Largely forgotten among the heyday of MGM musicals in the post-WWII period is 1956’s “The Opposite Sex,” a disappointing attempt to inject men, music and Metrocolor into George Cukor’s 1939 classic “The Women,” which featured an all-female cast. Whereas “The Women” featured immortals like Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell and Joan Crawford exchanging barbed dialogue by Anita Loos and Claire Boothe Luce, “Sex” gave us such inadequate substitutes as June Allyson and Joan Collins; even worse, the man these two were fighting over was no longer unseen on screen — he had somehow become the utterly bland, pre-“Airplane!” Leslie Nielsen.
Despite some amusing supporting performances by Dolores Gray and Joan Blondell, “The Opposite Sex” was a box-office bomb and was relegated to footnote status in film history. And yet, it’s still better than the 2008’s “The Women,” a film that tries so desperately to make the original “modern” that it invalidates its own existence.
Luce’s play was about society women who had married well, and while it’s tempting for some modern critics to attack the original “The Women” as sexist, the play and the 1939 movie are as much a product of their historical context as Jane Austen’s novels are a product of hers.
Men were waging their battles in the boardroom, at the factory, and on the Russian front; for women of a certain income, their sorties unfolded at the manicurist’s, over luncheon and at the perfume counter at Saks. These were indefatigable women who never let man trouble get in the way of a good bon mot.
Writer-director Diane English’s version of “The Women” tries to stay true to the original work while giving all the characters jobs and relative independence, and the result rings false; as either a contemporary look at women’s lives or as a bubbly farce, “The Women” flops on all fronts.
Meg Ryan stars as Mary, who has stifled her creativity as a fashion designer to crank out sketches for her father’s company. She seems to be successfully juggling work, marriage, motherhood (to a bratty teen daughter) and philanthropy, until the day a gossipy manicurist (Debi Mazar) gabs to Mary’s best friend Sylvie (Annette Bening) about Mary’s husband Steven and his affair with perfume spritzer-girl Crystal (Eva Mendes).
Sylvie tries to keep it a secret — which means spilling it to Mary’s other closest pals, lesbian writer Alex (Jada Pinkett Smith) and the eternally pregnant Edie (Debra Messing) — but Mary finds out when she goes in for her own manicure. Crushed, Mary turns to her mother (Candice Bergen) for advice; mom tells her to do nothing and ride it out and eventually Steven will come running home. But after Mary has a confrontation with Crystal at a high-end lingerie store, she kicks Steven out.
Cue the 1970s “growth” montage, where Mary figures out what she really wants in life and becomes her own person and basically fulfills every cliché that “An Unmarried Woman” left unturned. Throughout the film, these contemporary women all whine and cry and bemoan their fate in this life; give me the relatively tough ladies of 1939, with their senses of humor and their well-dressed spines of steel, over these “Oprah” watchers any day.
“The Women” clangs with so many false moments that you practically leave the theater with tinnitus. Do we really believe New York sophisticates like Sylvie, Alex and Edie would stare agog at Crystal when they finally track her down at Saks? What’s with that restaurant scene between Ryan and Bergen where the camera angles make it look like the two actresses shot their scenes on different days? And why on earth does English have poor Meg Ryan make jokes about botox and plastic surgery when, in a scene where Mary is required to laugh and then cry, Ryan’s immobile visage can do neither? (Nia Vardalos, arguably Hollywood’s most “real”-looking woman, could get away with material like that in “Connie and Carla.” Ryan and Bergen? Not so much.)
The only laughs here come from the old pros — Bergen and Cloris Leachman, who play’s Mary’s housekeeper — while most of the cast comes off as either hyper or stilted. Poor Mendes gets the shaft from English, who has defanged Crystal so much that she might as well be an invisible off-screen presence with all the characters’ husbands.
And whose idea was it to recycle one of the original’s best lines — “There’s a name for women like you, but it’s rarely heard outside of a kennel!” — in an era when women proudly wear T-shirts that proclaim “BITCH” right across their décolletage? That line, like so much else in “The Women,” makes this new movie feel like a time warp to nowhere.