Monday, September 8, 2008

Luce Interpretation

“WOMEN..With One Prayer in their HEARTS…Gimme”
“WOMEN…With One Word on Their LIPS…”Meow”
WOMEN..With One Thought on their MINDS…”Men”

That’s the slogan on the advertising poster for The Women, the 1939 movie adaptation of Clare Boothe Luce’s stage comedy featuring an all-female cast headed by Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and Norma Shearer. Directed by George Cukor and written by the incomparable Anita Loos, the movie was a nicely catty bitchfest, with line after line of sharp, rapid repartee.

Diane English, who created Murphy Brown seemingly a lifetime ago, has decided to make her feature-film debut with a 21st-century remake of The Women, produced by and starring Meg Ryan. (It feels timely, since Murphy Brown is back on the radar, now that the Republican Party has decided that single motherhood is okey-dokey.) The resulting film is not nearly as bad as you might expect of an effort to redo a classic, but not nearly as good or funny as you might hope.

Ryan plays Mary Hanes, a well-heeled Connecticut wife who discovers that her husband Steven — who does not appear in the all-girl movie — is having an affair. Her female friends, played by Annette Bening, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith, rally to her defense, comforting her and then confronting the object of Steven’s affections, a sexy gold-digger named Crystal, who works behind the perfume counter at Saks Fifth Avenue.

In the original The Women, the home-wrecking perfume-spritzer was played with to bitchy perfection by Joan Crawford. English’s update offers Eva Mendes, who is undeniably more voluptuous than Crawford, but as an actress scarcely fit to carry La Crawford’s shoulder pads.

English offers a more modern version of Mary, the sweet, long-suffering homemaker played by Norma Shearer in the original. Meg Ryan’s Mary, with long blond curls that partly conceal the actress’ unfortunate plastic surgery, has a career. She designs dresses for a clothing company owned by her father, but she isn’t all that she can be, having curtailed her ambitions to raise her daughter and keep house — with the help of a housekeeper (played by Cloris Leachman) and a Danish cook.

The original play and movie depended a great deal on the repartee among the women, particularly Rosalind Russell’s sharp, confident Sylvia, who as played by Annette Bening is the only character in the movie written with any depth. Pinkett Smith seems like a politically correct afterthought; she plays Alex, a leather-jacket-wearing lesbian novelist. (Black and gay — a twofer!) Messing, of Will & Grace fame, is saddled with the worst part: Edie, an earth-mother type obsessed with having babies. This allows the movie to indulge in a cliché I fervently hope will someday be banned — the hectic “wheel-the-pregnant-woman-into-the-delivery-room” scene, with poor Messing called upon to bellow like a moose while giving birth.

The acting is passably good, particularly Bening as the stressed, conflicted Sylvia. But English’s television-honed talents don’t translate well to writing and directing for the screen. The pacing is slack and the laughs are few. The script is laden with elephantine lines like “What does she sell, Chanel Number Shit?”

Yet despite its considerable shortcomings, English’s Women does a few things well. It preserves a large portion of the original dialogue, rightly figuring that you can’t improve on lines like “there’s nothing like a good dose of another woman to make a man appreciate his wife,” said in this version by Candice Bergen as Mary’s wise mother. This version also rectifies the old movie’s most annoying, dated element: the simpering character of Mary, who waits patiently for her husband to come to his senses and welcomes the bum home with open arms — literally — at the end of the movie. 
Unlike Luce and Loos, English is not an especially witty writer, but her Murphy Brown character — said to be English’s alter ego — confronted working women’s issues with a modicum of realism, and those sensibilities inform her version of The Women. Luce’s 1936 women were Manhattan socialites who spent their days luxuriating at the spa and gossiping. In this version, feminine fulfillment comes not from relationships but from work. Rather than wring her hands over her husband’s infidelity, Mary decides to revive her career — that is, after engaging in some Eckhart Tolle “Power of Now” affirmations. Okay, so Mary’s career, like Murphy Brown’s, is a Hollywood fantasy version of a New York career: she launches her own couture line, which she debuts with an elaborate runway show, a nod to the silly Technicolor fashion show MGM stuck awkwardly in the middle of the black-and-white 1939 film. But at least she’s shown as doing something.
A word about the economic context of the film: everyone, even the extras, looks like a fashion model, and all the characters enjoy a luxurious lifestyle of shopping, spa-going and facelifts. The name “Saks” is uttered maybe a dozen times. Mary, whose husband is a Wall Street tycoon so prominent that their breakup makes the Post’s Page Six (unlikely!), has a large home in Connecticut with servants, and launches her designer line with the gift of her mother’s “inheritance.” There’s no financial collapse in a country mile of this world. It’s the usual brand of designer pornography, which moviemakers think women love. They may be right: the same consumerist ethos made this year's earlier estrogen-fest, Sex & the City a big hit among women.
The movie’s most interesting scenes focus on Sylvia, a fashion-magazine editor who has a lot in common with Murphy Brown. Sylvia’s struggles — competition from younger staffers, pressure to make editorial compromises, the wrenching choice of career over marriage and motherhood — are similar to those raised by Murphy Brown in the 1980s. Unlike the rest of the movie, Sylvia’s scenes ring fairly true.

Although many of English’s jokes fall flat, she brings a more sympathetic perspective on women’s issues than Luce, whose wry view of her own sex was expressed in this comment about the play: “The women who inspired this play deserved to be smacked across the head with a meat ax, and that, I flatter myself, is exactly what I smacked them with.”

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