Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Women

The Women (1939)

I loved the 1939 version of this film for a million little reasons. One of the main reasons was the wonderful actresses featured. Joan Crawford is deliciously evil in her role as Crystal Allen--skanky, husband-stealing, perfume counter girl. It was fun to see Joan Fontaine in a comedy rather than a Hitchcock suspense thriller. She's lovely and plays the sweet character of Peggy, married to a poor, proud man. Sylvia Fowler, (Rosaline Russell) is meant to be a friend to Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) but one has to wonder at the joy she gets in having "one up" on her friend who they all seem to think of as an idealist when it comes to love and marriage.

As the film opens, Mary is portrayed as a woman very content and secure in her life. She's riding with her young daughter in sporty clothes, fooling around with a camera in a playful way, then lovingly talking to her daughter about her honeymoon and love and how she and daddy were going away to Canada on a trip like they did so long ago. It's a sweet scene and it's clear how close the Mary and her daughter are and how much she does adore her husband Stephen.

Quickly she dresses for her luncheon with the women come pouring in--Sylvia, Peggy, Nancy Blake (Florence Nash), an "old maid" author, and Edith Potter (Phyllis Povah) who has what feels like a million children. Prior to the luncheon Sylvia discovers the gossip about Stephen Haines and his perfume counter tryst from her manicurist and she wastes no time in spilling everything to Edith. They can barely contain themselves and their news at Mary's house. We also meet the Haines maid and nanny who share a fun little scene later in the film.

The film, based on a play by Clara Booth Luce, features an all female cast. The cattiness of women is showcased quite nicely and friendships are brought into question. As is the issue of how to deal with infidelity, when Mary's mother offers advice about what SHE did in the same situation years earlier. Mary's not quite able to look the other way and she spends a miserable month in Reno with several young women awaiting their divorces, including two memorable characters she met on the train--Countess DeLave and Miriam Aaron. Marjorie Main (known for her role as Ma Kettle) plays Lucy, the dude ranch operator whose seen it all. These were some of my favorite scenes.

In addition to the witty exchanges, the drama of a marriage falling apart, the Reno divorce process, we also get to see great clothing, on the women throughout the film, but also in a fashion show the women attend. Also notable is the salon where the women get their facials, massages, exercise, mud baths, manicures and so forth. Supposedly that was modeled after the actual Elizabeth Arden salon.

This version of The Women was a nice attempt that seemed to miss the mark. For starters, Meg Ryan didn't seem to be the sort of woman Mary Haines was. Sure, she's mucking about in the garden and being all one with the earth in a carefree way, but she's also sort of oblivious and not very doting or aware of her husband. It's not clear she even really cares about him much. She's estranged from her daughter who is going through an awful preteen stage. She doesn't garner the same kind of sympathy as Norma Shearer. In this version Sylvia Fowler (Annette Bening) is single and dedicated to her career; she's also meant to be Mary's best friend. Some of the women characters are stripped away in this version and others are beefed up. The role of Edith/Edie is played by Debra Messing who is meant to be some artsy, hippy-esque, mother of 6 or something like that. The role of the old maid author, Nancy Blake, becomes a character called Alex Fisher (Jada Pinkett Smith) who is also a writer but in this case a lesbian. The lesbian element was actually part of the original play but was downplayed by MGM in the film. Eva Medes is perfect for the role of Crystal Allen, however.

The ultimate mistake this film makes is in changing the whole message to one of "friendship." They softened Sylvia's cattiness and all three women are concerned about Meg, rather than gleefully standing by and watching as the mighty tumble and fall. Of course, setting this in modern day eliminates the need for the Reno stay, which was too bad. They substitute that bit with a sort of week long retreat Mary goes on after everything falls apart in her marriage. There she meets, not the countess, but a woman named Leah Miller who is an agent aptly played by Bette Midler. There are shades of the original story happening here, but it's not nearly much rolicking good fun as it was in the 1939 version.

I particularly liked how the original film had two "bad guys." One, the mistress who we are all meant to despise. And two, her friend Sylvia, who is determined her friend discovers Stephen's betrayal. It's hard to know who is worse, but then I've seen this played out in life in a variety of ways, so to see that element stripped from the 2008 version as if somehow women had changed, seemed like a step back from reality.

Someone might enjoy The Women (2008) if they'd not seen the original film. After all, it could just be another film about friendships ala Sex and the City. But if you want to really see something entertaining, I'd watch the dear old 1939 black and white bit of fun.

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