Over the weekend I went to see The Women, courtesy of Dove, who sent me some tickets and a rather sturdy tote bag. As an admirer of the 1939 masterpiece, based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce, I wondered how in the world a remake could even be realized. The sparkling dialog of the original film, written by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin, made it a classic while rendering it frozen in time. As western civilization has turned upside down, the standards and mores depicted in the 1930’s have become obsolete for most contemporary audiences. Nevertheless, the old film, which starred Norma Shearer as the hapless Mary Haines, still has an emotional impact, since such things as unfaithful husbands, divorce, and gossipy friends have never quite gone away.
As I feared, the new film, while exploring many of the same issues with humor and poignancy, lacks the punch of the original. Neither does it offer the exultation at the end. I was disappointed but not surprised that the wit of the classic version had been greatly watered down. The clever repartee was replaced by words like “sh-*t,” in addition to the frequent mention of intimate bodily functions. I assume this was to make the story relevant to contemporary women. But it also left it lame.
There are major plot and character changes as well, the most dominant being the attitude of Sylvia Fowler, played with great hilarity in the 1939 version by Rosalind Russell. In the current film, Sylvia, called “Sylvie,” is transformed from being the gossipy trouble maker into the faithful, sisterly friend of Mary Haines (Meg Ryan.) Annette Bening’s Sylvie betrays Mary to a gossip columnist but immediately repents. Mary cuts her off and the dissolution of the friendship is shown as being as devastating to Mary as the loss of her marriage. Female friendship is important but I would not rate it over holy matrimony.
As in 1939, Mary’s husband has strayed into the arms of "Crystal" the perfume-seller. Eva Mendes’ Crystal is sultry but oddly colorless in comparison with Joan Crawford’s Crystal of the former flick. Most of Crystal's best lines have been eliminated, which is probably for the best, since I am not sure that Eva could have purred them out with the right dose of flippancy. In 2008, the friends are more supportive, less catty. But why insist on giving Mary a lesbian friend? (And a very insecure lesbian at that.) Jada Pinkett Smith’s “Alex” is based loosely on the character of the old maid journalist in the 1939 film. They could have had a smart, sassy African American character without having her drool over other women. And I would prefer to have been spared the lurid scenes of the gay bar, as well as the morbid pot-smoking, as Mary self-destructs with Bette Midler's "Countess." The Countess hardly appears at all in contrast to the key part she plays in the old film. What a waste. Meanwhile, Mary's young daughter Molly self-destructs, too, as she reacts to neglect and her parents' separation. Sylvie reaches out to the teenager, and her attempt at mothering the confused child is one of the strongest aspects of the film.
Indeed, the best points about the 2008 Women are when women are shown being mothers. Debra Messing’s hippie-artist mom giving birth to her sixth child shows us at the end what being a woman is all about, giving life with a great deal of personal inconvenience. Sylvie says to Mary that a career is nothing to having raised a child. However, such sentiments are contradicted by Mary’s mother, played by Candace Bergen, telling her that she, the mother, has never done anything with her life simply because she did not have a career. And Mary is shown finding herself only by starting her own business. Having a creative outlet is important for everyone, but is Mary going to neglect her husband and child more or less now that she has exchanged charity luncheons for running a boutique? Whatever the moral compass of this film was supposed to be, it oscillates wildly. Fallen humanity does not bother me; inconsistency does.
But when all is said and done, even a bad film can be entertaining. I saw The Women with a friend and it was fun to talk about it afterwards at the pub in Bellefonte. We enjoyed seeing the clothes, shoes, homes and parties of those with plenty of disposable income and extensive charge accounts. It almost inspired me to go in search of the nearest Saks Fifth Avenue (just to look, of course.) However, for dazzling performances and a searing scrutiny of the politics of divorce, I would recommend the 1939 version. Share