Watching The First Wives Club I was struck with this thought: Phew – there’s a shit-ton of Oscar winners in this movie! A whopping five Oscar-winning actors are in this movie: Goldie Hawn (Cactus Flower), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Maggie Smith (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, California Suite), Eileen Heckart (The Butterflies Are Free), Marcia Gay Harden (Pollack); and two – Bette Midler (The Rose, Boys on the Side), and an uncredited Stockard Channing (Six Degrees of Separation) are nominees. One would assume with all these award-winning actresses, the movie would be an instant, iconic classic. And while The First Wives Clubhas a lot of charm, it’s definitely not going to be a highlight for the performers involved.
Somewhat dug up from Olivia Goldsmith’s juicy, gossipy 1992 novel, The First Wives Club tells the story of three women: movie star Elise Elliot (Hawn), Brenda Cushman (Midler), and Annie Paradise (Keaton) who get chucked by their jerk husbands for newer models. So after initially mourning the demise of their marriages, the ladies take it upon themselves to avenge themselves and every first wife who ever was passed over for a younger woman.
As a piece of light entertainment, The First Wives Club will do. It’s a mildly compelling story whose only virtue is the glittery cast. When you put brilliant comediennes like Hawn, Midler, and Keaton together, and throw in consummate pros like Maggie Smith, Bronson Pinchot, and Sarah Jessica Parker, you can’t not have something worth watching. And the trio of funny ladies delivers – though neither is stretched beyond her onscreen persona: Hawn plays up on her blonde daffiness, Midler is brassy and loud, and Keaton is dithering and neurotic. The screenwriters – Robert Harling and Paul Rudnick – seem to think that with comedic talent like that, there’s no need to do much in terms of character development. The script seems to lurch from one mini-episode to another, merely to give a chance for the ladies who mug furiously, scream a lot, and throw off one-liners like beads in a Mardi Gras parade.
When the movie came out, it was a huge surprise box office hit. Many in the industry were shocked that a film that was headlined by three middle-aged actresses struck a chord with a large enough audience to gross over $100 million at the box office. Some saw imagined social relevance in the film, as if this were a feminist fable about the plight of older women.
Yeah, not so much.
The attitude of the movie can be perfectly summed up by cameoing Ivana Trump, “Don’t get mad, get everything.” The movie may be a lot of things, but feminist isn’t one of them.
The movie opens with Stockard Channing – a despondent Manhattan society matron who kills commits suicide. Her funeral brings together the three close friends she had in college, who have all allowed their deep friendship to drift away when careers, marriages, and kids got in the way. In the time since they grew apart, gorgeous Elise went on to an Oscar-winning film career, Brenda married an appliance store baron and had a son, while Annie married an ad executive and had a daughter. After the funeral, the three pals meet up for drinks and commiserate on how miserable their lives have become.
And while it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for the marital travails of three upper middle class white women, there are fleeting moments of poignancy that peak through, despite the manic, candy-colored tone of the script. Midler’s Brenda, in particular, has the potential of being a genuinely sympathetic character. Her louse of a husband, Morty (a suitably oily Dan Hedaya), leaves her for a younger trophy wife, Shelly (a riotous Sarah Jessica Parker). Because of the divorce, she’s left financially strapped, and feels frumpy and unattractive when compared to the nubile Shelly.
But in the case of Elise and Annie – while unfortunate, because it’s never fun when one’s spouse leaves, no matter how comfortable the financial situation is – the situation isn’t so bad. Especially in Elise’s case – a rich millionaire movie star who resents having to pay alimony to her cheating movie exec hubby Bill (Victor Garber). The stakes in Elise’s and Annie’s situations aren’t terribly high, so while viewers will feel bad, really how many tears will be shed for these attractive and financially-secure women who live in cavernous homes in pricey Manhattan.
Yet the writers insist that we look at the three women as victims, who quickly decide to exact revenge on their asshole husbands. And then the movie takes a goofy turn in which the level of sophistication in the comedy is on the level of Benny Hill. The ladies run around, jump into limousines, break into a hideously trendy apartment, and plummet down the side of a highrise in a platform. At one low point in the film, the women start to slap each other, and Midler lobs a Golden Globe at Hawn’s head (how many times must’ve that actually happened backstage at the ceremony?). And in one excruciatingly condescending sequence, the ladies infiltrate a lesbian nightclub, at which Hawn’s Elise is a huge hit with the patrons (and Brenda has a confusing heart-to-heart with a fellow dumpee at the bar).
Of course with a Disney-fied vision of the world as depicted in The First Wives Club, we expect that our characters will prevail. And the happy ending feels inevitable (as opposed to organic). But in the film’s one, true golden moment, the three ladies get a nifty musical number, covering Lesley Gore’s 1960s feminist anthem “You Don’t Own Me” – a great bookend to counteract the despicably sexist Burt Bacharach tune “Wives & Lovers” Dionne Warwick belts over the Lichenstein-esque opening credits. As they dance off into the Manhattan night, despite my best efforts, I did feel an ounce of satisfaction for the characters’ victory.