Here's my review in The American Conservative of last fall's remake of Clare Booth Luce's 1939 comedy classic with an all-female cast, "The Women."
Isn't it irritating when a know-it-all movie critic trashes a new release just because it's not as good as its classic source (whether that be an older film, book, play, TV show, or theme park ride). That's a tiresome routine because it's mathematically certain that most new movies will be comparatively worse than the material upon which they are based. The average new movie is, inevitably, average in quality, while the famous old works that Hollywood spends tens of millions adapting into new flicks were almost all above average.
On the other hand, the differences between the source and the new release offer useful clues to the filmmakers' point of view, and can illustrate the evolution of attitudes over the decades.
Therefore, my rule as a reviewer is to watch the new film first to see what my unbiased reaction is, then read the book or watch the old DVD.
The new version of "The Women" illustrates the value of this approach. It had been a couple of decades since I'd seen George Cukor's 1939 version of the satirical play by Clare Booth Luce (the future grande dame of the American Right) about Park Avenue ladies who lunch. So, I found the new film -- a chick flick buddy comedy about Mary (Meg Ryan) and Sylvia (Annette Bening), the squabbling best friends forever who eventually team up again to win Mary's husband back from the scheming perfume counter vixen Crystal (Eva Mendes) -- to be quite likable.
Compared to last summer's hit, "Sex and the City," "The Women" is shorter, less tawdry, somewhat funnier, and Meg Ryan is easier on the eyes than Sarah Jessica Parker. Some of the stars appear too Botoxed to manage understated facial expressions, but we don't live in an age of subtlety, so little is lost.
But then I watched the original from Hollywood's annus mirabilis of 1939, and it makes the 2008 effort seem like The Importance of Being Earnest as rewritten to serve as a very special episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show.
Norma Shearer, the stubby, cross-eyed Canadian whose indomitable determination made her Queen of MGM, brought her refinement and silent movie acting skills to the role of Mary, the betrayed upper class wife bravely trying to keep up the façade while crumbling inside. Shearer's real-life rival, Joan Crawford, who now seems too much the screen legend to be believable in most of her roles, was perfectly cast as the phony gold-digger Crystal. When playing herself -- an ambitious broad on the make trying to act the lovely lady -- she's awfully appealing.
And, in her first comic role, the great comedienne Rosalind Russell ("His Girl Friday" and "Auntie Mame") prefigured the I Love Lucy TV series by a decade with the slapstick willfulness of her Sylvia. In contrast to Annette Bening's sympathetic 2008 portrayal of Sylvia as a high-minded fashion magazine editor whose underlings want her to run sleazy cover stories on "How to Get Revenge," Russell's Sylvia was a spoiled stinker in Jungle Red nail polish who spreads poisonous gossip about Mary's marital troubles out of malicious glee.
The remake was intentionally declawed by its writer-director Diane English, creator of Candace Bergen's Murphy Brown television show, out of feminist loyalty to the team. English complained, "… the movie had very old-fashioned ideas that were in great need of updating … The original play and film were written as a poison pen letter to shallow society women who would stab each other in the back over a man … I had to figure out a way to shift the focus. I wanted to celebrate women …"
Self-esteem boosting female empowerment plot developments ahoy! (Aren't there any bitchy gay men left in Hollywood who could have done for the remake what Cukor did in 1939?)
Another question the new version raises is whether a classic comedy of manners can be adapted to an era that disdains manners as pretentious and undemocratic? The upper class just isn't as entertaining as it used to be. After the 1960s social revolution, the rich kept most of their privileges (such as being rich), but shed their traditional responsibility of edifying the masses with their starchy manners and dress. The current cult of authenticity allows the upper crust to live more casual, comfortable lives -- no more dressing for dinner! -- but, as the new "Women" demonstrates, less amusing ones, too.Rated PG-13 for sex-related material, language, and some drug use.