(January 2009) We should have known better, but when we saw that last year’s Hollywood remake of Clare Boothe’s classic 1936 play The Women was available on video, we couldn’t resist.
We bit on this turkey because we are great fans of the late playwright, socialite, politician, and diplomat, and because, for our money, The Women is one of the great American plays. Boothe’s satire is dead on, and every line tells.
(As part of its 2010 season, the Shaw Festival, at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, is mounting The Women for the first time since 1985, when Nora McLellan was cast as Mary Haines. The 2010 show features Jenny Young as Mary, Deborah Hay as Sylvia Fowler, Kelli Fox as Nancy Blake, and Moya O’Connell as Crystal Allen. See Emsworth’s thoughts on this show at this post.)
Unfortunately, the makers of the 2008 movie stripped everything from Boothe’s comedy but the bare outline of its plot. They failed to notice that the genius of the play lay, not in its plot, but in its glittering dialogue and its merciless portrayal of a circle of idle, insecure, amoral women.
Here’s one example of how Hollywood didn’t get it. In Clare Boothe’s play, socialite Mary Haines discovers that her husband is doing her dirty with a bimbo who sells perfume at Saks. She wants to save her marriage, so she decides to wait the affair out instead of confronting him.
But then Mary’s “friend” Edith leaks the details of the affair to a gossip columnist, who splashes headlines about the Haineses across the front of the society section of the newspaper. The publicity forces the issue and leaves Mary no choice but divorce, as Edith knew it would. Edith’s betrayal is all the more shocking because of the casual glee with which she boasts of it to the other women (“Oh, Sylvia, I’ve done the most awful thing . . . .”).
That’s Boothe’s play. No such subtlety or understatement for Hollywood! In the movie, it’s Sylvie, not Eydie, who betrays Mary (Meg Ryan) to the gossip columnist. (In the movie, “Edith” has become “Eydie” and “Sylvia” has become “Sylvie.”) And in the movie, Sylvie doesn’t spill the beans out of boredom and malice, as Edith does in Boothe’s play, but because she’s cut a deal with the columnist in a desperate attempt to salvage her faltering career as editor of a fashion magazine, and only after losing a battle with her conscience. We’re not shocked by Sylvie’s selling out her friend; we’re simply bored.
Producer Victoria Pearman bragged to a Boston newspaper that the movie-makers kept the remake true to the original play by having an all-female cast (the women talk about men all the time, but no men are never seen, not even among the extras). But Boothe’s women-only cast was hardly the essence of the play; it was just a gimmick. And screenwriter Diane English apparently thought she could improve on Boothe’s play by making The Women a female buddy movie and injecting “diversity”; she filled out Mary’s circle of friends with a new character who is a black lesbian (Jada Pinkett). How badly they missed the wheat for the chaff!
We regret missing the Broadway revival of The Women several years ago. It starred Cynthia Nixon as Mary Haines; maybe that was what gave writer and director Diane English the stupendously foolish idea to remake The Women as Sex and the City lite.