Magazine article The American Conservative
I Prefer the Older Women
ISN'T IT IRRITATING when a know-it-all movie critic trashes a new release just because it's not as good as its classic source, whether that be an older film, book, play, TV show, or theme-park ride? That's a tiresome routine because it's mathematically certain that most new movies will be comparatively worse than the material on which they are based. The average new movie is inevitably average in quality, while the famous old works that Hollywood spends tens of millions adapting into new flicks were almost all above average.
On the other hand, the differences between the source and the new release offer useful clues to the filmmakers' point of view, and can illustrate the evolution of attitudes over the decades.
Therefore, my rule as a reviewer is to watch the new film first to see what my unbiased reaction is, then read the book or watch the old DVD.
The new version of "The Women" illustrates the value of this approach. It had been a couple of decades since I'd seen George Cukor's 1939 version of the satirical play by Clare Booth Luce (the future grande dame of the American Right) about Park Avenue ladies who lunch. So I found the new film--a chick-flick-buddy comedy about Mary (Meg Ryan) and Sylvia (Annette Bening), the squabbling best friends forever who team up again to win Mary's husband back from the scheming perfume counter vixen Crystal (Eva Mendes)--to be quite likable.
Compared to last summer's hit, "Sex and the City," "The Women" is shorter, somewhat funnier, less tawdry, and Ryan is easier on the eyes than Sarah Jessica Parker. Some of the stars appear too Botoxed to manage understated facial expressions, but we don't live in an age of subtlety, so little is lost.
But then I watched the original from Hollywood's annus mirabilis of 1939, and it makes the 2008 effort seem like The Importance of Being Earnest rewritten to serve as a very special episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show."
Norma Shearer, the stubby, cross-eyed Canadian whose indomitable determination made her Queen of MGM, brought her refinement and silent movie-acting skills to the role of Mary, the betrayed upper-class wife bravely trying to keep up the facade while crumbling inside. …