The Women,” Diane English’s remake of the 1939 MGM classic, revives a relatively obscure subgenre of the so-called “woman’s film”: the female ensemble. Its purpose was to elevate the traditional woman’s film out of the cinematic ghetto through star power. If you cast Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Marjorie Main, Butterfly McQueen, Hedda Hopper and more, maybe you could gain status and ditch the labels of “woman’s film,” “soap opera” or “weepie.” (Today we call films about women “chick flicks.” It’s funnier and hipper, but it’s still dubious.)
It’s significant that a film starring a female, no matter what other genre it might be (comedy, romance, musical, crime, Western, film noir, melodrama), was always known as “a woman’s film.” There was no equivalent “man’s film” category. Even if a movie cast a group of great male stars, it wasn’t a “male ensemble film.” It was a Western (“The Magnificent Seven”), a war film (“The Dirty Dozen”) or, perhaps, even a masterpiece (“The Bridge on the River Kwai”). Films with men didn’t need to worry about genre status, but the female ensemble gave the woman’s film a chance to grab some.
Throughout film history, there haven’t been lots of female ensemble movies. One of the earliest was “Thirteen Women,” a 1932 RKO story with Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy and others. (It was a discouraging tale of female revenge in which Loy, a half-Indian mystic, sets out to kill a bunch of sorority girls who snubbed her in college.) The ensemble subgenre has never been defined by a single setting, occupation or age group. It can be about teenagers (“Where the Boys Are”), suburban housewives (“No Down Payment”), actresses trying to break into show business (“Stage Door”) or mothers and daughters coping with wedding plans and cancer (“Steel Magnolias”). The women can be in jail (“Caged”) or mental institutions (“Girl, Interrupted”). They can be standing behind their success-obsessed husbands (“A Woman’s World”), fighting to achieve their own careers (“The Best of Everything”) or just looking to find a decent man to love (“Waiting to Exhale”). Sometimes the ensemble was empowered by legendary stars (“The Women”) and sometimes used to showcase newcomers, as in “The Group.” A story of eight friends who graduated together from a women’s college, “The Group” gave opportunities to Candice Bergen and Jessica Walter, among others.
The female ensemble movie spins off from the woman’s film, which was usually about a single woman, using her as an individual role model. The ensemble makes women important, and “The Women” is a perfect example. In it, men are simply eliminated. The women become the heroes. Audiences can’t ignore them. Their world is defined by the beauty salon, the fashion show, the divorce ranch, the nightclub ladies’ room, the ritzy home with the big closets, and the bridge table. Its women may be archetypes (the doe and her fawn, the prowling she-cat, a lamb and a cow), but they are different from one another. Moreover, the movie suggests there’s more than one way for them to behave.
When “The Women” was first remade, as a musical in 1956 (retitled as “The Opposite Sex”), with June Allyson, Ann Miller and others, men were added to the cast. This diluted the story, revealing it as trivial. The men disrupted the acting ensemble, making the women look weak, and redirecting the audience to include the male point of view. Comparing the original “The Women” and “The Opposite Sex” clearly illustrates the ensemble’s purpose: to elevate women, to provide multiple female characters with differing roles in life, and to delineate the limits of the woman’s world. And, of course, to talk about sex as much as possible, show plenty of furniture and fashion, and to let the women do what men do: make war on one another.
How to obtain sisterhood
Female ensemble movies were not always grounded in competition. The women could obtain “sisterhood,” setting aside petty jealousies to work together toward a higher cause. Significantly, these are movies in which the women have no wardrobes. They wear uniforms, as in World War II movies about nurses (“Cry, Havoc!”), or movies with nuns (“Black Narcissus”). When women put on men’s pants, bulky plaid jackets and hobnailed boots, as in “Westward the Women,” they can pull together and wagon forward, rolling over rough terrain, hostile Apaches and the occasional rattlesnake. In John Ford’s last feature film, “Seven Women,” a group of soberly dressed missionaries in China make a last stand against cruel mercenaries, never having to worry about changing their outfits.
Technically, a female ensemble film has to have more than three leading ladies to qualify for the type. Threesome female movies (“Valley of the Dolls”) don’t count. They were always a staple of Hollywood storytelling, being used as cautionary tales to warn women how they might end up: married, disappointed or dead — although in good clothes and a glamorous location. (Finally, in 1980, with “Nine to Five,” the women got the upper hand and no one had to die.)
Today female ensemble movies are hard to cast since there’s a shortage of top-ranked box office stars. It’s easier in television, where actresses can be introduced into a series when they are unknowns and made famous as the characters they play. Television’s ability to assemble successful female foursomes is a foundation of the sitcom: “Designing Women,” “The Golden Girls,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Sex and the City” — all of which are female ensembles.
I look forward to a revival of the ensemble subgenre in which women aren’t alike, can feel liberated to behave badly without consequence, can fight it out among themselves (why should the men have all the fun?) and can ultimately become friends and learn to work together. It’s still a groundbreaking concept for any chick flick, so congratulations to Diane English and her ensemble of actresses for reviving “The Women” on modern terms.
Jeanine Basinger is the author of “The Star Machine.”
What: 2008 Crystal + Lucy Awards
Where: Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills
When: Tonight at 8