Surely one of the most adored movies of all time by gay men of a certain age is The Women. ( Pictured: Eva Mendes in The Women. ) This 1939 classic helmed by gay director George Cukor starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell and a cast of expert supporting players—all women. Seemingly, the only concern of these ladies is their men, or lack thereof. The film was based on the successful play by Clare Booth Luce, and screenwriters Anita Loos and Jane Murfin spruced it up and gave it plenty of zingers. A misguided remake called The Opposite Sex appeared in 1956, adding songs and men as a twist; June Allyson, Joan Collins and Dolores Grey headed the cast in that not-very-successful version. For years now, there's been talk of another remake in the rumor mill and, now, in the hands of 'Murphy Brown' writer-director Diane English, a new version is finally here.
Can it compare to the original? Not for a second. Will gay men be quoting from it years from now, saying with a dramatic flounce, 'Oh L'amour! L'amour!' Nope. But that doesn't mean that this version of The Women, an amalgamation of The Stepford Wives, The First Wives Club and Sex and the City isn't worth taking in. It is. But fans of the original should alter their expectations while those who haven't experienced the verbal sparring between Russell, Crawford, Mary Boland, et al., should take in this new version first, if only to give it a fair shake.
English, who makes her debut with the film, has re-fashioned this new version into a modern-day sisterhood movie, a decided shift away from the shallowness of the source material in which all the women cared about nothing but the unseen men. Though there's still plenty of bitchery in evidence, this edition of the beloved classic is more about supporting your sister, not ripping her to shreds the minute her back is turned. The plot again focuses on sweet Mary Haines ( Meg Ryan, still perky and still wearing those ringlets as she fills in for sanctimonious Shearer ) whose husband, Stephen ( a high-flying financier who is unseen, like all the men ) is stepping out with Crystal Allen, who works behind the perfume counter ( Eva Mendes taking the Crawford part and doing little with it ) . Though the infamous encounter between Mary and Crystal still occurs in the dressing room ( 'If Stephen doesn't like what I'm wearing, I take it off,' Crystal retorts to Mary's jab at her choice of lingerie ) there's not much heft to it. That's because, unlike the original, it's not quite the end of the world when the marriage falls apart.
What's more devastating—or so it seems—is the end of the close friendship between Mary and Sylvie ( Annette Bening, taking on the Russell part ) . The character of Sylvie has been morphed by English from a cartoon villain into a compassionate best friend for Mary, an aging magazine editor who is blackmailed into giving a gossip writer ( played by a somnambulistic Carrie Fisher ) the scoop on the love triangle ( hence, the rift ) . The ruptured friendship between Mary and Sylvie, the relationship of both to Mary's daughter and Mary's finding herself all take on much more importance than Mary winning Stephen back. Debra Messing as the constantly pregnant Edie ( whose gift with physical comedy is used to good effect ) and Jada Pinkett Smith as Edie, the lesbian book writer ( who is given next to nothing to do ) round out the quartet, while the Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard roles have been eliminated altogether.
This refocusing gives the movie less superficiality but also less opportunity for outright comedy—though there are still plenty of laughs. ( 'He's having an affair with the spritzer girl?' 'What do you think she sells, Chanel No. Shit?' is one typical exchange. ) These are to be expected from English, a pro at comic dialogue. It's also no surprise that former sitcom stars Messing, Cloris Leachman ( as Mary's maid ) , Candice Bergen ( who brings grace and sophistication to the film ) and Bette Midler ( as the countess, whose screen time is reduced to two scenes ) deliver the movie's biggest laughs.
When Meg Ryan's character says, 'What do you think—this is a 1930s movie?,' the audience laughs with the insider's reference to the original 1939 film, but the point is that this is exactly what the audience wants this version of The Women to be. Focusing on female empowerment, finding their own identity in a man's world and starting female-based empires like Oprah's are fine up to a point, but the movie still satisfies most when it offers the audience the old-fashioned stuff—the verbal zingers, the chance to revel in the deluxe world of privilege these ladies take for granted ( complete with couture fashion show ) and, most of all, the opportunity to see the anxiety and heartbreak that such wealth and beauty exact on characters like these. High-class suffering has always been a cornerstone of the chick flick, and more of that would have gone a long way in helping this movie radiate.Read more story below....
Note: I'll be discussing my review of The Women as a guest on the 'Critic for a Day' segment on WTTW's 'Chicago Tonight' on Monday, Sept. 15. The program airs on Channel 11 at 7 p.m.
Screening of note:
—Queer writer-director Tom Kalin was one of the filmmakers responsible for kick-starting the queer cinema movement in the early 1990s with his fascinating Swoon, his 1992 version of the true-life tale of infamous gay lovers Loeb and Leopold, who murdered a teenage boy for kicks. Kalin's film, stylishly shot in black and white, incorporates actual footage of the killers and frankly portrays their rather disturbing relationship. A rare short film by Loeb about bird-watching will precede the screening which takes place Monday, September 15th at the Gene Siskel Film Center at 8:15pm. Kalin will be present for audience discussion. www.siskelfilmcenter.com
Check out my archived reviews at www.windycitytimes.com or www.knightatthemovies.com . Readers can leave feedback at the latter Web site, where there is also ordering information on my book of collected film reviews, Knight at the Movies 2004-2006.