'Benjamin' launched filmmaker's comedy career

Before Diane Keaton became the prototypical Nancy Meyers heroine — savvy, attractive and disarmingly vulnerable — there was Goldie Hawn — shy, attractive and oh so vulnerable — in Meyers’ first produced script, “Private Benjamin.”

The comedy hit — co-written with Harvey Miller and then-husband Charles Shyer — released in 1980, nabbed the scribes and their lead actress Oscar nominations and secured a supporting actress nod for Eileen Brennan.

For Meyers, “Private Benjamin” served as a launchpad for what has stretched to almost three decades of comedy projects, both with other writers and as a solo scribe. She eventually assumed directorial duties on her projects as well, helming several comedies and romantic comedies whose hallmark was a classic Hollywood tone with a disarming, contemporary twist.

For Hawn, who was already a star at the time of the film’s release, “Private Benjamin” promoted her to the front ranks of leading ladies. Her previous roles, including her Oscar-winning debut in “Cactus Flower,” all took advantage of the sexy, slightly daffy qualities she had first evinced on TV’s “Laugh-In.”

But the role of Judy Benjamin was a true comedy acting role in which she embodies a pampered young woman who comes into her own after inadvertently signing up to join the Army.

“Private Benjamin” was almost a primer in how to straddle the old Hollywood and the new, a contemporary story about a woman who respected the time-honored conventions of commercial comedy storytelling while adding a new feminist-era twist.

Unlike the stars of 1930s and ’40s comedies, Judy Benjamin was not a plucky young woman who is ultimately rescued by a man. She makes her own way in the world, tripping and picking herself up again, learning from her mistakes and maturing believably into full-blown personhood. In so doing, she becomes even more attractive, without being at all threatening. It was a delicate balance, not only in the spirited writing and Howard Zieff’s deft, lighthanded direction, but especially in Hawn’s inspired performance.

In its subtle own way, “Private Benjamin” was also a groundbreaking comedy. After World War II, the subject of women in the military was still considered a controversial topic. “Private Benjamin” quietly and subversively presented a military corps of women who exhibit true hors de combat.

As she did in “Private Benjamin,” Meyers continues to mix socially relevant topics into her stories — contemporary divorce in “Irreconcilable Differences,” the having-it-all syndrome in “Baby Boom” and romance in the life of aging women in “Something’s Gotta Give,” coating them with just the right amount of Hollywood sparkle.

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