OTI Online
Winter 1997

First Wives Club / Girls Town
Movie Reviews by Kathy Maio

"Comeuppance, see me sometime..."
Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton in "First Wives Club"

Photo: Andy Schwartz
© 1996 Paramount Pictures

Men are really uncomfortable with movies about angry women.

Oh, I don't mean movies about the traditional femme fatale. She's a male fantasy: a sex machine who acquiesces to her inferior position. She wants money and power but accepts that she can't get them for herself. So she spends most of her screen time giving sex to various stooges in the hopes that they'll act upon the world in her behalf. Then, just when it seems like she might get what she wants, she usually takes a bullet.

No, I mean movies about women who have recognized their oppression and are unwilling to bow down any longer. They aren't interested in acquiescence or cajolery or seduction. They want out. Or, scarier yet, they're ready to fight back.

That kind of thing gives men the heebie-jeebies -- which is why many male critics so bitterly denounced a warm female-buddy road picture called Thelma and Louise a few years back. That is also why frightened cries of "male-bashing!" greeted last winter's Waiting to Exhale -- a film that regrettably kept its multiple female leads obsessed with men and romance but at least permitted them to feel wrath at their mistreatment.

So I was not at all surprised when men (as critics and audience members) generally failed to embrace First Wives Club. As comedy divas Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton romped their way through a feminist farce about getting even -- and then getting past it -- women cheered and men grumbled.

The weekend First Wives Club opened, I had fun surfing the Net for the reviews. One guy called it "manure." Another dismissed it as a "shrill, obnoxious sitcom." But women (who usually read film reviews more carefully than men before spending their hard-earned dollars on movie tickets) ignored the naysayers and swarmed the theaters, giving the film a $19 million opening -- the biggest September opening ever.

Smart women! First Wives Club is something Hollywood hasn't produced since 9 to 5 some 16 years ago: a film exhilaratingly woman-positive and funny. The movie is actually better than the Olivia Goldsmith novel on which it is based. Screenwriter Robert Harling (writer of Steel Magnolias and writer/director of The Evening Star) toned down the passive victimization of the lead characters and instead pumped up the active situation comedy. With a comedy triumvirate like Midler, Hawn, and Keaton, that was a wise choice. Keaton plays Annie, a well-to-do doormat, deeply in denial over how sleazy her ad-exec hubby (Stephen Collins) is. Annie has no trouble accepting her feminist daughter (Jennifer Dundas) who comes out to her as a lesbian, but Annie can't bear to admit that her marriage is over.

Midler, seriously frumped-down for her role, plays Brenda, a displaced homemaker who has a pubescent son and has trouble making the rent now that her appliance-king husband (Dan Hedaya) has run off with a free-spending "preschooler."

And Hawn plays Elise, a Hollywood actress and plastic-surgery junkie who hasn't worked in over a year. She taught her producer-husband (Victor Garber) everything he knows about the biz -- now he's using that knowledge to launch the movie career of the sweet bimbette (played by Showgirls' Elizabeth Berkley) he dumped her for. And he's asking alimony.

All three had been best buds in college but had lost touch with one another. They are reunited at the funeral of a fourth friend (Stockard Channing in an unbilled cameo) who took a dive from her penthouse apartment when her husband left her for a trophy wife. At a boozy lunch, the three survivors commiserate. But when it dawns on them that collective self-pity isn't enough, they decide they want revenge, and together they set out to get it. If this movie had stopped there -- with the madcap vengeance of three midlife women -- it probably would have lost me. I have only so much sympathy for women with access to wealth and property. Nasty payback exercises alone hold little entertainment value -- even when they're leveled against men who richly deserve the worst.

But Harling's screenplay takes the story a step further than Goldsmith's novel. Eventually the three women realize that they need to direct their rage toward a positive goal, so they devise a scheme that will humiliate their exes and separate them from dearly loved dollars and help other women. It's brilliant! And their final triumph -- just the three of them belting out Leslie Gore's "You Don't Own Me" as they dance off into the night together -- is sheer magic. I'd given up hope that Hollywood would ever make a comedy this satisfying -- for women, that is. We leave The First Wives Club feeling absolutely buoyant. Men, on the other hand, oft leave the theater less than thrilled. Tough. (Welcome to the cultural gender gap, boys.) If First Wives Club accomplishes only one thing, I hope it's to send a message to the major studios that women "of a certain age" have box office power.

Not just older women are overlooked by Hollywood. Teen women are also largely ignored -- or portrayed as fashion-plate airheads, as in last year's Clueless. That's the situation documentarian and music video/public service announcement director Jim McKay hoped to address when he made his first feature film, Girls Town. McKay, who identifies himself as a feminist, had the commitment to give young women a voice, but he wisely recognized that he didn't have the experiential knowledge to pull it off. His solution to this problem led to a daring experiment.

First, he cast his movie with women ranging in experience from Lili Taylor (the queen of the indies, with over a dozen films to her credit) to Brucklin Harris (a relative newcomer with previous roles in Zebrahead, Juice, and Dangerous Minds) to screen novice Anna Grace. Then McKay worked with his performers to transform his story treatment into a screenplay, through a series of workshops over several months. Since the women's improvisations and feedback brought a female reality to his original concept, McKay shares writing credit with his actors.

Girls Town was shot in two weeks, in New Jersey and Queens, on about $15,000 (funded mostly through McKay's credit cards). It is outspoken, unpolished, and easily the most realistic movie ever made about the lives of young women.

Although the film could not be further stylistically from the big-budget farce First Wives Club, Girls Town actually has a similar plot and explores comparable themes. Here, too, three women are forced to reevaluate their own lives when they learn of the suicide of a fourth friend.

Patti (Taylor) is a single mother who can't seem to free herself from the abusive father of her child. She's a poor student but an excellent mechanic. Angela (Harris) and Emma (Grace) are both college-bound. All share certain misgivings about what their "adult" lives will be like as they finish their senior year of high school. And all are shattered by the news that their mutual friend Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis) has taken her own life.

They pore over Nikki's purloined diary for clues to her death -- and find one written in bold, ugly language. Nikki had recently been raped. She had told no one and had eventually been crushed by her pain. At first shocked that Nikki hadn't confided in them, the trio soon admit that they, too, have kept ugly secrets from one another.

Painfully, awkwardly, they break that silence. Only then do they finally lay claim to their anger -- about Nikki, and about the violence and exploitation they have all experienced in their young lives. Strengthened by one another, and emboldened by their deepening rage, the three start acting out in ways that alarm their mothers and exasperate their boyfriends. But parental and masculine approval no longer seem that important -- not compared with this new power Patti and Angela and Emma feel each time they fight back together. Unlike the comfortably-off divorcees of First Wives Club, these three teens don't have the option of working out their anger in dignified boardrooms and at fashionable auctions of fine objets d'art at Christie's. This is street-corner payback -- sometimes frightening but equally energizing to watch.

Because McKay and his cast clearly wanted to empower young women, the characters of Girls Town are universally triumphant in their campaign of retribution. This I was happy to see. Yet since the rest of the film is so realistic in tone, I found their almost hassle-free rampage rather jarringly romantic.

In real life, girls who trash a date-rapist's car might well face distressing consequences. When a young woman denounces a guy who sexually harasses her on the street, he's not all that likely to apologize the next time he sees her. But so what if Girls Town is a gritty never-never-land? This is the kind of fairy tale we need: a movie that encourages girls of all ages not to suffer in silence but to fight back loudly and proudly.

Kathy Maio is film editor of Sojourner: The Women's Forum and author of Feminist in the Dark and Popcorn and Sexual Politics.

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