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The Women

They say that Diane English's The Women is a remake of George Cukor's 1939 movie of the same name. This is not true. It is a replay of the earlier film. While many details have been shoehorned into the new show, a many have been changed, and so has the heart of Clare Boothe Luce's play. Indeed, it can hardly have been otherwise. The role of affluent women in society has been transformed in the seventy years since Mary Haines first fought Crystal Allen while trying to fend off the "help" of her cousin, Sylvia Fowler. Men haven't changed much, so it's still the case that bored husbands fool around with other women and then wish that they hadn't. But women respond rather differently. It's amazing how long it takes the new Women to register this difference with any clarity. For most of its length, Ms English's version plays like a decorative update of a famous film. Only in the last twenty minutes or so is the spell of Cukor's masterpiece broken. We grasp that the new Sylvie Fowler, played by Annette Bening, is not the bitch that Rosalind Russell's was. Sylvie and Mary are friends! This would not have been thought possible in 1939.

It's pointless to speculate, but a case could be made that Ms English and her crew fully intended to reshoot the same old story, but discovered intractable third act problems after Bette Midler was signed on to take the Mary Boland role. Boland's Countess de Lave was an important cog in the older plot, because she dragged into her offstage lair the only other desirable male, giving Crystal a choice of adulterers that she wouldn't be able to resist sampling. (There are no men in either movie.) With Crystal humiliated and sent packing, Mary finally found the magnanimity to forgive her errant husband, toward whom Norma Shearer so memorably streams, arms outstretched, in the last scene. Immediately prior, we've been treated to a highly farcical maneuver in the ladies' lounge, in which Sylvia Fowler, now the ally of Crystal (and her only ally), gets locked up in a closet while even-dressed dames swish back and forth across the pearly screen. It would be delicious to see this scene re-enacted by the new movie's cast. Bette Midler in particular would have had a field day with the Countess's sob, "But I am Dandy Gelatine!" — the revelation that clinches the futility of Crystal's pursuit of the Countess's nth husband. There's only one problem. They don't have ladies' lounges anymore. There aren't any "night clubs," either. The new movie ends on an entirely different note — in a birthing room.

So, instead of rushing with outstretched arms to her offscreen husband, dressed in gold lamé, the new Mary Haines, Meg Ryan, takes his call on her cell phone, dressed in scrubs, and agrees only to go out on a date. Before accompanying her pregnant friend, Edie Cohen (Debra Messing), to the hospital, Mary has had a big night: the introduction of her own line of women's clothing! In the original Women, the women sat through a fashion show purely as customers. In the new version, they're either the designer herself or her backers. The moral of the story isn't that Mary has Stephen back; it's rather that losing him has awakened her from a suburban snooze of benefit lunches and inattentive mothering. Mary gets her act together before she gets Stephen's call. Which means that she will meet him, on their date, as something of a professional equal. The Haineses do not, this time round, return to the status quo ante.

Drastic as these innovations might seem, they're not as striking as the transformation of Sylvia/Sylvie Fowler. It must have taken formidable skill for Rosalind Russell to play this malignant creature, more virus than human being, without making her repulsive. Annette Bening could have done just as well, I've no doubt, but her Sylvie has been declawed. Declawed and just possibly put through rehab. Sylvie's morals are uncertain, but she has them, which Sylvia did not. Sadly, Ms English takes forever to announce the change. Perhaps she thought it would be clever to let the audience figure it out gradually, but the stunt is unimpressive and, worse, distracting. Thinking that Sylvie was simply more devious than Sylvia, I was horrified when she was permitted to discuss sex with Mary's confused daughter, Molly (India Ennenga). Wasn't there some version of Megan's Law that might prevent this outrage? But, no: Sylvie turns out to be a great listener, just what the teenager needs at this moment in her development. I didn't figure that out, though, until Mary and Sylvie had their big kiss-and-make-up scene — another unprecedented moment.

So I can't say whether The Women is any good or not. I didn't realize that it was a new movie until it was almost over — certainly not before Meg Ryan's hair was straightened. Until I was awakened, the old film remained unchallenged as a high-styled comedy in Hollywood's version of commedia dell'arte. Without being tedious, the new film seemed basically unnecessary. (I was repeatedly struck by the impression that Cloris Leachman, playing Mary's housekeeper, knew better.) Then everything shifted, and the only thing that I was sure of was that Cukor's Women had not been remade.

Actually, there was one other thing. It wasn't news, but I was sure of it: Debra Messing is a great screen comedienne. A gifted stage actress, Ms Messing seems to have found her home in La-La Land, but I can't complain. Her way with fundamentally clueless characters who turn out, shrewdly or not, to know just what they need to know makes for rich humor. She plays the sort of person whom you'd be afraid to count on, but who would never let you down.  Every time Ms Messing is onscreen, the movie perks up, as though anything might happen. Her screams in the birthing scene are impressive and hilarious.

It seems churlish to say nothing about the other performances in the film, and I will observe that Eva Mendes does as much and as well with the part of Crystal Allen as it is possible to do without the mountains of baggage that Joan Crawford brought to her performance (it's Crawford's bad fit at MGM that sets the sparks flying). As for the rest of the cast, though, I'll have to wait until I see The Women again. Maybe by then I'll have figured out who Meg Ryan, looking slightly puffy under her trampy curls, reminds me of. Surely not Esther Howard, in Murder, My Sweet. (September 2008)

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