From the Masters and the Movies column of the March 2009 issue of Perspectives on History

The Women, Then and Now: Remaking a Film and Recasting Roles

Ellen Carol DuBois, March 2009

The Women, Clare Booth Luce’s 1936 Broadway play and 1939 hit movie, is like a glorious, screwball, cinematic female vampire. It will not die. We continue to enjoy the original, now a movie classic; and it was released last year in a big-budget update written and directed by Diane English, best known as the creator, writer, and producer of the highly successful 1980s television sitcom, Murphy Brown. How do these two compare?

All of The Women’s more than 100 parts are written for women, and its wide variety of female roles and fabulous dialogue are irresistible to actresses. The 1939 version starred the luminous Norma Shearer as Mary Haines, Joan Crawford as the scheming Crystal Allen, and also Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Maine, and—as the only African American in the movie and in her first movie role—Butterfly McQueen. The 2008 version stars Meg Ryan in the lead role of Mary, along with Candace Bergen, Cloris Leachman, Annette Benning, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, Carrie Fisher, Bette Midler, and Debi Mazur. And, once again as the only African American woman (and doing double duty as the only lesbian), Jada Pinkett Smith.

Clare Booth Luce wrote The Women as if she knew what she was talking about, and she did. As “good” as wife Mary is, schemer Crystal has the author’s attention. Luce herself was a true crossover, from being an independent working woman of unclear origins to being wife of one of the most powerful men of the mid-20th century. Clare Booth was divorced and an editor at Vogue when Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life, left his wife to marry her. One year later, The Women opened on Broadway. Clare Booth Luce went on to be a two-term congresswoman, ambassador to Italy, and a powerful figure in the rising Republican far right. It’s a safe bet that most moviegoers under 30 won’t have the slightest clue as to who Clare Booth Luce is, any more than they will know the name of her husband. Most of my students have never even heard of Time or Life. Was there really a photo-weekly before People?

I expected to hate the 2008 version but I did not anticipate its many pleasures. If you know the 1939 version, it is great fun to watch the filmmakers playing with their adaptation. Many lines, repeated in their pristine integrity, still play fabulously 70 years after they were written. (Of Crystal: “She’s got those eyes that run up and down a man like a searchlight.”) The updating of the plot is just as fascinating. The last third of the 1939 version takes place in a Reno divorce resort, where Mary has gone to spend her necessary six weeks to get her quickie divorce. In 2008, Reno has become a yoga resort (I imagine somewhere north of San Francisco) where the same sort of women go for the same purposes of marking time as their marriages dissolve. The 1939 figure of the Countess, the comic character who continues to believe in the power of love despite her numerous divorces, is reprised by Bette Midler as a cynical Hollywood agent sneering as she preaches “l’amour, l’amour!”

Above all, The Women remains irresistible because the question it poses—can a woman be married and modern at the same time; can a woman, in other words, have it all—needs to be asked and answered endlessly. The dangers around which the two versions revolve remain virtually identical—a slutty, scheming woman who knows how to work a roving, middle-aged husband’s interest when his sweet but naive wife does not. Surrounded by her friends, Mary is misled into abandoning her husband to the scheming Crystal, only to relent and reconcile in the end. The clever trick of The Women remains as it was: to make men as irrelevant as they are central to this dilemma. Men are at once easy to manipulate through their predictable sexual desires, and at the same time the prize over which women struggle. Flesh and blood men are absent from both versions. They function solely as women’s fantasies, enchanting and infuriating in equal parts.

The absence of men points to the lesson at the core of The Women. A smart, modern woman is in charge and that means fighting for her marriage. The 1939 version is quite explicit that Mary’s ultimate selflessness in not overreacting to her husband’s dalliances is the very mark of emancipation. Mary’s mother reminds her daughter that women aren’t chattels any longer; they are men’s equals, and that means she must restrain her impulse to get rid of her husband. A modern woman has too much perspective, too much restraint, too much strategic acuity for such shortsighted action. Keeping a marriage going in the face of the weaknesses in men’s nature requires all the political skills that a modern woman can muster. The movie presents this combination of romance and realism as Mary’s modernness and as a correction of the excesses of feminism’s first wave. For as the movie’s lone unmarried career gal says of her spinster self (in 1939 not in 2008): “nature abhors an old maid with frozen assets.”

What has changed since 1939? In 2008, the route for Mary back to marriage takes a detour: Mary must “find herself” before she dares return to her marriage. Finding herself means a career of her own that isn’t so much about money (which is curiously missing from anyone’s consideration) but about self-discovery. Mary decides to open her own fashion business (why is fashion the only business area that modern women on screen can ever consider?) and in the blink of an eye, she is the bustling head of a 30-woman production and design staff. Announce a career and it will come. Repairing the marriage is still the ostensible goal, but in 2008 it has receded into the background. The memorable final scene in 1939 has Mary running open-armed to the husband just the other side of the camera. In 2008 she’s on a cell phone, squeezing a dinner with him into her crowded agenda. Selfishness, not selflessness, is now what makes a modern marriage work.

And yet despite its superficial hardheadedness in contrast to the 1939 version, The Women 2008 is at its core less clear-eyed. The Women in 1939 knew that choices must be made, and an undercurrent of the movie refuses to celebrate the compromises facing Mary. Perhaps it has something to do with how much less compelling Meg Ryan is in the lead role, but in 2008, the lesson offered (“find yourself”) is put forward as a successful solution to the modern woman’s dilemma, not a necessary concession to a still irresolvable contradiction for women between self and conjugality. In 2008, there are no misgivings. Can we have it all? While the original movie says no, and insists that a smart modern woman needs to understand this, in 2008, the answer is an unqualified yes.

Into the emotional void that this attenuated devotion to marriage for the modern woman opens up, comes an entirely new and distinctive element in the 2008 version, straight from the just preceding Hollywood feminist movie, Sex and the City. Ryan, Benning, Pinkett Smith, and Messing look for all the world like Charlotte, Carrie, Samantha, and Miranda strutting the streets of New York. In 1939 women are the real evil-doers in Mary’s life, especially the devious Sylvia, played by Rosalind Russell in her first comedic role. The movie looks at the claims of sisterhood with a withering eye.

By contrast, in 2008, the saving power of friendships among women is the ultimate romance. Annette Benning’s Sylvia undergoes as much of a transformation as does Meg Ryan’s Mary, as she comes to regret her disloyalty to her friend. Indeed, Sylvia becomes the most compelling character of the movie, no longer—as played by Russell—primarily a plot device, foil for the heroine, and comedic relief. In 1939, Mary’s mother warns her not to count on her girlfriends. In 2008, Mary’s mother has nothing to offer except the mistakes of her own devotion to marriage. In 2008, girlfriends are ultimately all a girl has. Even more than in 1939, men are emotionally as well as cinematically absent. As The Women 2008 draws to a resolution, Mary is weeping for her emotional loss. “Stephen?” someone asks. “No,” says Mary, “Sylvia.”

Given this, the question is: Why has the 2008 version passed so quickly into oblivion while the 1939 version remains widely revered? First of all, it should be said that the 1939 version is more lauded in retrospect than it was at the time. Its stature has grown considerably over the years, but when it first appeared, it was overshadowed by a parade of films that made 1939 one of the greatest years for Hollywood: The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Wuthering Heights, Young Mr. Lincoln, and towering over them, Gone with the Wind. Facing this line-up, The Women received not one single Academy Award nomination in 1939.

The New York Times reviewer Frank Nugent included The Women in his list of “Ten Best Films” for 1939. The Los Angeles Times gave it a strong review, predicting it would “bowl over the matinee trade”—that is, women movie goers. But most of the buzz for The Women in 1939 came in the gossip columns. Indeed the inclusion in the movie of Hedda Hopper, doyen of the official Hollywood yentas, playing herself, ensured that the goings on of the cast would be well and consistently covered in her columns and in those of her competitors.

The theme of virtually all this coverage was the nastiness among the women—the term “cat-fight” appears frequently—and this includes not just the characters on screen but the actresses themselves. Particularly highlighted was an alleged feud for top billing between Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, and Rosalind Russell. The considerable lore surrounding the movie includes an incident in which Russell, required by the script to bite Pauline Goddard’s leg, actually did so, giving her a nasty and permanent scar. In 1939, deep into the Great Depression, there is a strong class undertone to the movie’s sour take on women’s relationships. The review in Variety highlighted a line delivered at the end of the movie by Crawford, playing the kind of street-smart working girl at which she so excelled: “There is a name for you ladies, but it’s not used in high society outside of kennels.” Diane English omitted the line from the 2008 remake and thus also its subtle criticism of the lifestyles of Mary and her friends.

Bitchiness, it seems, is to the 1939 version what sisterhood is to the 2008 version, and perhaps the key to its success, both then and now. Which, if not the more accurate portrait of women’s relationships, is the one that plays better to crowds? So far, the verdict seems to be in favor of The Bitch, not The Girlfriend.

—Ellen Carol DuBois is professor of history at the University of California at Los Angeles. This essay is an expanded and revised version of an essay that first appeared in Dissent magazine online (October 8, 2008).