The Women first came to life on stage as a 1937 play written by Clare Boothe Luce. Critically panned, it was a popular success, running for more than 600 performances and making its way to the movie theater in George Cukor's 1939 film bearing the same name. Almost 70 years later, the women are back, and boy (or should I say girl?) has the world changed!
The action of the story, then and now, revolves around successful financier Stephen Haines cheating on his wife, Mary, with not-so-plain salesgirl Crystal Allen. In both cases, Mary decides that divorce is her only reasonable response. But back in the 1930s, divorce was hard to come by. The 1937 Mary Haines had to move to Reno, Nev., for six weeks in order to dissolve her marriage. The present-day Mary just needs to walk down to the courthouse.
Emotionally, though, it's not quite that simple. Mary's mother, herself the victim of an extramarital affair, warns her daughter that she should just keep her mouth shut and wait for Stephen to lose interest in Crystal. And it's clear that Molly, Mary's young teen daughter, is caught between her mother on one side and her father and his new live-in girlfriend on the other.
And then there are Mary's friends.
Perpetually pregnant Edie is the only one who really understands how Mary's familial longings can remain so strong, even after such a nasty betrayal. Alex (who replaces the play's Peggy and brings lesbianism into the mix) predictably thinks Mary should lay off men altogether. Rounding out the quartet of female friends is Sylvia. In the '30s, she and her blue blood husband were both running around on each other. As one of today's women, she's the single editor of a struggling fashion magazine whose philosophy is, "I'm the man I want to marry."
These three amigas are exceedingly concerned about Mary's situation and offer all manner of advice and support. That is, until Sylvia spills Mary's ugly divorce story to a vicious gossip columnist in exchange for a business favor.
Of note: This 114 minute film rolls along for about 112 minutes before the first (and only) male appears. Unless audiences have seen Cukor's The Women, that's likely something they've never experienced at the cineplex before.
Pregnant with her fifth child, Edie comments that "There's nothing more thrilling than knowing you're growing a human being inside of you."
Sylvia tries to bolster Molly's self-confidence by telling her that models in fashion magazines don't really look perfect—that their pictures are heavily edited.
Though her parents' separation is nothing close to a positive thing in Molly's life, her commentary on divorce helps to show its negative impact on children: "I used to feel sorry for the kids in my class [whose parents divorced]. Now I'm one of them." The feelings that result from a spouse's betrayal are also accurately and solemnly proclaimed: "It feels like someone kicked you in the stomach ... like your heart stopped beating ... your life is changed forever." And in a roundabout way, The Women hints at a dirty little secret about temptation, namely that succumbing to it doesn't fulfill: "There's nothing like a heavy dose of his mistress to make a man miss his wife," Mary's mother tells her.
Here, the idea of love is more about mushy feelings than commitment, but love is still held up as something worth making a sacrifice for. It's this value that causes Mary to turn down a huge business opportunity because her daughter needs her. [Spoiler Warning] Supporting that same ideal, Mary and Stephen eventually get back together.
After her split with Stephen, Mary goes away to a therapeutic resort. There, an exercise instructor tells her clients to "Respect the power of nature. Let it heal you." Mary's housekeeper accuses Sylvia of "casing the house like a Jehovah's Witness." A girl reports that a numerologist once told her that if she wanted to change her life, she'd need to change her name.
Runway models don low-cut outfits. (We're talking sternum-baring stuff here.) Crystal is shown in a bathtub, up to her chin in bubbles. Both she and Mary appear in a prolonged scene in which they try on lingerie in a fitting room.
Given the dearth of male bodies onscreen, sexual activity of the visual variety is pushed into the fully female category. Alex hold hands with a model she's dating. She also takes her friends out to a lesbian-themed bar where female patrons slow dance with each other and art portrays female couples with their bodies pressed close together. Alex repeatedly recounts the "benefits" of the lesbian lifestyle.
The topic of heterosexual sex isn't avoided by any means, though. Frank conversations revolve around affairs, withholding sex to punish a cheating partner, the marital benefits of acting like a "slut" in the bedroom, sexual boredom, sex between estranged spouses, oral sex and orgasms—real and faked.
As Molly comes of age, she finds her mother's sorry situation a reason to rue being a woman. In protest, she burns tampons. She also asks Sylvia about her first sexual encounter. After trying to divert the girl by saying she first had sex when she was 30 and, "It was horrible. It hurt like h---," Sylvia waxes philosophical and advises Molly not to have sex until she's in love. (If that advice weren't lame enough, she also undoes the good she's trying to do by admitting, "I've had pretty good sex just for the h--- of it.")
Two purse-sized dogs go at each other and are restrained by their owners. Somebody throws a piece of fruit and hits somebody else in the back of the head. Sylvia gives Mary permission to "behave badly" and "kick [Crystal's] a--." (She doesn't actually do it.)
Crude or Profane Language
God's name gets casually tossed around more than 20 times (sometimes as it's combined with "d--n"); Jesus' is abused twice. The s-word pops up more than a half-dozen times. And at least a dozen other rude and crude words find their way into the script.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Women drink champagne while trying on lingerie and while viewing a fashion show. Mary's friends treat her to a margarita after she discovers her husband's unfaithfulness.
Sylvia suspects Molly of smoking and asks the girl for a cigarette to find out if her suspicions are true. (They are, and the girl hands over her pack, though neither of them actually light up.) Molly says she smokes so she won't eat, because she considers herself fat. (She's not.)
Two characters share a marijuana joint. Mary jokes about how pharmaceuticals keep her going at high speed.
Other Negative Elements
Molly skips school and wears makeup and sexy clothing behind her mom's back.
Also, not exactly negative, but perhaps a little uncomfortable: Edie goes into labor onscreen. She reports that her water has broken, and then we see her in the delivery room, feet in the stirrups. Her long, loud cries during contractions are enough to make both onscreen friends and offscreen audiences squirm.
Watching the 2008 version of The Women without being familiar with its predecessors is something of a strange theatergoing experience. Several scenes and snippets of dialogue seem awkward or unnatural. And, really, the plot's about as thick as a pair of silk stockings from Saks.
Then, if you decide to dig a little bit, you discover that this film pays a lot of homage to the play and movie that came before it. Conversations are repeated almost verbatim (though they may be shifted to a different scene). Settings are merely reupholstered. The plot has been trimmed here and given a facelift there to eliminate elements that are outmoded in our "modern" culture. Example: Mary's stay at a "divorce ranch" in the old story hardly translates to the postmodern world, so she stays at a self-help resort/spa.
Though updated, the storyline certainly hasn't been improved at all by its current filmmakers. And rest assured, Clare Boothe Luce would not turn over in her grave if she heard me say that. She admitted in the foreword to her play that it's not heavy on plot. That just wasn't her objective. Instead, she wanted to satirize the snooty, high-class New York women who disgusted her.
I'm not sure the send-up translates.
Luce's satire isn't the biting, sarcastic kind we're used to. She simply parades her characters and their puerile lives across the stage for three acts, allowing them to prove to the audience how silly they are. There's hardly any moralizing from the writer's point of view. And when director Diane English brought the film into this century, she didn't make it clear—and perhaps she didn't want to—that the story's leading women are to be scoffed at, not admired.
So The Women ends up playing like just one more Sex and the City knock-off. This is a movie about four longtime female friends who like to gossip, shop, and obsess about sex and relationships. That's not satire in 2008. That's just "normal."
Of course, no women-centric film in today's culture would be complete without a little sermonizing about self-actualization. Having abandoned the idea of emphasizing the satirical angle of the original story, that's where the makers of The Women dig in their high heels: Mary learns that her real problem is not that her husband cheated on her, but that she doesn't really know who she is. She discovers that she needs to live less for others and more for herself.
I'd rather see ridicule.
Writing about the stories (Luce's wasn't the only one) that came out of the old Reno divorce industry, Patricia Cooper-Smith says, "To call it literature is debatable, but its social and cultural value is significant." She's right. As 1930s history, Clare Boothe Luce's tale is a telling (if sad) part of our past. But as 21st century entertainment, it's just more of the same that we've already seen too much of.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Meg Ryan as Mary Haines; Annette Bening as Sylvia Fowler; Eva Mendez as Crystal Allen; Debra Messing as Edie Cohen; Jada Pinkett Smith as Alex Fisher; Bette Midler as Leah Miller; Candice Bergen as Catherine Frazier; Carrie Fisher as Bailey Smith; Cloris Leachman as Maggie; India Ennenga as Molly Haines
Diane English ( )