Hollywood's been threatening to remake The Women, a 1939 razor of a film, for years now, with the likes of Julia Roberts and Demi Moore taking keen interest in the potential project. No surprise here; to resurrect Joan Crawford's conniving vamp, Rosalind Russell's catty blue blood, and Norma Shearer's martyred bride would be thespian heaven, and a refreshing challenge considering the screenplay's incisive, acrobatic dialogue. Almost 60 years after its release, The Women has more brains, bite, and heart than 98 percent of the movies hitting theaters today. More so, it proves that: One, women haven't changed all that much. Sure, the sexual revolution brought changes in social constructs, but female backbone and autonomy were well in place in 1939. And two, they don't make movie stars like they used to.
George Cukor's adaptation of Clare Boothe's mighty play, screening Tuesday and Wednesday at the Lakewood Theater, packs all of MGM's brightest star power; to watch The Women is to understand the muscle of the old studio system in its heyday. Director Cukor, always drawn to sophisticated material (The Philadelphia Story, My Fair Lady), nails Booth's aggressive wit with a steady hand; the ensemble cast never misses a beat, no matter how quick and cutting the repartee.
While Crawford and Russell chew scenery with ferocious gusto--Crawford's icy gaze balancing Russell's overt bitchiness--Joan Fontaine moans prettily, and Lucille Watson gives out stoic advice. But Shearer's performance as Mary Haines, the wife whose rich hubby has forsaken her for Crawford, is the anchoring soul of the film, and a necessity at that. Amid the calculated cool and bared claws of her so-called friends (all would delight in the failure of her marriage), she represents the noblest aspects of the female character: grace, good-humor, and a steel will. She's also a fiercely protective mother and clear-headed partner to her un-partnerlike husband. That she herself grows claws by the end of the film comes off as justice rather than tragedy; instead of undermining her ethical bent, it merely protects it.
Throughout The Women's two-plus hours, nary a man appears. Husbands and lovers are gossiped about, spoken to on the phone, celebrated and castrated at length, but their presence is never missed. Who needs Cary Grant when the on-screen charisma is already blinding? The one archaic element of The Women is the fashion show--the film cuts from cool black and white to jarring color for this sequence that not only breaks the rhythm, but seems to exist only to showcase designer Adrian's evening gowns. (That Russell's reed-thin, model-like character sits in the audience knitting a sweater and looking bored is fortunate comic relief.)