Feature: The Director and Cast of The Women
Fri, 12 Sep 2008 15:54:11
During press day for The Women, it’s safe to say that there was preponderance of estrogen circulating throughout Beverly Hills’ Four Seasons Hotel, the default location for most Los Angeles-area junkets. Looking just as poised and sartorially immaculate as their fictional counterparts in the film, actresses Eva Mendes, Cloris Leachman, Annette Bening, Debi Mazar, and Meg Ryan held their journalistic audience in rapture as they spoke about the modern day revival of George Cukor’s campy classic of the same name. The original was released in 1939, but while the tagline of that film, which director Diane English describes as a “poison pen letter” to lackadaisical ladies of the upper crust, read, “It’s all about the men,” English decided to make her version “all about the women.” She’s being literal with this advertorial punch line; there’s not a man in one frame of the movie, not even as a fleeting background presence in one of the many busy scenes which take place at Saks Fifth Avenue, the core quartet’s (Bening, Ryan, Debra Messing, and Jada Pinkett Smith) shopping nirvana.
Remakes and adaptation are tricky ground to tread for any filmmaker, especially when the source material is as revered as Cukor’s silver-tongued satire, whose cast was peopled by Hollywood luminaries such as Norma Shearer, Joan Fontaine, and the matchless Joan Crawford, who played villainess Crystal Allen with tart-spiked class. Think of the acrid buzz a stiff cocktail provides as a reference point for Crawford’s performance. The question on many a writer’s mind was, predictably, “if it ain’t broke…” English, who spent over a decade developing the project, polishing its script, and dealing with a revolving door of potential headliners, asked herself the very same thing and came to the following conclusion: “I don’t think that you should ever remake a movie unless you have something new to say.”
For English, what is new about her first directorial outing is the radically different social setting in which her story is set. She took years of experience working on the popular pro-feminist television sitcom Murphy Brown to shift the focus away from a story about women who cattily backstab one another to land a man and pointed her lens toward the dynamic relationships that girlfriends enjoy. Empowerment, English believes, lies therein.
“There had to be a sea change in order to bring it into modern times. The focus now is a celebration of women.”
Says English, “There had to be a sea change in order to bring it into modern times, a shift in focus. The focus now is, I think, a celebration of women. To be a woman is a gift. To hold the mirror up and show us ourselves, to create a tapestry of these kinds of women.”
Her tapestry was woven with the help of her five female leads, each of whom has a distinct on screen presence, and whose disparate personalities created a lively amalgam of characters. English is grateful for landing the women that she did, as the road to production was long, and sometimes arduous.
English confidently states, “[T]his is the dream cast. I’m so fortunate to have this cast as a first time director, too, so I got a lot of help. It was a 14-year process. People came and went, but I’m a firm believer that, in the end, the people that are supposed to be [cast] are. And that was certainly the case here. Everybody here was so committed to this movie—limited money; we did it as a labor of love.”
She went on to describe the even keel playing ground on which Ryan, Bening, and the others found themselves. While tabloid reports and societal stereotypes tend to portray powerful, attractive women as pugnacious and at odds for the spotlight, particularly when they enjoy career success, frivolous arguments were absent from the on-set environment. Instead, the actresses focused on developing their individual characters, making sure that they were doing justice to Cukor’s original while not leaning on the 1939 film as a creative crutch after which to model their project. The task was mildly intimidating for Mendes, who had, of all people, Joan Crawford’s venerable reputation to live up to.
“I’ve gotten a lot of questions today like, ‘What was it like to fill Joan Crawford’s shoes?’,” Mendes says, “I was like, ‘I didn’t fill [her shoes]! I didn’t even try to fill [her] shoes! Please don’t even put that in my head, because it’s nerve-wracking. She’s Joan Crawford, my God! And she killed it. She killed it as Crystal Allen. I didn’t allow the original to intimidate because that was its own thing, and we were our own thing, so I just appreciated it.”
Enjoy it she did. Mendes had the wanton joy of playing a fragrance-spritzing temptress, a woman who uses her hourglass silhouette and pouty lips to wrangle Mary Haines’ (Ryan) husband out from underneath her dowdy dirndl vestments. However, Mendes was sure to emphasize that she wasn’t playing the proverbial “slut,” a woman out for easy love and little else.
Says Mendes, “Diane and I really talked about bringing some fun to Crystal Allen. We didn’t want to vamp her out and make her this evil woman with an arched eyebrow. We wanted [people] to realize that she was actually just really desperate. She’s not a bad person; she’s just desperate. Her time’s running out; she wants a piece of the pie. She’s not some husband-stealer, like, 'I’m gonna get you.' She’s more like, ‘Look, Mary Haines, you’ve had your fun. You’ve had money all your life. You have your kid with this guy, you have your houses, let me have a piece of the pie for a few years! You’ll get him back.’”
While Mendes describes Allen as a hyper-aware lady of monied ambition, a woman “much smarter and much more calculated,” than many are willing to admit, Ryan sees Mary Haines, the spurned wife, as quite the opposite. Hines leads a charmed existence, if measured by the size of her bank account, weekend home, and designer bag collection. But when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful, her composed exterior falls away one layer at a time, eventually leading to a disgusting, yet amusing scene where Haines chomps on a stick of butter dipped in cocoa powder. She’s afflicted with desperation, and this fat-consuming act illustrates every the emotion's every ugly shade.
“I was so happy to do that scene, because up until that moment in the movie she’s [Mary] is just like a sleepwalking person,” explains Ryan, “Diane and I talked a lot about her transition in the movie. She’s somebody whose life is falling apart all around her. She thinks it’s going perfectly, but she’s asleep to a lot of it. I liked making her culpable in that way in that she’s not the perfect friend, although she thinks she is. She’s not the perfect wife, although she thinks she is. She’s somebody who really isn’t coming through for herself or anybody else. By that point in the movie she’s just frustrated with the whole thing and throws it all away.”
Though the cast members don’t speak of the women they play as conventional archetypes, if Mendes is “the seductress” and Ryan “the mother,” then Bening is the irrefutable “career woman” of the bunch, a Birkin-toting magazine editor with a pronounced bravura to rival that of Sex and the City’s Samantha Jones.
Bening relished playing against matriarchal type, saying, “It was fun to play a business woman, a woman who wasn’t a mother, and I know one of the things that Diane and I talked about that I…really liked [was] a woman who was not conflicted about not having children. I liked that. I have friends who don’t have children. They’re so free. [Laughter] I thought it would be refreshing, maybe, to have a woman who wasn’t torn about not having children.”
Women were on everyone's minds not only because of the film’s subject matter. It was only days earlier that Presidential nominee John McCain announced that he had chosen Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his Vice Presidential running mate. With the shadow of Hillary’s near ticket-headlining win within the bounds of recent memory, it was impossible to escape the topic of politics during the press conference. Bening was candid when speaking about the timely topic.
“I think that it’s exciting to see a woman chosen to be on a major ticket,” says Bening, who went on to further explicate her sentiment. “The idea that people who voted for Hillary who tend to be Democrats would change and vote for McCain because of Sarah Palin seems, to me, bizarre. I’m sure maybe there are some women who vote because they only want to vote for a woman. I find that an odd idea, because of course Sarah Palin’s politics are right of McCain’s. She’s incredibly conservative, and more conservative [than McCain]. I believe that’s a fair statement to say that she’s more conservative than John McCain. Whether she will rally more conservative people to get out there and vote, I don’t know, but I…hope that the people that were going to vote, then, for Hillary...are interested in voting for Obama.”
Ultimately, the afternoon wasn’t about Sarah Palin, Mendes’ ostentatious La Perla lingerie getups (though there were a few inquiries into what wearing the barely there outfits entailed), or the frivolous aspects of femininity that are celebrated in the film. Like the tagline reads, “it’s all about the women,” and one of Bening’s final statements succinctly sums this up.
“There’s a kind of contact, there’s a kind of sustenance that you get from your female friends that is so unique, and I know that, in so many ways, especially if I’m struggling with something or if I’m dealing with something, if sit down with my girlfriends or one friend or have a dinner, drink, whatever, a coffee, that I feel it puts me back on track,” she effuses. “There is something really deeply sustaining about that.”
Women in search of such profundity might do well to take a clue from the film’s pro-friendship message. A trip to Saks Fifth Avenue with a gaggle of girlfriends might be the first step in that direction.