The Women (2008): Reno-vated

This is really an essay I have written sometime during the last year for my studies but I think it fits here as well. It’s about movies… and how much the concept of remakes of classics frightens and annoys me. Enjoy:

When I first heard that Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts had bought the rights of „The Women“ to make a remake of the 1939 classic, I thought: „Please, don’t!“ And although I next thought about a possible cast, I never doubted that it was a bad idea. (I am aware that there has been a remake before but since I have not seen it I cannot say anything about it.) It took 13 years for director Diane English to bring this remake to the big screen and despite bad critiques it was quite successful (for a movie without any male characters), still, its value is debatable, even though it claims to have a positive message for women.

The story follows socialite Mary Haines (Meg Ryan), whose husband, Stephen, is a big-shot financier at Wall Street and has been charmed by a woman (Eva Mendes) from the perfume counter at Saks, New York (the “Spritzer girl”). After some initial debating with her mother (Candice Bergen) and her friends (Annette Benning, Jada Pinkett Smith, Debra Messing) Mary decides to get a divorce. After having been betrayed by her best friend Sylvie (Benning), she “breaks up” with her, too, and gets some new perspectives while sharing a joint with “the Countess” (Bette Midler) at some rich women’s hide-out. Coming back she is going through an extensive make-over and reunites with Sylvie. Her husband meanwhile is terribly unhappy with his choice in girlfriend and wants his wife back. The conclusion is an extended (and disturbing) birthing scene (Mary’s friend Edie [Messing] is having her first son after four daughters) during which Stephen calls to get a date with his wife. Happy Ending.

One might ask why it took so long to make a movie so many stars were willing to sign on to (at times rumors included Blythe Danner, Marisa Tomei, Uma Thurman, and Queen Latifah, while Julia Roberts pulled out because she and Meg Ryan could not agree who was to play the lead) but production faced a lot of problems including pulling out of directors and actresses alike and some rewriting of the 1939 plot. Ultimately Diane English, who wrote the screenplay, took on the directing post and conspired with Victoria Pearman from Mick Jagger’s production company, Jagged Films, to get the show on the road.

            While the acting is excellent (and it should be with acting veterans like Annette Benning, Bette Midler, Candice Bergen, Cloris Leachman, and Carrie Fisher giving their all), the lines they have to deliver leave a lot to be desired. While these include old clichèes about lesbianism by the only lesbian character (Jada Pinkett Smith), the usual topic of conversation hardly varies from having children to respective husbands to charity work back to the lovable brood, since women have nothing else to talk about. The film claims to represent the modern woman but wades through marketable stereotypes. These rarely lift to leave time for the leads to connect and show that this is a film about friendship rather than about a failed marriage getting repaired at all costs (which of course happens despite the fact that the husband is a cheater). The movie sometimes leans too heavily on the characters of the 1939 film, especially in the case of Candice Bergen’s character, Catherine Frazier. Mary Haines’ mother in the origial, Mrs. Morehead played by Lucile Watson, is a Victorian matron for whom marriage is the ultimate goal of womanhood and is worth preserving under all circumstances and Candice Bergen’s character seems to support this old-fashioned attitude as well. Her recipe against marital problems is a face-lift.

            And this seems to be a message of the film as well. Although all actresses speak out against artifically changing one’s appearance in the “Behind-the-scenes”-sequence (which is sort of comical in Meg Ryan’s case since everybody can see that she had her lips botoxed) the movie sends the message that all a woman has to do to feel better about herself is a make-over, a new haircut, a shopping-trip, a manicure, and she will feel as good as new, no, better than new, improved.

            In addition to the conflicting messages send by the plot, the setting in an upper-class New York society sets the women of the film too far away from the viewer. The 1939 version had a greater variety of social statuses (if not of ethnicity) but the women in the 2008 version are all upper-class, a socialite, a publisher, the wife of a successful painter, a writer. Crystal Allen’s greatest fault seems to be that she is “the Spritzer girl” and not some up-shot CEO herself. It is so much less degrading for a successful woman to lose her husband to a woman of class and status than to someone working the perfume counter, I am sure.

            Another claim the movie and its makers make is that it is more about friendship than the original. Given, the 1939 version was a lot about gossip, casting columnist Hedda Hopper as Dolly Dupuyster of the same occupation is proof enough of that but George Cukor would not have gotten the title of “women’s director” if he had just shown a bunch of catfighting women. Instead he matches the women more evenly to their characters than their husband’s paychecks. In the end Mary (Norma Shearer) might have lost Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell) as her friend but that woman is much better matched with Mary’s rival Crystal (Joan Crawford), while Mary links with Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard) and Countess De Lave (Mary Boland). These women may not have been feminists but they are also not elitists, at least Mary is not and she is the heroine after all.

            I guess, what is most annoying to me is that the movie is trying hard to be accepting and supporting diversity in women but pushes these same diversities to the sidelines. It is no coincidence that the only gay woman in the main group of four is also the only woman of color. At the same time the woman to steal the husband is a latina and in the end she turns out to be bisexual (she is hooking up with Alex’s ex, a supermodel) since everybody knows that bisexuals are sexually amoral/promiscuous. Also, three of the four leads get their private happy ending – the straight women, while the gay woman must be contented to be professionally successful.

            “The Women” of 2008 has been made under the pretense of being empowering to women, all women, but the only women it is supporting are straight women with kids and/or a job of middle to upper class. At the same time it stereotypes women as shoppers and gossips, who only need a new pair of shoes to get over their failures in life. I am saddened by this since I had hoped that even as bad as the concept of a remake of a classic is, it might have been witty and feminist and empowering for women. Why anyone would want to make a remake of a George Cukor movie anyway is beyond me. Why not just watch the original?


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