There is no small amount of irony that the man who wrote Under My Thumb and Some Girls, songs reviled by women’s groups everywhere, is one of the producers of a new female empowerment movie starring Annette Bening and Meg Ryan. Mick Jagger, perhaps atoning for past lyrical crimes against women, was one of the money men behind The Women, a loose adaptation of the Clare Booth Luce play and hit movie.
The names are the same from the 1939 film (which starred Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford in the roles now taken by Ryan, Bening and Eva Mendes) and the general idea is intact but the story of a wealthy woman who discovers her husband is having an affair with a Sak’s Fifth Avenue perfume counter attendant has been tweaked and brought forth into the twenty-first century. Gone are the Countesses and dude ranches of the original; in are lesbian characters (Jada Pinkett Smith), expensive clothes and one-liners geared to appeal to a female audience. There’s also been a philosophical shift. The original exposed society women as catty and shallow whereas the new girl power vision celebrates female friendship, eliminating most of the cattiness—although the odd slyly mean remark like “There’s a fine line between an outfit and a get-up…” slips through.
Now that studios have finally figured out that it’s not just teenage boys who pay to see movies, more and more films are being aimed at a female audience. Sex and the City and the The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2, both recent movies that dealt with female bonding and friendship, were just the first shots across the bow. Apart from its female demographic The Women hits another, usually neglected, target audience: older women. This movie is aimed at the mothers of the teens and young women who flocked to see the Sisterhood sequel and the adventures of Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte.
From its opening joke about marked down shoes the film is so unconcerned with a male audience it goes so far as to not include one single male character. There aren’t even any men in the crowd shots. Estrogen rules in every frame of the film.
Director and screenwriter Diane English (best known as the producer and writer of Murphy Brown) hasn’t exactly improved on the original, but she does keep things going at a sitcom-like pace, peppering the action with so many jokes—only about half of which actually land—that the whole thing could best be described as amiable rather than good.
The main cast—most veterans of light comedy—are as amiable as the script. High points include Candice Bergen, who continues her run as the summer’s reigning cameo queen, and her effortless way with a one liner. As in Sex and the City she has The Women’s best line with, “Such a bad facelift… She looks like she’s reentering the Earth’s atmosphere.” Also delightful is Cloris Leachman as the crotchety house keeper prone to admonishing her boss with sayings like, “Keep your Wonder Bra on…” While the dialogue isn’t exactly as elegantly snappy as Luce’s words, these two old pros deliver their zingers effortlessly.
The Women doesn’t have the naughty edge of Sex and the City or the youthful exuberance of the Sisterhood movies, but it shares common ground with those pictures in its heartwarming message of friendship and empowerment.
Natural disasters, wars, election drama looming on both sides of the border…Set against that backdrop can the box office success of one more chick flick really matter?
Does Kim Kardashian know Esperanto?
Yet in that illustrious hill of beans known as Meg Ryan’s “girl power” comedy, “The Women,” does matter. Its debut in theatres on September 12 will be scrutinized by studio execs and critics much like moviegoers will ogle Eva Mendes, Ryan’s smoking hot film nemesis. Why? It’s all about the money, honey.
Making movies by and for women has certainly not been a top priority in Hollywood. But two of 2008’s top-grossing films have shifted Hollywood’s thinking: “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!”
As of the end of August, 2008 “Sex and the City” has made $152 million in the United States and $236 million overseas. “Mamma Mia!’s” haul is no less impressive. To date, the film version of the famed musical has earned $126 million in the U.S. and $250 million overseas.
Both “women’s” movies proved to be far more than flukes at the summer box office. They also proved that chick flicks can lure male moviegoers into theatres.
Can “The Women” do the same?
Pumping up the girl power
“The Women” isn’t Tolstoy. Don’t hold that against it. And if you’re annoyed that director Diane English dared to remake George Cukor’s 1939 classic, get over it. Remakes are the plat du jour in today’s Hollywood.
At its core “The Women” – a tale about a rich Manhattanite (Ryan) who learns of her husband’s affair with a shopgirl (Mendes) – holds as much appeal today as it did when Joan Crawford strutted her stuff as this story’s “other” woman. Cattiness, compassion, comic genius…Cukor juggled all that plus some crafty little nuggets about marriage, female friendship and love into a bonbon that only gets better once the wrapper comes off.
Like Cukor’s estrogen-stoked original English’s update is locked and loaded with heavyweight talent. Annette Bening (Ryan’s overbearing best friend), Debra Messing (the earth mother), Jada Pinkett Smith (the lesbian), Bette Midler (the jaded casting agent) and Candice Bergen (Ryan’s big-screen mom) easily round out this Gucci-clad girls’ club. In fact, Bergen nearly steals the show with her pithy one-liners and the Botoxed-brand of wisdom.
Tooled for the times, “The Women” even works some Oprah-esque self-help into its dialogue. “What do you want?” Midler’s ballsy character asks Ryan at a personal power retreat. From that moment Ryan visualizes these words 24/7 and morphs from a duped wife with no life into a dynamo who goes for her dreams.
Can women rule in Hollywood?
If it’s a hit “The Women” could help propel Hollywood’s “girl power” momentum to new heights. If its success eclipses “Sex and the City” and “Mamma Mia!” that’s just one small step in the right direction, says Phyllida Lloyd.
“Frankly I find it very odd that in a population that’s more than 50 per cent of women that Hollywood isn’t producing more movies to cater to that audience. The demographic is being grossly underserved in my opinion,” the 50-year-old Mamma Mia! director told CTV earlier this summer.
According to www.moviesbywomen.com only five per cent of Hollywood features are directed by women. In fact, women comprised just seven per cent of the directors working on the top 250 films of 2006, 92 per cent of these films had no female directors at all and 63 per cent had no female producers.
As for meaty leading roles for 21st-century actresses, consider this. When George Cukor made “The Women” in 1939 Bette Davis stared in “Dark Victory,” Greta Garbo headlined in “Ninotchka,” Judy Garland sped to super-stardom in “The Wizard of Oz” and Vivien Leigh conquered the world with “Gone with the Wind.” Can anyone remember a year like that in Tinseltown in recent times?
“The only rule in Hollywood is that there are no rules. Nobody knows what is going to sell,” says Canada AM movie critic Richard Crouse. “‘Every now and then a movie comes along that goes against the current wisdom of Hollywood. For example, movies headlined by women can’t make money. ‘Sex and the City’ changed that. It proved to Hollywood that women do go see movies, not just 15-year-old girls.”
“The Women” has its charms and enough stilettos to kick most gold-digging, husband-stealing social climbers to the curb. But can it kick some serious box office butt? Can it convince Hollywood to make more movies geared to a female demographic? Like those breathy studio execs we’ll have to wait and see.
As Lloyd says, “To have Hollywood tell me or other women like me that we’re not a market that interests them is silly. Good stories work. Hollywood should wake up to that and give this audience films they want.”