Over the past forty eight hours, I have watched two glossy, high end Hollywood ‘womens pictures’ : All about Eve, starring Bette Davis and Anne Baxter, made in 1950; the other a 2008 remake of George Cukor’s classic The Women, starring Hollywood royalty of a certain age, including Annette Bening, Meg Ryan, Debra Messing,Candice Bergen, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Both films are about love, betrayal, womens’ friendship and professional ambition but one is a classic and the other ……..well, it just doesn’t quite work. All about Eve, made in 1950, remains an absorbing, ironic study of the relationship between women of different generations, with Davis playing a possibly exaggerated version of the public’s perception of her: the tough but tender thesp. Anne Baxter is truly chilling as a conniving ingenue who tries to steal everything Davis possesses, from husband to professional reputation, but succeeds in winning fame, but not real love. Baxter’s performance still stands as a seminal portrait of a peculiarly modern form of acceptable evil; the person who will sacrifice all integrity for success, while appearing saccharine sweet on the outside.
In contrast, The Women, a comedy about a group of women discovering a friend’s husband’s infidelity in a ‘powder room’ , while perfectly watchable, has no centre, no real drive. I’m trying to figure out why. Today’s middle aged Hollywood actresses look twenty five from a distance yet oddly rubbery close up, so a lot of screen time is taken up internally managing that double take. The script isn’t that sharp either. Maybe it’s because it has too gloopy an ending: lead character finds professional success, wins back errant husband. Here it lacks the realist edge of All about Eve which makes it perfectly clear: high end professionalism, while utterly worthwhile in itself, carries a high price for women. Then and now.
But I think the problem is something to do with the difference in post war and contemporary emotional tone/registers. Women, including Hollywood women, of a previous age, were much more self contained, a stoicism that, paradoxically, made their sadness and struggles more moving. We associate Meg Ryan, Annette Bening and Bette Midler with many things, but stoicism is not one of them; their high octane zaniness too often hits an off tune note for a re-make of a film about a woman’s strategic management of her husband’s infidelity. We also can’t help but be aware that these are all highly powerful women within the industry; it’s hard to see them as mere wise cracking adjutants to the all powerful man (who never appears, incidentally.)
For these reasons, perhaps, one of the best things in the film, apart from Debra Messing giving birth, is Cloris Leachman (whom I best remember as a heartbreakingly lonely widow in The Last Picture Show) playing a bemused housekeeper of eighty something, who can’t admit she is emotionally involved with her employer. Slowly but surely, Leachman, less culturally visible than Ryan and co, really does emerge from the screen as a three dimensional character, a woman of no worldly power but real depth.