents. There are no specific barriers in the laws, only in the prejudices of the administrators. The battles with bureacracies begin.
The administrators don't want a child to become a victim of the blindness handicap. "You prefer to keep a child in the institution?" asks Ethel. "It's policy," explains the official. "Then you're a fool," concludes Ethel. When friends try to urge restraint on Ethel, even-tempered Jim merely says, "Leave her alone, she's cast iron."
Anyone familiar with the made-for-TV movie form knows that as much heartwarming triumph as possible will be crammed into "Eye on the Sparrow." But the film, directed by John Korty, maintains a tough tone that keeps the story safely away from the swamps of soppiness.
And Ms. Winningham and Mr. Carradine refuse to hit a false note while they set about constructing a loving but always difficult relationship. The title, incidentally, is taken from the spiritual "His Eye Is on the Sparrow," which was also the title of a wonderful autobiography by the singer Ethel Waters.
Eye on the Sparrow (1987) TV Movie
Cast: Conchata Ferrell, Keith Carradine, Mare Winningham