Tuesday, October 25, 2005

The Women (1939)

The Women was not my first choice for this edition of Classic Movie of the Week, but after the wrist slashing / bottle o’ pills swallowing pathos of last week’s entry... I figured “geez, lighten up Nathaniel” So instead I’ve opted for a gem from what many consider to be the pinnacle year of Hollywood, 1939. That was the year that brought us Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka and at least a dozen other extremely beloved films. Also strutting around in theaters that year was this bitchy but endearing comedy/melodrama mix. The film's impressive line up was headlined by Norma Shearer as Mrs Stephen Haines. She was orbited by stars of similar (or then just-lesser) stature: Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Godard, and Joan Fontaine among them. Even with the mega-wattage and box office pull delivered onscreen the film bore the sexist and reductive tagline: “It’s all about men!”

Not that it isn't about men, I must quickly add. Or at least women's ideas about the men in their lives. The film's drama and comedy comes from the way women fight over men, adore men, adjust themselves for men, connect themselves to men, and sabotage each other. What? You thought with Russell and Crawford in the mix that this wouldn't be catty? The film is often so feline that I remain surprised that director George Cukor opts to open on dogs barking rather than cats fighting as the first reel unspools. For those hoping for enlightened gender roles, this is not the film. Alas, not all the ideas promoted in the film about the way marriages crumble or survive are so dusty. Though bits of it may have aged unflatteringly, the movie has a sharp wit [why are 30s and 40s movies so funny and today's comedies so strained?] and though it's often cacophonous with the sounds of children, pets, and gossiping groups, a good sense of balance. Cukor knows when to shut off the noise and allow Norma Shearer's strong and dignified performance to hold the chaotic processions together. Improbably, she even seems like an admirable pillar of feminine strength when she's learning to get catty. "Jungle Red!"

Despite regular Oscar love for 'The First Lady of MGM' (Norma Shearer had 5 Oscar nominations and 1 win behind her when this film premiered) AMPAS voters dismissed The Women with nary a nomination. Not even for the celebrated stars empathetic turn as the wronged housewife. Perhaps it was too fluffy? Nevertheless it remains a jolly good, surprisingly serious time at the movies. Whether you're after a witty comedy, old Hollywood eye-candy, or memorable performances, the film delivers. The jokes are funny, the sets and parade of outfits are glamourous or amusingly outre (you have to see Rosalind Russell's "eye" dress to believe it), and the gaggle of movie stars are a collective hoot.

Hollywood, always seemingly bereft of new ideas, have been planning a remake forever. The latest attempt has Diane English (TV’s Murphy Brown) at the helm and is currently set to star Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Uma Thurman, Sandra Bullock, and Ashley Judd. But we’ve been here before with other gltizy line-ups. I’ll believe it when filming commences. With enough lawyers, agent, and star cooperation they may eventually be able to arrive at a start date and produce a film that matches the glamourous star wattage from the 1930s. But they’ll be hard pressed to match the fun of the original film itself.

Read more about The Women?
Norma Shearer: First Lady of MGM
Jon Danzinger Review (funny bit on the film as 'millinery porn')
The Best of Everything: A Joan Crawford Encyclopedia


Anonymous said...

I have not seen this film, but I find it odd whenever any film from those years didn't get ONE nomination because have you SEEN how many nominees some categories have.


Anonymous said...

Concerning the lack of Oscar nods, it wasn't until the last few decades top stars begin campaign for supporting Oscars (Helen Hayes 1971 win for "Airport" is one of the first examples I know of wherein an established "star" won the supporting award). Before then, most lead performers, whether they were playing supporting roles or not, would normally opt to try for the lead Oscar category, hence no nods for the glamorous above-the-title ladies of "The Women." Shearer's the only true leading role in the film, and I would argue the Academy was fair in choosing the other nominees that year over Shearer.

Rosalind Russell's scene-stealing performance possibly could have at least been nominated for a Supporting Actress award if she'd allowed herself to be "demoted" to supporting status; however, in her autobiography Russell explains she fought for her name to be placed above the title with Shearer and Crawford, cementing her leading lady status with this film. Years later, many in Hollywood thought Russell was a shoo-in to win the Supporting Actress award (for 1955's "Picnic"); however, still a major star in the 1950's, Russell refused to campaign in the supporting category (Russell received four Oscar nominations for lead actress, but never won the award).

Finally, although in the early years of the awards, some categories had up to ten nominees, the acting categories have almost always been set at five performers (or less, in some years). The only exception I can find is 1935, when the Best Actress category had six stars up for the award that went to Bette Davis for "Dangerous."


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