Wednesday, February 18, 2009

What a darling ensemble!

I'm pretty confused about female friendships after watching Jane Austen Book Club and The Women (1939) in the same day. Are my female friends horrified by my personal calamities or secretly thrilled by them? Are they the wind beneath my wings or the knife in my back? The classic 1939 film maintains that most women are a pack of gossiping, shrewish harpies whose main pleasure is to shop and send the bills to their husbands who are so busy having affairs with perfume counter girls that they don't notice another $250 nightgown (in 1939 money!) more or less. The 2007 film maintains that women become instantly bonded over the smallest triviality (a favorite author) and spend the rest of their lives bucking each other up with a steady diet of reading Jane Austen, wine-drinking and Ugg-wearing. That I have female friends that remind me of characters from both movies only adds to the confusion.

Here's the thing about these staggeringly different "chick flicks:" I really loved both of them because of all of the amazing ensemble acting. I'm a total sucker for ensemble acting. The Big Chill is one of my favorite movies of all time though I have little interest in the 1960s or the lives of self-obsessed yuppies who went to college in the sixties. Give me a movie where a bunch of actors get enough room to really create characters and even if their interactions are hopelessly contrived (as in both The Women and The Jane Austen Book Club) and I'm all over it.

Here are a few of the highlights:

Rosalind Russell
in the Women is a revelation even for this Ros Russell fan. She's over the top loathsome and catty and though she was a gorgeous glamorous woman she was completely willing to lookunattractive in this film. The ingenious costuming always includes extra tall ugly hats and fussy ruffles is designed to make Russell looks as awkward as possible. Compare her to star Norma Shearer who was actually a little bit frumpy in this movie until the final scenes and to Joan Crawford who benefits from the femme fatale wardrobe she's given. Speaking of wardrobe, The Women has about 15 minutes of amazing filler in the form of a technicolor fashion show. These are some of the most hilriously odd clothes I've ever seen in my life. The recent remake of the film has the main character, Mary Haines, as a fashion designer. I like how the original film skewers the world of fashion, the absurdity, the expense and the snobbishness. And then of course it turns around and gives you fifteen minutes of clothing eye candy.

Emily Blunt in Jane Austen book Club is excellent as the tightly wound "time bomb" Prudie who has serious mommy issues and a thing for one of her high school students. She also has the most amazing clothes, which stand in stark contrast to the other "hippy handcraft" wearing members of the club.

Paulette Goddard stands out in a critical but small part in The Women. I love her advice to Mary Haines, "You forgot to lick her in the one place it counts. In his arms. And if I know men that's still Custer's last stand." And then she goes on to have the film's one genuine cat fight, with Rosalind Russell. Awesome.

Hugh Dancy plays the lone male member of the book club. He's a sci fi nerd who is attracted to one of the members and so ends up reading all of Jane Austen as well as the Mysteries of Udolpho just to get her attention. Stunt reading. Look ma, no cliff's notes. I love his take on "Mansfield Park," that it's a reverse Empire Strikes Back, because the brother and sister get together at the end.

It would take a much longer blog post than I really feeling like doing right now to go into depth about either of these movies. They are both vacuous, enjoyable and have a way of distracting and soothing the way a good chic flic should.


kda0121 said...

I love the 1939 version of The Women. George Cukor may have chafed at being called a "woman's director", but it was a well-deserved accolade. It's no secret that Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford were not the best of friends, to put it mildly. George had those ladies give some of the best performances of their careers in one of Hollywood's best examples of the golden age.

Jennythenipper said...

I agree Cukor got some great performances and the fact that Shearer and Crawford hated each other in real life added to the crackling energy of the movie. I wasn't expecting to like it as much as I did. I think the remake brought out a lot of negative response about the old one in some circles.

AbbyNormal said...

I watched "Jane Austen Book Club" quite a while ago and even though it was a bit predictable and vacuous - I really liked it. I liked that the women formed a tribe to help each other through difficult times, like Sex and the City, but with Jane Austen instead of a sex column. :-) I wouldn't dare call it a great movie, but it was very enjoyable. I too, particularly loved Emily Blunt and her character.

I *just* finished "The Women" for the first time and expected to love it. The performances were outstanding and the presence of all the actresses was amazing. I just had a hard time shrugging off the awful way women were portrayed in this, overall. I mean, all the hen-pecking and seriously bitchy behavior was hard to rally around and enjoy. I wanted to hold Mary's character up as a good example, but even in the end she was as cruel to the Countess by having her husband outed in public in front of the tabloids, as she felt Sylvia and others had been to her. So while I loved seeing the awesome ensemble cast and enjoyed the acting chops, and seriously loved the wicked dialogue, I am a bit conflicted.

I may watch the 2008 version tomorrow and see if my opinion differs much.

AbbyNormal said...

BTW, it is ok to say my initial opinion on "The Women" means I have seriously misplaced my funny bone and my chick flick movie club card is now revoked. :-)

Jennythenipper said...

I actually agree, Abby and no one is about to revoke anything. I think that there is something awful in The Women. Yet, I do think that it is in the spirit of parody. That world is being skewered. That's part of the point of those absurd fashions, etc. I think the characters I have sympathy for are the Paulette Goddard character who is like Joan Crawford's character in her background but she isn't heartless and Joan Fontaine's character who is just naive. And of course don't forget Virginia Wiedler (I can't believe I forgot to mention her in my review).

I think the thing is that Hollywood wants to have it both ways. It wants to give ordinary people something that they can feel morally superior to as well as giving them a vicarious thrill by showing them a supposedly realistic view of a world most of us will never experience.

eileen said...

Ha, I saw you were an Austen reader, so I was wondering what you thought of the "Jane Austen Book Club" book club actually read the book that the movie was based on. I watched after reading and thought both were pretty light affairs with the wrap it all up quick in the end endings :)

Rupert Alistair said...

To get all those stars and their egos together on a set day after day, they had to have a lioness tamer like George Cukor at the helm. And what a job he did. From everything I've read Joan Crawford, who came to MGM around the same time as Norma Shearer in the mid '20s, was jealous of her because she didn't have to work as hard to become "Queen of the Lot" due to her marriage to studio chiefton Irving Thalberg.

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