Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

'The Women' of our times


Scene from The Women.
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In 1936, Clare Boothe shocked and titillated Broadway audiences with The Women, her scathing satire about the empty lives of New York society ladies. It reflected an era where status and wealth depended on men, around whom women built their worlds and over whom they competed. MGM purchased the movie rights, and Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Jane Murfin wrote the often hilarious screenplay. Openly gay George Cukor directed an all-female cast headed by two superstars, Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford, and featuring three others who would soon become household names: Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, and Joan Fontaine. The 1939 film was a smash. In 1955, the studio remade it as The Opposite Sex, introduced the husbands and showcased June Allyson, while wasting Ann Sheridan, Ann Miller, Dolores Gray, Joan Blondell, Agnes Moorehead, and Joan Collins. It was dreadful.

Given the changes in society during the seven decades since the original production, how relevant would The Women be today? Thanks to Diane English's (TV's Murphy Brown) updated script and successful feature-film directing debut, the answer is, "Very." The fundamental plot issue is timeless: What does a happily married woman do when she discovers her husband is cheating on her?

Sylvie Fowler (Annette Bening), managing editor of a struggling woman's magazine, learns that her best friend's husband is having an affair with a Saks perfume clerk (Eva Mendes). Should she tell Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), or keep it "in the vault?" Undecided, she confides in a mutual friend, Edie Cohn (Debra Messing). Both are shocked and concerned about Mary. Alas, Mary learns the truth from the same gossipy manicurist (Debi Mazar) at Saks who told Sylvie. She's devastated. Mary's mother Catharine (Candace Bergen) offers some sound suggestions along with a martini lunch. She warns her not to discuss it with her girlfriends, but it's too late.

Sylvie, desperate to remake her magazine, is blackmailed by ruthless gossip columnist Bailey Smith (Carrie Fisher) into revealing the truth about Mary and Stephen. In exchange, she'll write a few articles for the publication. Shattered, Mary ends their friendship. Chagrined, forced to compromise both her personal and professional ideals, Sylvie reaches out to Molly, who is distraught over her parents' break-up. A depressed Mary goes on an eating binge before recovering at a spa. There she meets a cynical yet romantic Hollywood agent known as "The Countess" (Bette Midler), who's a serial monogamist. While sharing a joint, the Countess gives Mary some shrewd advice, which she follows.

English's script eliminates the characters originally played by Goddard and Fontaine. Consequently, the famous hair-pulling and scratching catfight between Russell and Goddard is also gone. In its place, however, is a much funnier confrontation between Sylvie and Mary.

English's script is sharp, mixing comic one-liners with keen insights. As a director, she paces the story well and guides the cast effectively, with one exception. Mendes' Crystal is a miscalculation that strains credibility. A man might want to betray Ryan's Mary with her, but Saks would never hire a woman who dressed and acted like a common hooker to sell perfume. Crawford's Crystal was a social climber who mimicked the look and behavior of her betters. Mendes is just sullen, bored, and cheap. Her line readings are too languid.

Ryan, whose Mary has been living a Martha Stewart life, is a big improvement on Shearer's noble, weepy portrayal. Ryan uses her charm and youthful appearance effectively. Mary is a nice woman who has been hurt and humiliated. Even her father has rejected her. When she turns her life around, it's not to regain Stephen, but to establish her professional identity as a clothing designer. The fashion show sequence in the original stopped the action. In the remake, it comes towards the end and enhances the story.

As the eternally pregnant Edith, Messing, while not completely eliminating the ghost of Grace Adler, is warm, witty, and has a few surprises of her own. Her interaction with a lesbian friend and blocked writer, Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith), is very funny. Pinkett Smith is terrific, and making her a lesbian is a natural extension of the role portrayed in the original by Florence Nash.

Bergen is wonderful: worldly, sardonic, supportive. Midler and Fisher, both fine, are on screen too briefly. As Mary's housekeeper Maggie, Cloris Leachman is nuanced and memorable, commenting wryly on the action.

The acting honors, however, belong to Bening, who again proves to be a comic actress of unequaled skill. She erases the ghost of Russell's over-the-top, unsympathetic Sylvia. Bening's Sylvie is skittish about men and has focused on a career. Her professional fears are legitimate, and the threat she faces from younger employees whose standards she feels will dumb down her readership is valid and poignant. She tosses off her lines with aplomb. "I am my own husband." She's a witty snob. Her dismay that Stephen would leave Mary for "a spritzer" superbly sums up today's class-consciousness. She's the epitome of a modern, stylish, pampered professional woman, working 24/7, cell phone in one hand, laptop at the ready, doing what it takes to succeed. When her Faustian bargain threatens to destroy a decades-long friendship, she's appalled by her own behavior. It's a tricky road to navigate, but Bening walks it wearing one gorgeous pair of high heels after another.

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