The Women–Why Remake a Classic?

“The Women” 1939. George Cukor, director. MGM, 133 minutes.

Written by Clare Booth Luce and directed by George Cukor, the original production of “The Women” is a nearly perfect film, one of those masterpieces of 1939, the Golden Year of movie making. Populated entirely by women (reportedly even the dogs and horses in the film were female), it presents a witty, sophisticated, and stylish view of the catty and competitive world of Manhattan’s high society matrons.

The story centers on Mary Haines (Norma Shearer), seemingly the most grounded of a large group of diverse friends whose most common denominator is that they have time to shop and do lunch. She is happy, intelligent, kind and dignified, enjoying a successful partnership in which her husband manages the business while she manages the home. But they spend little time together, as the film’s all-woman cast and all-female settings subtly point out.

When two of her friends discover that Mary’s husband is having an affair with a perfume-counter girl (Joan Crawford) they contrive a way for Mary to find out and then sit back to watch what she will do about it. They don’t care about her; they just want to watch the cat fight and have a great story to share at the next dinner party.

Mary’s instinct is to look the other way. If she doesn’t know about his infidelity, he just might over it, and it won’t have to affect their marriage. Othello reacts the same way when Iago convinces him that his wife, Desdemona has been unfaithful:

I swear ‘tis better to be much abused

Than but to know’t a little….

What sense had I of her stol’n hours of lust?

I saw’t not, thought it not, it harmed not me;

I slept the next night well, fed well, was free and merry…

He that is robbed, not wanting what is stol’n,

Let him not know’t, and he’s not robbed at all…

I had been happy if the general camp,

Pioneers and all, had tasted her sweet body,

So I had nothing known.

This “ignorance is bliss” approach is, in fact, the advice Mary receives from her mother, who confesses that she has been there and done that, and kept her own marriage intact. “Go away for a few days,” she recommends. “There’s nothing like a good dose of being left alone to make a man appreciate his wife.” Indeed, the tactic seems to be working; in a one-sided phone conversation at the perfume counter, Crystal has to wheedle and connive to convince the cooling Stephen Haines to see her.

But Mary’s catty, gossipy friends can’t let it drop. Led by her best friend, Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), they manipulate a humiliating confrontation between Mary and Crystal (one of the most delicious scenes ever filmed) while both are trying on negligees at a fashionable boutique. Publicly devastated, Mary now has to act. Like Othello, she is pushed into a decision she does not want. Urged by her friends to place her reputation above her own happiness, she travels to Reno and obtains a divorce.

Meanwhile, her husband now has no excuse but to marry the other woman, who begins looking for greener pastures even while she is the new Mrs. Stephen Haines. He, too, is miserable, or so says Little Mary, their daughter to a sad but stoic Mary. Most divorced women would delight in this outcome as the ultimate revenge. But not our Mary. She misses her husband. Armed with the knowledge that he misses her too, she confidently manipulates a confrontation of her own in an even more delicious scene that takes place in one of the sumptuous ladies lounges of the 1930s night clubs.

As Mary heads out of the lounge to rekindle her marriage, Sylvia demands, “Have you no pride?” With the joyous glow of love shining from her eyes, Mary responds, “No pride at all. That’s a luxury a woman in love can’t afford!”

The film’s ending has been debated in recent years: doesn’t she sell out to conventional mores? Shouldn’t she assert herself? Establish a career? Is she just too weak to imagine a life by herself? The answer is more in Norma Shearer’s face than in the words or action of the script. That glow is unmistakable—she is not selling out. She is indeed asserting herself by going after the one thing she wants: her marriage. It’s one of my all-time favorite scenes.

“The Women” 2008. Diane English, director. Picturehouse Entertainment, 114 minutes.

Deciding to remake such a time-honored classic as “The Women” would be risky even in the hands of a talented and seasoned director. Why would a first-time director even bother? Perhaps Meg Ryan, Annette Benning, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith, Candice Bergen, and Cloris Leachman consider themselves on a par with Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Godard, Joan Fontaine, and Marjorie Main. But they are sadly mistaken—and now thye have made it abundantly clear. The only cast member who could possibly qualify is Bette Midler, and she is woefully underused.

As expected, the recent remake of “The Women” is a mere caricature of the original, more sitcom than film presence. And no wonder—director Diane English’s career has been in television, mostly writing episodes of “Murphy Brown” and “The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo.”  She doesn’t seem capable of eliciting nuanced performances or complex emotion. Every character is a stereotype, and every movement and expression an overaction.

Moreover, the film doesn’t transfer well to the 21st century. Developing a stage play and then a film with an all-woman cast was far from gimmicky in the 1930s, when husbands and wives often lived parallel lives in separate universes. The all-woman scenes take place naturally in the beauty salon, health spa, kitchen, fitting rooms, and perfume counters—all strictly off limits to the 1930s male. Not seen but implied is a similarly one-sided environment in which men spent time only with other men. These two mutually exclusive environments, Booth Luce implies, were damaging to marriage.

While Booth Luce makes an excellent point about the power of peer pressure, even among adults, this all-woman strategy feels utterly contrived and unnatural today.  Men and women interact side by side getting hair cuts, running the tread mill, shopping for groceries, sharing parenting duties, and running the board room. Consequently, in the 2008 version, having an all-woman cast makes no particular point; it just seems jarring and odd. Even the one woman who seems to be happily married (Debra Messing), (judging by the fact that she has four young children and another on the way), announces that her husband is living in an apartment downstairs. Say what?

The most ridiculous scene of all takes place as the nanny reports the blow-by-blow to the housekeepe as Mary and Stephen fight about Crystal—why don’t we just go into the bedroom and see it for ourselves? The implication in the original is that Mary and Stephen probably didn’t have a confrontation at all. She was more likely to have quietly packed her bags and left him a dignified note, because that’s what convention and her wounded pride would have dictated. In a modern film not letting us see the husband makes no point whatsoever.

English seems to recognize this flaw, so while she goes ahead with the all-woman cast, she resorts to bodily fluids to make her point about the difference between men and. Her characters continually refer to peeing, sex, breast milk, menstruation, collagen injections, amniotic fluid, and a raunchy reference to saliva, a nail and a board that I’d rather not repeat. If bodily fluids are indeed the only remaining distinctions between women and men, then maybe there was no need for this remake.

What’s really missing from this new film is class. I miss the cool, subtle, imperious delivery of Booth Luce’s catty zingers, the kind that, when followed by a sweet smile, can make the recipient almost feel guilty for taking offense, while causing the audience to gasp with shocked delight. I miss Joan Crawford’s natural sexiness as she admires herself in the mirror–her Crystal did not see herself as a slut, nor did she play it that way. By contrast, all Eva Mendes needs is a pole–she has the chair and the garter belt.

Moreover, I miss the acknowledgement that a woman can find joy and satisfaction in being married to a man—or even having a conversation with one. Clare Booth Luce takes some well-deserved punches at the dangerous peer pressure of the women’s club, landing a few knock-outs in the process. But English seems honor bound to celebrate 70s style sisterhood throughout her film. At one point Sylvia says to Mary, “We’ll be each other’s wives.” Fine, if that’s what you both want, but Mary wants to be Stephen’s wife! Why can’t that be acceptable?

The joyfully anticipated reunion at the end of the original is lost as Mary must first establish a career as a fashion designer before her friends will allow her to consider reconciling with her husband. She must be “true to herself” before she can be true to him, they explain. Yet early in the film she is seen happily gardening, cooking, parenting. Why can’t a woman be “true to herself” in the kitchen? Is a paycheck the only measure of value today?  This is peer pressure in the extreme, and it goes unnoticed and unresolved in this unnecessary film.

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