Female Buddy Movies
written in 1989 for the NY Times Arts and Leisure section
Who are you going discuss your wedding night with? Your husband?
Sometimes a woman needs another woman, a great friend. Sisterhood, truly, can be powerful — a fact not gone unnoticed by the men on the other coast with the big cigars.
Which brings us to “Steel Magnolias”. The opening of this movie appears to have commanded nearly as much media attention as the opening of the Berlin Wall. But “Steel Magnolias” is hardly a new sensation. For decades, Hollywood has been turning out female buddy movies, although not exactly churning them out. The numbers are nowhere near those of the male buddy film, probably for the simple cultural-historical-sociological-stupnagel-sexist reason that women are considered neither as important nor as interesting as men. Still, films about women’s friendships and rivalries have appeared throughout the decades, since (at least) the heyday of the Gish sisters.
But the world has changed in that time. America has lived through two feminist revolutions, the first culminating in the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, and the second, still being fought, arising out of the raised consciousnesses of sixties activists. So with all that history behind us, is there anything new in female buddy movies? Are there any substantive changes in the portrayal of women over the decades, between, say, 1939’s classic “The Women”, 1949’s “A Woman’s Secret”, 1957’s “Les Girls”, 1967’s “Valley of the Dolls,” 1977’s “The Turning Point” and 1989’s “Steel Magnolias”?
In “Steel Magnolias”, four Louisiana ladies (Sally Field, Julia Roberts, Olympia Dukakis and Shirley MacLaine) gather in Truvy’s Beauty Spot. There, amidst back-combing, coloring and manicures, the women share their lives with each other, with an apprentice stylist (Daryl Hannah) and with an Earth Mother-beautician (Dolly Parton).
Robert Harling’s scenario, adapted from his play, contains both caustic, stagy one-liners (“The only thing that separates us from the animals is our ability to accessorize.”) as well as a warm portrayal of the empathy, support and fun women share. But the film, directed by Herbert Ross, has a TV movie-of-the-week quality. The women are brought together by a calamity that arises out of an illness — diabetes — not out of character.
But loyal and loving friends, they pull together in the face of adversity. The feminist movement we have lived through for the last twenty years appears to have made supportiveness appear as instinctive as the rooting reflex; the grande dame and the declasse lip-waxer are instant sisters.
There is supportiveness, also, in the 1937 play-turned-movie “Stage Door.” What a difference, though, between these two all-star vehicles. In “Stage Door,” Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Gail Patrick, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller play young actresses who share their aspirations, gaiety and travails in a theatrical boarding house. In this film, as in “Steel Magnolias”, there are zingy one-liners. The aristocratic Hepburn looks down her perfectly-sculpted nose and pronounces to her roommate, the plebeian Rogers: “I see that in addition to your other charms you have the insolence generated by an inferior upbringing.”
But there is far more depth in the fifty-two-year-old “Stage Door” than in the November, 1989 release. In the screenplay for “Stage Door” (by Morrie Ryskind and Anthony Veiller, based on the Edna Ferber, George S. Kaufman play) there is recognition that alliances between women — between people — are complicated by economic, social and psychological realities. The triumph of “Stage Door” is its depiction of a querulous theatrical sorority that, ultimately, is able to transcend the barriers of social class, personal morality and even talent.
It would seem that, despite a couple of notable exceptions, the more women’s lives change, the more the movies about them remain the same. The ladies in “Steel Magnolias” lead lives as conventional and circumscribed as those led by the characters in the 1936 film, “Craig’s Wife.” Oh, sure, in eighties’ movies a woman can take off her brassiere in front of the camera, curse, even take on a lover without being obliged to die in the last reel. But despite changes in fashion and deportment — even when characters spout the rhetoric of feminism — women like the cerebral bimbo-sorceresses played by Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer in “The Witches of Eastwick” (1987) show no more evidence of raised consciousnesses than did the three luscious gold-diggers — Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable — in 1953’s “How to Marry a Millionaire.”
Whether female buddy movies focus on the relationship between two women, or the dynamics of a group, or treat sisterhood as an important secondary theme, the women in them are almost invariably brought together by predictable, traditional concerns: men (the procurement and retention of same); children; and, occasionally, careers. (Often the careers are in show business, as in “Stage Door,” “All About Eve,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Les Girls,” “Beaches,” “The Turning Point” and “Valley of the Dolls.” As critic Molly Haskell notes in her book about the portrayal of women in film, “From Reverence to Rape,” movies about backstage life “afforded the dual opportunity of a vocation that allowed a woman to preserve her femininity and a role that allowed an actress to display her wares.”)
Female buddy movies have remained remarkably consistent in theme and execution over the years. In a relationship film like “The Turning Point” (1977), directed by Herbert Ross and starring Anne Bancroft and Shirley MacLaine, the issue is careers. The two women, who became friends as young ballerinas, have chosen different paths. Bancroft remains a dancer in New York while MacLaine chooses a husband, children and a dance school in Oklahoma City. The film explores the yearning each has for the other’s achievements, as well as their rivalry, their closeness and, most of all, their shared passion for their art.
But Bancroft and MacLaine’s dancers, beautifully fleshed-out characters, are no more liberated from traditional working-woman stereotypes than Bette Davis’s and Miriam Hopkins’s deliciously competitive novelists in the 1943 film, “Old Acquaintance.” And ditto for Candice Bergen’s and Jacqueline Bisset’s novelists in its remake, “Rich and Famous” (1981), Goldie Hawn’s and Christine Lahti’s Rosie-the-Riveter factory workers “Swing Shift” (1984) and Melanie Griffith’s, Sigourney Weaver’s and Joan Cusack’s Wall Streeters in “Working Girl” (1988). These women are feisty, spunky or even tough, but they inhabit worlds that operate according to the rules of men.
In Loretta Young and Celeste Holm’s world in “Come to the Stable” (1949), the rules are God’s — a pleasant break from the predictable. The women play two French nuns who come to the small Connecticut town of Bethlehem determined to build a children’s hospital. Together, they overcome all opposition with their charm, intelligence and, above all, their joyous piety.
Robert Towne’s “Personal Best” (1982), is another ground-breaker. Superficially, it would seem to add a new dimension to the relationship-type female buddy film mainly because the athletes, played by Mariel Hemingway and Patrice Donnelly, have a lesbian affair. But who gets to kiss the girl is far less interesting than how these two women come to view themselves in relation to their manipulative coach, played by Scott Glenn. “Personal Best” is one of the few buddy films that says something new, and that something is about sexual politics, not sex.
The group buddy film, like “Steel Magnolias,” focusses on the association of three or more women and tends to be more superficial, more light entertainment than the relationship film. It almost has to be; it has a lot of ground to cover, a lot of actresses to showcase. But the newer films, “The Best of Everything” (1959), “Where the Boys Are” (1960) — and its remake, “Where the Boys Are ’84”, which is significant only for its staggering witlessness — “The Group” (1966), “Crimes of the Heart” (1986) and “The Witches of Eastwick”, are overshadowed by the radiance and, yes, the relevance, of the two thirties’ films, “Stage Door” and “The Women” with their literate scripts and brilliant ensemble acting.
Some of the nicest films about female buddies have friendships between women as a strong motif, but not a dominant theme. For instance, Vera Charles (Coral Browne), a marvelously haughty actress, is Mame Dennis’s (Rosalind Russell’s) lifelong friend in “Auntie Mame” (1958). Whether Mame is queening it in her salon on Beekman Place during the height of the Jazz Age, or flat broke, fired from Macy’s during the depths of the Depression, Vera — drunk, snooty, and courageous as hell — is always there. Likewise, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm), a wry, observant housewife, is, with one notable exception, a true buddy to Margo Channing (Bette Davis) in “All About Eve” (1950). Margo, the toast of Broadway, can be most grand; Karen is an appreciative audience for her friend’s histrionics, her style, her sense of theater, but she also provides the high-flying Margo with the counterweight of reality.
All buddy movies are not about good buddies, however. Long before there were movies there was a literary tradition of women as rivals. When a woman’s world extends only from the hearth out to the border of the herb garden, there isn’t much turf to fight for — except guys. Thus, just as Sarah and Hagar metaphorically duked it out over Abraham, so do Norma Shearer and Joan Crawford battle for their mutual husband in “The Women.”
Even when women step beyond the picket fence, when they become teachers like Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon in “These Three” (1936), dancers like Kay Kendall, Taina Elg and Mitzi Gaynor in “Les Girls” (1957), actresses like Shelley Long and Bette Midler in “Outrageous Fortune” (1987), they often continue to vie over men. It’s as if Hollywood cannot find any other reason for “normal” women — comprised as they are of sugar and spice and everything nice — to compete. “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962) is remarkable not only for its two great stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, in stunningly hideous makeup, but because it portrays two women who loath each for reasons apart from sexual rivalry. But the Bible, too, speaks of more than women as antagonists. Talk about female role models: Ruth and Naomi are paradigms of faith, love and understanding. And the women in the best of the female buddy movies share these qualities.
In “Julia” (1977) the valorous anti-fascist Julia (Vanessa Redgrave) offers no crisp “Shape up” lectures to her vocal but less-than-dauntless friend, Lillian (Jane Fonda). Instead, she quietly reassures Lillian that she understands that Lillian is afraid to be afraid; by doing so, Julia shows Lillian how to look inward, to discover courage she did not know she had. The film is a rare one in the genre because it depicts two women whose friendship transcends the usual concerns of men, children and careers. Julia and Lillian look beyond themselves, upon the world, observe the evil in it — and act to subvert it.
The most satisfying female buddy movies, like “Julia,” are the ones in which women like themselves, like other women and take pleasure in each other’s company; Bette Midler is the standard of excellence in that category today. “Beaches” (1988) in which she co-stars with Barbara Hershey, is a conventional “woman’s film,” one in which two dissimilar girls (a razzmatazz, show biz Jew and an upper-class WASP with cheekbones) share a lifelong friendship. But “Beaches” is lifted out of the ordinary by Midler’s funny and sensitive performance, as well as by her character’s acknowledgement that there is something singular and extraordinary about female friendship. After she fights with Hershey, her husband tries to fill the void by saying “You have me.” But Midler responds with a quiet but heartfelt: “It’s not the same.”
In “Outrageous Fortune,” Midler, zaftig, wise-cracking, again plays opposites attracting, this time with a willowy, supercilious creature played with delectable disdain by Shelley Long. The two start out as rivals over a man, but end up as great pals. And there are splendid female friendships in other Midler films: “Big Business” with Lily Tomlin (1988) and “Ruthless People” with Helen Slater (1986).
Perhaps a generousness of bosom has come to symbolize a generosity of spirit. In Marilyn Monroe’s two buddy films, “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” with Jane Russell (1953) and the cooler, less engaging “How to Marry a Millionaire” (also 1953), Monroe plays her typical dumb blonde gold-digger with a heart of gold role. What distinguishes her performances is that even though she’s out to snag a (very) rich husband, she allows herself the pleasure and the sustenance of friendship. She is truly happy in the company of women. Juicy, sexy women like Midler, Monroe and Dolly Parton in “Steel Magnolias” (and in the knee-jerk feminist “Nine to Five”) make friendship seem real — and fun. Yet trim, perky Doris Day can’t let down her guard, to say nothing of her self-involvement. In “That Touch of Mink” (1962), her friendship with Audrey Meadows appears to have only one aim: to maintain Doris Day’s virginity, a rather odd goal, since Ms. Day was thirty-eight when the film opened, an age when most women have learned how to keep their panties on by themselves. There is no real felicity between the ladies in “That Touch of Mink,” no real camaraderie; there is just mutual maidenhead mania.
But the worst female buddy movies are the ones in which the women aren’t buddies at all, because they don’t like other women — or themselves. In “The Group,” based on Mary McCarthy’s novel about a group of friends who graduate from college and make their way in the world, only Shirley Knight’s Polly is a mature, decent person. The other women, played by actresses Joan Hackett, Joanna Pettet, Candice Bergen, Elizabeth Hartman, Jessica Walters, Kathleen Widdoes and Carrie Nye are either snobs, bitches or passive-aggressive wimpettes. They are stuck with the group — and with their own self-loathing.
The greatness of a film is no guarantee of a politically correct feminist stance. Unlike the love and concern displayed by Diane Wiest and Julie Kavner in Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” (1987), the women in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986), Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fisher, betray each other in large and small ways: one sister has an affair with another’s husband, another betrays the same sister-victim by making her private life public in a short story, a dear girlfriend grabs one of the sisters’s beaux. Even the “good sister”, with her infinite understanding and ever-present checkbook, has set herself up as Master Manipulator, Controller of West Side Neurotics.
But perhaps we should give thanks for what we’ve got. Female buddy films don’t leap onto the screen in the relentless manner of male buddy films. Hey, forget Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Martin and Lewis, Redford and Newman. In just the past fifteen years, we’ve seen (among others): “Alien Nation”, “All The President’s Men”, “National Lampoon’s Animal House”, “Beverly Hills Cop”, “The Blues Brothers”, “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels”, “48HRS.” “Ghost Story”, “Ghostbusters”, “Harlem Nights”, “The In-Laws”, “Ishtar,” “Midnight Run”, “Mississippi Burning”, “My Bodyguard”, “North Dallas Forty,” “Rain Man”, “Stakeout”, “That Championship Season”, “The Sunshine Boys”, “Three Amigos!”, “Throw Momma From The Train”, “Tin Men”, “White Nights”, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”, “Wise Guys” and “Young Sherlock Holmes.” Unlike the female buddies in movies, male buddies’ friendship is more important than any involvement with the opposite sex; women are either unwelcome or incidental. In male buddy films, the real Significant Other is the other guy.
Will American movies ever get beyond the pretty, primpy world of Truvy’s Beauty Spot? Will female buddies ever walk off into the sunset with each other? Two recent films offer some promise.
“The Accused” with Jodie Foster as a rape victim and Kelly McGillis as the prosecutor of the crime is the story of two women whose lives come together. Adversaries at the beginning of the film, the two women come to respect each other. No, the movie does not fade out with them giggling together at the pantyhose counter, or having a double wedding ceremony with two fungible grooms. But yes, it does show that women can come to deal with each other with an esteem and dignity that has nothing to do with shared interests or background.
In the gentle, unpretentious “Mystic Pizza” (1988), Julia Roberts of “Steel Magnolias” plays one of three lower-middle-class girls in a small town in Connecticut who observes: “There’s more to life than slinging pizza.” She and co-stars Annabeth Gish and Lili Taylor prove that true. While the movie explores the young women’s relationships with men, only one winds up with the man of her dreams — and even she doesn’t settle. During the course of the film, all three grow up and make wise and satisfying choices. “Mystic Pizza” is that rare buddy movie where the women learn not only about how to be good friends, but how to be first-rate human beings.
Susan Isaacs is a novelist, as well as the writer of two female buddy movies: “Compromising Positions” (1985) and “Hello Again” (1987).