Barbara Gordon appears to have it all, including a successful career in a male-dominated industry and a solid relationship with her live-in lover, attorney Derek Bauer. Beneath her facade is a high-strung personality who heavily relies on sedatives to reduce tension and anxiety and maintain a composed exterior for her friends and associates. Her current project focuses on cancer patient Jean Scott Martin and her husband Ben and how the couple is coping as the disease progresses. Despite reservations expressed by her collaborators, Barbara is determined to end the film on a positive note, showing the Martins embracing on the beach.
When she shows them a rough cut, fatalistic Jean is angered by the false optimism and vehemently voices her objections to Barbara’s choices. The response triggers a deep depression in Barbara, who relies on Doctor Kalman, her therapist of many years, and an increased dosage of Valium to see her through the crisis. She finally reaches a turning point when she realizes Kalman’s treatment has been ineffective and admits her dependence on drugs is controlling her life. Her effort to quit cold turkey results in a rapid physical, mental, and emotional deterioration fueled by Derek’s refusal to let her seek medical help and his alcohol-driven determination to control her completely.
Following a series of physical fights, he imprisons her—bruised, bloodied, and broken—by tying her to a chair. She manages to convince him they had dinner plans with friends Karen and Sam Mulligan, and when he calls them to cancel, her screams for help alert them to her situation. Barbara is institutionalized and begins a long and arduous journey toward recovery with the help of Julie Addison. During this period, she is visited by Jean, who confesses she may have overreacted to Barbara’s film and feels a sense of guilt over her breakdown.
Her encouragement inspires Barbara to get well and complete the project. Jean suggests she end the film with an image of Barbara walking on the beach, and she complies with her wishes. Jean dies before seeing the completed work, but a newly confident Barbara is certain she would have approved of it.