THE WOMEN – NOT WHO YOU ARE EXPECTING

IT’S 2008 – No politically incorrect cat fights or trains to Reno

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Fine Arts Critic
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Whenever a film is touted as a “Re-Make”, then the Original must be brought back into focus. No matter the sides of the argument or corners of the ring from which the blows may come, this new version of THE WOMEN written and directed by Diane English will sally into the column marked, “Also-Ran”. While there are some stylish production values and several charming appearances in re-shaped or newly-created supporting characters (notably, by Candice Bergen and Carrie Fisher) – this new contender lacks the essential components that catapulted its predecessor into Hollywood Legend.

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MEG RYAN (Mary Haines) & ANNETTE BENING (Sylvie Fowler). Photo, Claudette Barius

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THE WOMEN, 1939 – Joan Crawford (Crystal),
Norma Shearer (Mary),
Rosalind Russell (Sylvia)

The more than stellar cast of 1939 were all contracted to one studio – M.G.M., the best of The Best. Everything was produced on the lot, including the whoppingly unrestrained wardrobe of the legendary Adrian. Add to the mix – some of the ladies were talked about for the juiciest role of the decade, “Scarlett O’Hara” in GONE WITH THE WIND. One of them, Paulette Goddard (Miriam “Vanities” Aarons), would have signed the contract had Vivien Leigh not arrived at the eleventh hour. More importantly, The Women’s tension-filled atmosphere – colored by madly overt and enticing bitch behavior – is attributable to the no-holds-barred rivalry between its two major leading ladies: Norma Shearer, “The Queen of MGM”, and the soon to be “Box Office Poison” – Joan Crawford. In the Director’s chair, George Cukor. Known primarily as a “woman’s director”, the very gay Mr. Cukor kept all his balls in the air and chalked-up another title on the grand list of 1939. Seven decades later, the original version maintains its integrity and its leadership as a money-making wrap-around-the-block Classic and perennial Cult Favorite. This week at the Victoria Theatre in San Franciso, glamorous drag queens Varla Jean Merman, Trauma Flintstone, Katya Smirnoff-Skyy and Ethel Merman duke it out in a fabulous take-off, JUNGLE RED. Check the home page of TURNER CLASSIC MOVIES. In today’s “Top Searches”, THE WOMEN (1939) comes in as #1 and you can sign-up for an e-mail reminder about its broadcast on the 15th. It is an odd coincidence that the producers of both films (and a re-vamped Gay stage classic) all booked the month of September to open.

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BETTE MIDLER (The Countess, Leah Miller) and EVA MENDES (Crystal Allen).
Photos, Claudette Barius

Says director Diane English, “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. It was catty and incredibly fast paced and had a real rapier wit. I had to figure out a way to shift the focus. I wanted to celebrate women, but still try to preserve the hallmarks of the original, which included the biting wit.”

Nice try. End result? The focus is lost. Too much celebration, too much shifting, not enough tooth in the biting wit department, and the hallmarks are gone with the wind.

The 1939 screenplay adaptation of playwright Clare Boothe Luce’s smash Broadway hit (opened Christmas Week of 1936, ran 657 performances) was taken-on by the unfliinching Anita Loos. Her writing credits and roster of leading ladies include the continuously marketable GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell), SAN FRANCISCO (Jeanette MacDonald), RED-HEADED WOMAN (Jean Harlow), SUSAN AND GOD (Joan Crawford), etc. Anita Loos had an awesome sense of timing and an eagle-eye-view of the needs and demands of top tier women in the film industry – often with names above the title. By contrast, Ms. English’s screenplay is a bumpy ride, wanting in humor, halting, occasionally lumbering, fraught with missed opportunity, plagued by improvisation and drowning in promotions for Saks Fifth Avenue. Boring. Once very minor characters, i.e., Mary’s housekeeper (Cloris Leachman) and a literary friend, “Nancy” (now a lesbian named “Alex”, portrayed by Jada Pinkett Smith) are way-over-developed while established and beloved characters – especially those pivotal to the original plot, i.e., Miriam (“Vanities”) Aarons, Peggy (Mrs. John Day), and Lucy (the Reno housekeeper portrayed by Marjorie Main) – were given the axe and their great lines fed to the shredder.

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THE WOMEN (1939)
Norma Shearer,
Joan Fontaine,
Rosalind Russell,
Paulette Goddard,
Mary Boland

Annette Bening as “Sylvie” looks great and gives a compelling performance in her newly-designed role as “Mary’s” best friend. But, unlike the “Sylvia” of Rosalind Russell, she is no longer in conspiracy with “Crystal Allen” (Eva Mendes) to totally un-do the Reno-divorced Mary. Joan Crawford’s “Crystal” quickly weds Mary’s now ex-husband, “Steven”, and then starts bedding down with “Buck”, a crooning cowboy from the Reno divorce ranch and the kept gigolo of the newly-divorced “Countess De Lave” (Mary Boland). The “Countess De Lave” – now known as “Leah Miller” and played by the seemingly perfect Bette Midler – might as well be missing. Void of concerns over scandal – “Oh, the publicity! La Pub-lic-i-té!” – the once hilarious role is reduced to a minor guest appearance with barely enough time to utter a single, “L’amour, l’amour.” And the list goes on. With these crucial eviscerations and superficial substitutions go the foundation and supporting grid of a long-since proven theatrical and cinematic success.

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At Saks Fifth Avenue – Annette Bening, Jada Pinkett Smith and Debra Messing
Photo, Claudette Barius

Diane English explains. “I wanted to turn the film into a love story between two straight women. The original is all about whether Mary Haines will reconcile with her husband, who betrayed her trust. In my version, I want the audience to care more about whether Mary Haines will reconcile with her best friend Sylvie Fowler, who also betrayed her trust.”

Not the best idea. The original play and screenplay of The Women sparkles and dazzles about one thing: “It’s all about men!” Diane English should have chucked the notion of a “re-make” and, instead, claimed her project as “an adaptation” – as was the 1956 music-filled version, The Opposite Sex, starring Joan Collins and June Allyson. As it stands, Ms. English needs to add an asterisk to the title of her screenplay:
* With apologies to Clare Boothe Luce and Anita Loos.

As the “Countess De Lave” of Mary Boland stated when L’Amour had disappointed once again, “Get me a bromide! And put some gin in it!”

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Seán Martinfield is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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