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Stage on Screen: The Women (2002)

TV Movie  -   -  18 June 2002 (USA)
7.7
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Title: Stage on Screen: The Women (TV Movie 2002)

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Mary Louise Wilson ...
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Miss Watts / Second Saleswoman / Second Woman
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Sharp, tangy update of Claire Booth Luce's catty classic stands on its own claws.

What a delightful surprise dusting off this furry warhorse after so long. This taped version of the Roundabout Theatre's 2001 stage production works remarkably well under the obvious constrictions. The camera work is clean and expedient, the outré costumes glorious, the hairstyles period-perfect, the sets fun and functional, and the performances frisky and stylish.

Claire Boothe Luce's stinging all-female play `The Women' was first filmed in 1939 and starred MGM's crème de la femme at the time: Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland, Virginia Weidler, etc. It's a wickedly cherished film that deftly chaffs at the idle rich (well, the idle FEMALE rich anyway) for all it's worth. A stage version is rarely seen these days due to the Luce estate, which is very protective of this property, and because of its enormous (ergo, expensive) cast, which has 24 women performing 36 roles.

Off-putting to some in that it continually punches home the fact that a woman's station in life at that time was to marry money and breed, Luce portrays her gadflies as little more than brainless, vindictive, status-seeking gossips who have absolutely no purpose in life outside marriage. Lying, cheating husbands were better than no husbands at all. Luce's contempt for the 30s woman is quite obvious. In fact, she was even accused of misogyny after writing this satire! The focus instead should be directed squarely on the delightfully sharp, acerbic dialogue, the incendiary characters, and the terrific interplaying of its distaff cast. It's amazing how well everything holds up after all these decades.

Though the performances are a mixed bag, nothing detracts from the overall fun to be had. Cynthia (`Sex and the City') Nixon heads the cast as that noble sufferer Mary Haines whose husband has been led astray after a solid decade of marital bliss. Highly appealing, Nixon effectively overrides the more treacly scenes (and she is given a few), while her quivery voice has an interesting Billie Burke ring to it. She gives the piece a strong center of gravity while justifying the more melodramatic intrusions in the play.

But it's the bitchiness, the cattiness, and the empty attitudes and platitudes that everyone wants served up. And, boy, do they ever get it! Kristen (`Third Rock from the Sun') Johnston as Nixon's `best friend' goes for broke in the hilariously gabby, astringent Roz Russell role. With her pearl-handled guns drawn, she draws instant blood while imposing a panther-like frenzy on the proceedings. Her antics are as wonderfully over-the-top as the Hedda Hopper-like headgear she gets to flaunt. She succeeds in putting her own indelible stamp on this wacky blueblood.

Jennifer Tilly, in the Joan Crawford role, has her scathing moments too as homewrecker Crystal Allen, especially while trading delicious barbs with her competition (Nixon), but she is far, far too obvious as the counter girl out to sleep her way into nouveau riche society. In a one-note performance, Tilly's screechy voice is so unappetizing, her nastiness so brash and her intentions so transparent, it's hard to believe any man would be foolish enough to tangle with her. Nothing subtle, nothing enticing, nothing clever...nothing special.

Give it up, however, for the incredible Jennifer (`Best in Show') Coolidge who induces laughter with every groan and grimace. Looking like she just ate a barrelful of persimmons, her grumpy, feather-brained socialite steals the limelight whenever she's on. An excellent comedy farceur, Coolidge has a series of uproarious moments, the best being her postpartum hospital scene following the birth of her fourth child. It's priceless.

In somewhat lesser roles, Rue McClanahan is quite marvelous as the flighty, French-spewing, love-hungry, often-divorced countess, while Mary Louise Wilson offers the perfect cutting edge as Nixon's all-knowing mother. But Hallie Kate Eisenberg (from the Pepsi commercials) is woefully wrong period-wise as Nixon's precocious daughter. It's an annoying, thankless part to begin with but she doesn't help things with her joltingly contemporary performance. As for the rest of the large cast, including the downstairs help (Heather Matarazzo and Mary Bond Davis), all are given the chance to shine.

The show moves at a fast clip and the jokes are rippingly fun. Most surprising is how coarse and risque the original play was. The 1939 version was obviously softened quite a bit to get past the censors. Here, they get to go for the throat. By the way, in 1956 there was a filmed MUSICAL remake called `The Opposite Sex' starring June Allyson, Joan Collins, Ann Sheridan, Dolores Gray, Agnes Moorehead, Ann Miller, and the wonderful, wonderful Alice Pearce as the loose-tongued manicurist. This interesting but misguided feature chose to give life to the husbands (Leslie Nielsen, Jim Backus, Dick Shawn, among them), which diminished its impact. Still, you might want to give it a once-over just for comparison's sake.


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