September 12, 2008

"The Women"

From my review of "The Women," starring Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and the traditional all-female cast, in The American Conservative:

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 cultural change.

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. ...

But then I watched the original from Hollywood's annus mirabilis of 1939, and it makes the 2008 effort seems like The Importance of Being Earnest as rewritten to serve as a very special episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. ...

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?)


albertosaurus said...

I remember hearing a futurist speech by Ncolas Negroponte twenty years ago in which he said that we would someday have have TVs in which we would not just have knob with which to adjust the volume but also the content. We would be able to "turn up the dial" on profanity and violence to suit our tastes.

I can't imagine watching this movie unless I could increase its amount of Kung Fu and car chases.

Anonymous said...

Aren't there any bitchy gay men left in Hollywood who could have done for the remake what Cukor did in 1939?

Indeed, the play was revived on Broadway early this decade, and a number of gay actors were yearning to do the play in drag. I believe it was Musto in his column who called for a all-bitchy-gay cast.

Anonymous said...

Steve -- Gays pretty much dominate Hollywood's casting and have outsized representation among writers and producers. So I imagine there are plenty of "bitchy" gays available.

Which is the problem. "Twink" pretty boy actors and stick-figure "boyish" girls? The Man-boy? Silly ditz? Lack of anyone with the masculine presence of say, Jimmy Stewart, Kirk Douglas, or Robert Mitchum, or the feminine presence of Sofia Loren, Marilyn Monroe, etc?

Over-representation of gays.

Brett said...

So, by your theory, they should be doing remakes of old Lovecraft movies, because they were so awful that the remakes could only be better?

Anonymous said...

There probably won't be any remake of NOW, VOYAGER, which is perhaps the most profound Hollywood movie. So to test your theory, watch it now on DVD and ask yourself whether your reactions to it would have been entirely different if you had seen it when it came out in 1942.

It's a test I think I'm fairly good at giving myself. If I were 12 years old watching this movie in 1949, I would have concluded, along with everyone else, that it was a woman's weepie. I would have been rooting for the men, who I would have thought cut quite a heroic figure and were above all honest in dealing with Bette Davis, the heroine.

I didn't see it then, but I saw it recently. My reaction is that the men were all con men, dissemblers, ready to pounce and take advantage. Bette on the other hand was quite in control of herself. Maybe she should have been a little less critical of the men in her life, as Olivia de Haviland was at first with Montgomery Clift in the unforgettable THE HEIRESS. But then, again, we the audience knew -- or at least I now knew, even if audiences back in the 1940s did not know -- that these men were superficial, pretty boys with romantic accents, and Bette did herself a favor, maybe, in rejecting them. But we don't know, and Bette doesn't know, because there has hardly been any actress who can compare with her in projecting entirely different images of her soul per second. This incredible facial ability runs her character in and out of the third dimension. She is the quintessential three-dimensional actress, and perhaps for that reason -- though it is extrinsic to the film -- I was rooting for her.

But maybe I was wrong. She ended up in what struck me as a false bravura ending. I'll have to see it a few more times, and suggest the same to you.

-- Anthony D'Amato
Profess of Law
Northwestern University

Anonymous said...

So, by your theory, they should be doing remakes of old Lovecraft movies, because they were so awful that the remakes could only be better?

Heh. I think what Steve meant is that, statistically speaking, a newly released movie is likely to be average, whereas the old movies we remember are the best from their time. Also, Hollywood made a lot more movies in those days, so there were bound to be more good (as well as more bad) ones.

One question, though: If Ms English found the original version so distasteful, why did she want to remake it? I'm sure there are plenty of female empowerment scripts floating around Hollywood.

Steve Sailer said...

This speed of projecting facial expressions is one of those objective differences between a good actor and a great actor that doesn't get much talked about. The fastest I've seen in a male actor is Gerard Depardieu in Wajda's "Danton." Usually, Depardieu plays slow-thinking beefy blue collar guys, but playing an intellectual and leader here gave him room to run through his facial gymnastics at full speed.

Anonymous said...

75 yrs ago,Hollywood was run by men who loved the movie business and regarded it as just that,a business.

(they were also delighted to be American movie moguls rather than,say,jewish peasants in Poland and who wouldn't be?)

Today Hollywood is a "Community" of like minded people who make movies to appeal to each other and affirm both their fitness for and membership in the "Community".

Anonymous said...

To "brett", I'd like to se them re-do the Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. You know,update 'em and stuff. Steve,your comments on this movie were amusing. I KNEW with a woman director,it'd be fake feminist junk-food. Why'd she even do it in the 1st place,if she wanted to,uhm,emasculate(?) the pic? I read a review of this movie--which is a s close as I'll ever get to seeing it---by Roger Ebert.he gave it 3 stars and made some clumsy statements about how the good thing about this movie is it showcases these great(say what?) actresses and makes you regret not seeing them in more roles. HUH? Pinkett-Smith? Debra Messing?!?!? Meg Ryan?!?!? Basically,he thought the movie was junk,but he had to say something nice about it,because its an all girl feministing movie. Who needs integrity--he just wants to be loved!

Anonymous said...

Wesleyan's disproportionate movers and shakers...

Anonymous said...

Remakes are usually dreadful, especially if they try to throw in races, ethnicities, sexes, and general pc variables that just don't belong.
The movie screenplay and the original play were both written by women. Playwright Clare Booth Luce was a shining light in her day. A book about film history noted that women actually wrote more screenplays for major motion pictures in the 30s-50s than they did afterwards. I saw it recently and it was brilliant in a weird, exaggerated way.

The same sort of thing could have been done with men--but what am I saying? of course, it has been done with men done many, many times, but it usually just gets called a "movie."
Still, female directors, such as Sofia Coppola, who is way better as a director than as an actress,are doing quite well these days, way better than I would have expected 30 years ago. While formal "feminists" have outlived their usefulness (as do all ideologues), on the bright side for men, the "feminists" are a main reason childless, divorced women are lot less likely to receive alimony in the current century. Such financial anxieties were an underlying theme in the original.

Anonymous said...

I recently watched the remake and original of two male perspective films: "The Beat That My Heart Skipped", the optimistic remake; and the intentionally disturbing, male (not quite) coming-of-age 70s film, Fingers. "The Beat" does see the main character migrating toward political correctness, but only after a journey of masculinity and violence which pastel-sweatered Jacques Audiard-- the urbane French director-- observes is a necessary part of male maturation. The remake is economical and well acted. Fingers has a stronger basic structure, with both of the key subplots (enigmatic Last Tango femme and violent rent collections) contributing to the disturbing mood, and, as a result, it produces more dramatic force in its climactic moments. Both films are worth watching and the original/remake experience offers plenty of stimulating deja vu, such as in the pool and collection scenes.

Anonymous said...

The two movies also contrast the perspective of the young James Toback with the older, more mature Audiard, the bawdry 70s with the more refined 2000s, american and french, and true indy film with its slicker later cousin. The outcomes of the characters also seem to reflect the character of the directors at the time the films were made, both films, in a sense, being genuine derivatives of their different personalities and experiences.

These are quite different. In the director's commentaries Toback seems to go out of his way to imply that he slept with the dominant Jim Brown, who has a part in Fingers, while Audiard draws the film title from a song lyric "my heart skipped a beat, I threw my whip on the bed...and her beauty left me speechless" (which fits the film exactly).