Knight at the Movies Archives
Diane English gets her remake into theatres after 14 years of trying, the Coen Brothers return with a signature black comedy
Surely one of the most adored movies of all time by gay men of a certain age is The Women. This 1939 classic helmed by gay
director George Cukor starred Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, and a cast of expert supporting players – all women.
Seemingly the only concern of these ladies is their men or lack thereof. The film was based on the successful play by Clare Booth
Luce and was spruced up and given plenty of verbal zingers by screenwriters Anita Loos and Jane Murfin. A misguide remake called
The Opposite Sex appeared in 1956 adding songs and men as a twist. June Allyson, Joan Collins, and Dolores Grey headed the cast
in that not very successful version. For years now, there’s been talk of another remake in the rumor mill and now, in the hands of
“Murphy Brown” writer-director Diane English, a new version is finally here.
Can this version of The Women compare to the original? Not for a second. Will gay men be quoting from it years from now,
saying with a dramatic flounce, “Oh L’amour! L’amour!” Nope. But that doesn’t mean that this version of The Women, an
amalgamation of The Stepford Wives, The First Wives Club and a sort of middle aged Sex and the City isn’t worth taking in. It is. But
fans of the original should alter their expectations while those who haven’t experienced the verbal sparring between Russell,
Crawford, Mary Boland, et al, should take in this new version first, if only to give it a fair shake.
English, who makes her debut with the film, has refashioned this new version into a modern day sisterhood movie, a decided shift
away from the shallowness of the source material in which all the women cared about nothing but the unseen men. Though there’s
still plenty of bitchery in evidence, this edition of the beloved classic is more about supporting your sister, not ripping her to shreds
the minute her back is turned. The plot again focuses on sweet Mary Haines (Meg Ryan still perky and still wearing those ringlets
filling in for sanctimonious Shearer) whose husband (Stephen, a high flying financier, who is unseen like all the men) is stepping out
with Crystal Allen who works behind the perfume counter (Eva Mendes taking the Crawford part and doing little with it). Though the
infamous encounter between Mary and Crystal still occurs in the dressing room (“If Stephen doesn’t like what I’m wearing I take it
off” Crystal retorts to Mary’s jab at her choice of lingerie) there’s not much heft to it. That’s because unlike the original, it’s not quite
the end of the world when the marriage falls apart.
What’s more devastating, or so it seems, is the end of the close friendship between Mary and Sylvie (Annette Bening taking on the
Russell part). The character of Sylvie has been morphed by English from a cartoon villain into a compassionate best friend for Mary,
an aging magazine editor who is blackmailed into giving a gossip writer (played by a somnambulistic Carrie Fisher) the scoop on the
love triangle (hence the rift). The ruptured friendship between Mary and Sylvie, the relationship of both to Mary’s daughter and
Mary's finding herself all take on much more importance than Mary winning Stephen back. Debra Messing as the constantly
pregnant Edie (whose gift with physical comedy is used to good effect) and Jada Pinkett Smith as Edie, the lesbian book writer (who
is given next to nothing to do) round out the quartet while the Joan Fontaine and Paulette Goddard roles have been eliminated
This refocusing gives the movie less superficiality but also less opportunity for outright comedy – though there are still plenty of
laughs (“He’s having an affair with the spritzer girl?” “What do you think she sells, Chanel No. Shit?” is one typical exchange).
These are to be expected from English, a pro at comic dialogue after years spent writing sitcom zingers. It’s also no surprise that
former sitcom stars Messing, Cloris Leachman (as Mary’s maid), Candice Bergen (who brings grace and sophistication to the film)
and Bette Midler (as the Countess whose screen time is reduced to two scenes) deliver the movie’s biggest laughs.
When Meg Ryan’s character says, “What do you think; this is a 1930s movie?” the audience laughs with the insider’s reference to the
original 1939 film but the point is that this is exactly what the audience wants this version of The Women to be. Focusing on female
empowerment, finding their own identity in a man’s world and starting female based empires like Oprah’s are fine up to a point but
the movie still satisfies most when it offers the audience the old fashioned stuff – the verbal zingers, the chance to revel in the
deluxe world of privilege these ladies take for granted (complete with couture fashion show), and most of all, the opportunity to see
the anxiety and heartbreak that such wealth and beauty exacts on characters like these. High class suffering has always been a
cornerstone of the chick flick and more of that would have gone a long way in helping this new sisterhood variation of The Women
NOTE FOR CHICAGO AUDIENCES: I’ll be discussing my review of The Women as a guest on the “Critic for a Day” segment on WTTW’s “Chicago
Tonight” on Monday, September 15th. The program airs on Channel 11 at 7pm.
The Coen Brothers, who inexplicably held sway over most critics and susceptible movie goers last year with what I think is one of the
most highly overrated movies in recent memory, No Country For Old Men (their most overrated film since The Man Who Wasn't There),
have returned with Burn After Reading. Now this, my friends, is more like it: here we are back on firm Coen Brothers bitter black
comedic territory ala Fargo and The Big Lebowski and the laughs are aplenty in this aptly tagged “smart movie about stupid people.”
The movie’s an espionage comedy ala the majority of Hitchcock’s best suspense films in which all the characters are after an object
that they desperately desire but which the audience could care less about (think What’s Up Doc? but with a lot more bite). In this
case, the object is a disc containing what idiotic gym trainers Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt are convinced is packed with top
secret government info. Both decide that the disc is worth big bucks – enough for McDormand to get the four cosmetic surgeries she
needs “to feel better about herself.” Pitt, who sports a pompadour similar to the one he wore in Johnny Suede, fancies himself a
private detective. Both set about to blackmail John Malkovich, the rightful owner of the disc and when they don’t get results, head
straight for the Russian embassy to turn tailcoat.
Malkovich, a former high level government official, has been demoted and walks away from his job to the derision of his icy bitch
wife (Tilda Swinton) who is in turn having a hot affair with George Clooney, yet another government operative. Many other characters
are thrown into the mix as McDormand and Pitt lead everyone on a merry chase to get their hands on the material, which may or
may not contain government secrets. As in other dark Coen Brothers comedies – including my favorite, Raising Arizona – the
everyday characters are heightened to the point of caricature. Much of the humor comes from recognizing these blown up characters
(hasn’t everybody encountered at some point a screamer like Malkovich, an obnoxious, oblivious guy like Pitt, an oily but irresistible
charmer like Clooney, a whiner like McDormand, an icy dragon lady like Swinton?).
The movie has a dream cast who relish their roles and the laughs are consistent throughout but unfortunately as the movie goes
along so is the Coens’ propensity for violence. When one of the major characters is killed off it adds nothing to the tone of the
already bitterly funny, dark picture and actually, weighs it down. And the Coens can’t seem to be bothered anymore with cleaning up
their messes (witness the maddening end of No Country For Old Men). Here, when characters wind up dead (as a number of them
do), they’re again disposed of off camera or in an aside, serving no point and leaving the audience dangling. Perhaps the Coens
realize that they’ll never be able to again achieve the penultimate combination of hilarity and repulsion that they did in Fargo when
McDormand as the police chief happens upon one of the kidnappers disposing of the other by feeding his body parts to the wood
chipper or maybe they just don’t plain care about the audience’s frustrated reaction to this device.
Burn After Reading, with its acrid flair and smartly written script that parades its merciless view of its characters (not unlike Thank You
For Smoking) isn’t going to be for all tastes (fans of the Judd Apatow adolescent comedies may find this mirror a little too revealing)
but the movie provides enough moments of snide humor and outsized laughs to satisfy those who like their comedies dark, dark
The Women-Burn After Reading
Expanded Edition of 9-10-08 Knight at the Movies Column*
By Richard Knight, Jr.
*Burn After Reading screened after my column deadline but in time for me to include it here