By Erica Abeel
In 1936, theatergoers were first treated to a rousing bitch-a-thon called “The Women.” Outrageous and often hilarious, the Clare Booth Luce-penned play is set in a female-only zone of Park Avenue, and its plot, a flimsy affair, concerns the trials of Mary Haines, a contented wife who discovers that her wealthy husband Steven is having a fling with the “spritzer girl” at the Saks Fifth Avenue perfume counter. Mary’s girlfriends offer solace by feeding her marital woes to the tabloids, when they’re not cracking wise at each other’s expense, at times literally drawing blood. (Sample stage direction: “Sylvia is about to use her nails…”) In 1939, the fur flew again in a film by George Cukor that’s become a cult classic and faithfully reflects the venomous spirit of the play.
Now, after a lengthy sojourn in development hell, Diane English (the creator of “Murphy Brown”) brings “The Women” into the 21st century, turning the bitchfest into a lovefest. As in Luce’s original, English has kept the all-female cast, with nary a guy in sight. Meg Ryan stars as Mary the wronged wife and Eva Mendes as the bombshell shopgirl. The delicious Annette Bening, tearing through pricey real estate with manic glee, takes on the Rosalind Russell role as Sylvie, Mary’s best friend since college though she’s now a happily unmarried editor of a high-profile magazine. In a post-“Sex and the City” landscape, these “Women” come from a broad spectrum of backgrounds, generations, and professions, and I recently spoke to English about her valentine to today’s woman an appreciation of her efforts to navigate a web of choices, roles and responsibilities while maintaining a bond to one another.
“Murphy Brown” ran from 1988 to 1998. I’m assuming it took ten years to get “The Women” off the ground. Why so long?
It took 13 and a half years to make “The Women.” I started working on it before the end of “Murphy Brown.” The reason it took us such a long time is because it was very hard to get the financing together for an all-female cast. Hollywood is not so friendly to this concept. In ’39, they had no problem with it. But today, there’s a huge issue with a movie that has no male movie stars. It surprised me that even with an A-list cast like this, it was still a struggle.
How did you assemble your cast?
Meg was on from the beginning, as was Julia Roberts. They actually were producers on the film way back when, and they hired me to write the screenplay. Then over the years, as we couldn’t get the money together and the greenlight, they went off and did other projects. But we’d touch base from time to time. And I’d keep updating the script and struggling to get the money. And eventually it did come together but with a $16.5 million budget, which is peanuts today. We got the movie made by reducing the risk.
How do you keep faith with a project for 13-and-a-half-years?
As I discovered how difficult it would be, it became almost like a mission. Because I could see what the reason was. I became very determined to throw that book through the glass ceiling. No, we can go out there and do a movie with an all-female cast and make money. We’re going to dispel that myth. I hope!
Do you expect “The Women” to ride on the coattails of “Sex and the City”‘s success?
Oh, yeah. I was so thrilled to see the opening weekend numbers on that movie. Our trailer was on that movie, so that introduced “The Women” to a very large audience, which happens to be our target audience as well. When Warner Brothers, who now have swallowed Picturehouse [the studio that financed “The Women”], saw those numbers, they took a closer look at our movie, and then infused it with extra marketing dollars.
The opening credits of “The Women” showcases shoes. Was that a reference to “Sex and the City”?
Not at all. We were a script before “Sex and the City” was even a TV series. We always had that concept of the shoes. By happy accident, when we got to Saks Fifth Avenue, where we did a day and a half of shooting, they were just launching their giant shoe department and all their windows were filled with shoes — the main floor had a giant shoe on a pedestal that was rotating. It’s as if they had read our script and put it there.
Speaking of the script, how did you strike a balance between the bitchy stuff and your celebration of women and female friendship?
It’s not easy. If you’re writing a bitchfest, the humor comes very easy and quickly. The challenge here was to shift the attitude from “we’re stabbing each other in the back” to “we’re supporting each other.” But at the same time, I tried to maintain the level of humor and wit and dialogue and pacing of the old movie.
Yet it’s the catty repartee in Luce’s play and it’s relentless that makes it funny. When I read the play, I laughed out loud.
Let’s just say that there’s a lot of humor in the movie. It’s not necessarily directed against women. Eva Mendes is playing the Joan Crawford role, the salesgirl behind the perfume counter. And we definitely let some fur fly when Meg’s character meets her character. But it’s not non-stop like in the play. After she married Henry Luce, Clare Booth Luce was living this high society life among gossipy, bitchy women she loathed. She wrote the play as a satire of that sort of society woman.
You’ve retained certain lines from the original, such as, “A man doesn’t like to be told no woman but his wife is fool enough to love him.”
Eva also says, “If Steven doesn’t like something I’m wearing, I take it off.” These are famous lines from the play and ’39 movie and we definitely found a place for them.
The men are offstage, yet in the play, a portrait emerges of them as poor dopes who have to be kept in line for their own and society’s good.
In the film, we don’t have a portrait of the men at all we kept it pretty pure. And we love our men. It’s not a man-bashing movie. We do, though, create a verbal portrait of each man, to the point where people who were reading the script, considering financing it, would always ask me who was playing Steven Haines. [laughs] I’d laugh. And then I’d realize they were serious, and I’d say, well, he’s not in the movie. And they [would say], “But he was on the phone…”
The film seems to say that preserving female friendship is more important than preserving a marriage. Do women really feel that way?
I don’t think it’s more important to preserve female friendship than a marriage. But I think that there’s a place for female friendship that’s really important in the lives of all the women I know. As I’ve gotten older, it’s become much more important to me. Women friends get me through the bumps in the road. I didn’t really get that as a young woman — I was distracted with my career and my new marriage and all of that. There was a scene that had to be cut, but there was a line in it; “Men come and go; get yourself some girlfriends.” And that’s really the theme of this movie.
Yet in the film you say quite explicitly that the worst breakup is between girlfriends, even more than between Mary and Steven.
Yes, I do. There’s something about being betrayed by your best friend, or breaking with your best friend that resonates somehow. Maybe [laughs] your expectation level for a woman is higher than for a man.
What prompted you to reinvent Luce’s backstabbing “Sylvia” as Mary’s best friend “Sylvie,” a high-powered magazine editor?
Well, Sylvie has a very important career. And she’s never been married by choice, she’s a woman who’s unequivocal about not wanting children. She doesn’t dislike children, it’s just a choice she’s made. Annette has always found it very refreshing, this character who doesn’t have a biological clock ticking. She’s made that choice and she’s comfortable with it.
At times your film has a feel-good, “you go girl” tone. Are you afraid of being accused of wimping out, particularly because the original was so nasty?
I know there’s a huge fan base for the old movie and they love it because it’s such a bitchfest. I know that I’ll be criticized for tampering with the old movie and not making mine a bitchfest, too. But I think that’s a really old-fashioned way of looking at women and I just could not make the new movie in that mold. Look, more than anything I just wanted this to be entertaining, a good comedy with a lot of laughs. And men are really responding to that aspect of it. Men have been going to previews — sometimes dragged — with their girlfriends and wives, but they leave and go, “Wow, I was really surprised, I enjoyed that.”
Do you worry about being accused of P.C. feminist uplift?
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with feminist uplift. That’s how we got credit cards in our own name.
Yeah, but in a movie…
People who know me know that I don’t shy away from politics and I don’t shy away from making a statement, so hopefully it’s not hitting you over the head with a hammer.
What’s the difference between making a movie and doing a TV series?
[laughs] I had to take a big pay cut.
[Photos: “The Women,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2008; director Diane English]
“The Women” opens wide on September 12th.