August 28, 2008

Not that I need one, but the release of Diane English’s remake of The Women is a good excuse to revisit the George Cukor original.  It dates from 1939, that year when someone”€”maybe the Communists, although it doesn’t really sound like them”€”put soluble genius in Southern California’s drinking water and ended up giving us Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Dark Victory. It was a tough year to be an Oscar judge.

I haven’t seen the new remake, but I’m happy to read that English has kept the conceit of never showing a man onscreen and sticking instead to the ladies’ vivid descriptions. (Of a cowboy ranch-hand: “He could crack a coconut with those knees, if he could get them together.”)  I’m even more pleased to hear that the remake preserves the original’s best scene: homewrecker Crystal Allen pays another girl three dollars to go to her apartment and cook dinner so that Crystal’s married date, Stephen Haines, will think she has domestic skills. (She doesn’t.) The girl asks, “Will I find anything in that icebox of yours?” “Yeah,” says a coworker. “Cobwebs and a bottle of gin.”  In the new version, the line is “The big white square thing with the fire coming out of it? That’s the stove.”  I thought it had gone out of fashion to expect the definition of “marriageable” to include “handy in the kitchen” as much as “female,” “single,” and “not going to frighten the horses.” I’m happy to be mistaken.

I suspect that The Women: 2008 got a studio greenlight because someone pitched it as another Sex and the City, but The Women has always been a movie that cried out for an update, because it’s about the way that women change from generation to generation: twenty-somethings who don’t blink at breaking up a home, the middle generation that suffers at their hands, and the middle generation’s mothers who counsel their daughters that it’s better to put up with an occasional dalliance than to destroy a stable home.  The definitive quotes from each are, in order: “Thanks for the fashion tip, Mrs. Haines, but when something I wear doesn’t please Stephen, I take it off”; “Mother, it’s alright for you to talk of another generation when women were chattel and did as men told them to, but this is today!”; and “It’s about the only sacrifice spoiled women like us ever have to make to keep our men.”

The movie throws its barbs in just about every direction, taking socialites, shopgirls, and sob sisters all out for a ride. (“Don’t start calling me names, you Park Avenue playgirl. I know a lot more words than you do.”) But nobody takes it worse than the feminists. Power, like money, is only an instrumental good, the film argues; if all empowerment does is put you on the train to Reno, what’s the use?  This isn’t to say that the film is an unequivocal endorsement of the barefoot-in-the-kitchen brand of femininity. After all, I read somewhere that Clare Boothe Luce, who wrote the original play, absolutely loved a all-male production that the Army did in the 1940’s; we’re obviously dealing with a woman who could handle a little camp. Still, for those seeking a middle ground between feminism on the one hand and the straw-man of traditionalism that feminism has so successfully propagated on the other, The Women is a helpful touchstone.

When it comes to man’s inhumanity to man, gossipy women have been first across the tape since time began. It’s hell, but a hell of a good time, and The Women shows us both. One can only hope the remake doesn’t stray too far from it.


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