My Best Friend’s Wedding

Rating *** A must see

Directed by P.J. Hogan

Written by Ronald Bass

With Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz, and Rupert Everett.

By Gina Fattore

Susan Faludi offers several definitions of feminism in her introduction to Backlash, one of them a rather modest formulation by Rebecca West. “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism really is,” West wrote in 1913. “I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.”

By extension of this tidy theorem, P.J. Hogan’s My Best Friend’s Wedding–in which Julia Roberts plays a confident, Elaine Benes-style New York career girl who fights dirty to win her man away from a blond doormat–definitely qualifies as a feminist movie. Yet Lisa Schwarzbaum in the July 18 Entertainment Weekly–a publication not known for its radicalism–takes issue with the movie’s “blithely antifeminist protagonists,” its “pre-Ms. magazine stereotypes,” and the “inherent meanness” of one girl trying to steal another girl’s fiance. “I can’t fathom why more irritated sisters (and the men who love them),” Schwarzbaum writes, “aren’t rising up from their Lilith Fair concert venues, suiting up in Indigo Girls T-shirts, marching en masse to the local multiplex, and shouting This movie exploits women.”

Indeed there is much to find objectionable in this broad summer farce, though I’d argue that its failings are primarily artistic and not ideological. As he did in his first feature, Muriel’s Wedding, Hogan once again takes a radically feminist approach to marriage. But he also goes way over the top with physical comedy once again, and the lazy screenplay by Hollywood hack Ron Bass provides zero insight into the main character, forcing Roberts’s Pre-Raphaelite hair and well-tweezed eyebrows to work overtime. The movie begins dreadfully with a bald expositional scene in which Roberts’s character–food critic Julianne Potter–explains to her dashingly gay Eurotrashy boss, George (Rupert Everett), how she and her best friend from college once made a pact to marry each other if neither had found someone else by age 28. (In real life people seem to make such pacts for 35, but Hollywood is like a Jane Austen novel in that respect: it considers 28 an age of utter desperation for unmarried ladies.) As waiters deliver a birthday cake to a neighboring table, we learn that Julianne’s 28th birthday is only three weeks away.

Cut to Julianne on the phone with “best friend” Michael (Dermot Mulroney), an itinerant sportswriter from solid and humble stock (think Spencer Tracy in Woman of the Year). Instead of activating the provisions of their nuptial pact, however, Michael matter-of-factly informs Julianne that he’s fallen in love with and intends to marry an upper-crust 20-year-old University of Chicago student named Kimmy (Cameron Diaz). But does Julianne simply ask Michael if he’s registered at Crate & Barrel and move on with her life? No, she realizes that she loves him and must have him. Hopping a plane to Chicago, she proceeds to use all her wiles–feminine and masculine–to prevent her guy Friday from marrying someone else.

Now comes the part that Schwarzbaum finds so objectionable (stop reading here if you don’t want to know how the film ends): Julia Roberts does not get the guy! The doormat wins. Kimmy gets to dress up like a big meringue and ride off into the shimmering night with the sportswriter, while Julianne–the clumsy, brash feminist who drinks, smokes, and dislikes public displays of affection–sits alone in her floor-length lavender bridesmaid’s dress, gloomily contemplating a meager portion of wedding cake.

As someone who owns more than $1,000 worth of floor-length bridesmaid’s dresses (thankfully, none of them lavender), I can certainly see where Schwarzbaum might find this sight an embarrassing setback for Indigo Girls T-shirt wearers everywhere. By her reckoning, the “too-young-wifey-to-be in pearls willing to sacrifice her identity for her guy” comes out ahead because she “wins a man to hug her.”

Yet there was a time back in the 70s–or so I’m told by Susan Faludi–when a woman without “a man to hug her” could be seen as heroically independent. Schwarzbaum never considers this possibility. Neither did the belly-shirt-and-platform-shoes crowd I encountered in the bathroom after a recent screening. They, too, felt cheated because Julia/Julianne did not get the guy. And maybe none of us wants to see a woman take a step backward in her quest to have both a full personal life and an important career, “punished” for her inability to be wifely and demure.

But in our desire to see a feminist heroine have it all, we fail to notice that the boy in question is basically an asshole. “To hardly know him is to know him well,” Cary Grant as C.K. Dexter Haven says of Kittredge, the dull man Katharine Hepburn thinks she wants to marry in The Philadelphia Story. The same might be said of the boy in My Best Friend’s Wedding. Though he’s been likable elsewhere, Mulroney hasn’t a shred of sex appeal here. Some have suggested that he’s miscast, others that the role is badly written–but when the girl is this radiant and the guy this wooden, when the sexiest scene in the whole movie is the one in which the boy takes the ring off the girl’s finger, it seems to me that we should at least consider the possibility that these two aren’t at all right for each other and that she’s better off without him.

The movie’s joyous finale seems to confirm this reading. In the eleventh hour, a little romance creeps into this distinctly unromantic comedy. The crowd parts. Across the room, our heroine spies a tall, dark, devastatingly handsome man who sweeps her into his arms and twirls her around the dance floor with joyous abandon. Of course a movie in which Ani Di Franco covers Burt Bacharach’s “Wishin’ and Hopin'” and teenage boys on helium sing John Denver’s “Annie’s Song” is not going to serve sentimental hokum straight up (the way Julianne likes her margaritas). There’s an ironic twist: the devastatingly handsome man is George, Julianne’s gay boss. “What the hell, life goes on,” he says, attempting to stand her on her feet the way Cary Grant did for Katharine Hepburn. “Maybe there won’t be marriage,” he suggests. “Maybe there won’t be sex,” he adds, though his facial expression indicates that this is not really an option. “But by God,” he concludes, “there’ll be dancing.”

To me, the ending seemed par for the course: Cary Grant always gets the girl in this type of movie. And despite Terrence Rafferty’s suggestions in the New Yorker, it’s Everett, not Roberts, who’s been playing the Cary Grant role all along. In fact, the ending is just like the happy endings of His Girl Friday (career girl winds up in the arms of her editor) and The Philadelphia Story (arrogant redhead realizes she’s not in love with stolid Kittredge but the suave, dashing Dexter, a man of style and wit with a slightly continental flair). Certainly, it’s a bit of a buzz kill that the Cary Grant character is gay, but–as the movie takes pains to point out–in this day and age, most devastatingly handsome men of style and wit are, which makes it considerably harder than it once was for arrogant redheads in urban environments to find suitable mates before the age of 28. And as long as we’re facing painful realities, guess what? Cary Grant was gay too. (Or at least bisexual. You didn’t really think he and Randolph Scott were just roommates, did you?)

By injecting this bit of reality into a hoary romantic-comedy formula, Hogan steps ahead of his mainstream audience. Perhaps too far ahead. While George’s “what the hell–life is a dance party” credo would generally be accepted as uplifting and life-affirming in a movie about the gay community–where marriage is illegal, sex is potentially lethal, and, as Paul Rudnik suggested in Jeffrey, show tunes are the only compelling evidence for the existence of God–Schwarzbaum finds Julianne’s sexless (but not joyless) fate humiliating. Her horror at the suggestion that “a lifetime of dancing with gay men at other girls’ weddings” may be all that’s in store for a single girl of spirit just goes to show how deeply the cult of the bride is ingrained in our culture and how little feminism has done to erode its influence.

In what seems to me a radically profeminist attempt to deflate that cult, Hogan goes out of his way to make Kimmy look like a complete idiot–she begs, she squeals, she smiles stupidly, she wears ridiculous, skimpy little-girl outfits in pink, orange, and yellow. No serious-minded girl could ever conceivably envy her. Until she slaps on that big white dress.

Most liberal, educated 90s women would prefer to think that they have nothing in common with Muriel Heslop, the protagonist of Hogan’s first feature (which he wrote as well as directed). An unemployed 22-year-old high school dropout in an Australian town called Porpoise Spit, Muriel spends entire days locked in her bedroom listening to ABBA and daydreaming about the person she’d like to be–i.e., anyone but her stupid, fat, useless self. Defeated and not terribly bright, Muriel has assimilated one basic truth from the culture around her: If I can get married, I’m not nothing.

Women have been conditioned by centuries of storytelling to accept that marriage is the only satisfactory conclusion to a story about a young woman. At the end of Gillian Armstrong’s My Brilliant Career, we find ourselves wondering why Judy Davis’s character couldn’t have both the very fetching Sam Neill and the brilliant career. Or we watch the final moments of Jane Campion’s The Piano praying that Holly Hunter won’t really sink to the bottom of the ocean with that big honking piano but will surface and have some more good sex with Harvey Keitel. We want all our heroines to be able to say at last, as Jane Eyre does, “Reader, I married him.” Otherwise the result is disappointment: Louisa May Alcott once wrote to a friend about the heroine of Little Women, whose romantic destiny had been left unresolved at the end of the first volume, “Jo should have remained a literary spinster, but so many enthusiastic young ladies wrote to me clamorously demanding that she should marry Laurie, or somebody, that I didn’t dare refuse & out of perversity went & made a funny match for her.”

The century of social change that’s swept the Western world since those “enthusiastic young ladies” sent their letters of protest has played havoc with every aspect of society but one. It hasn’t changed our expectations of how a female bildungsroman should end. To tell a story about a young woman that does not end at the altar is still a radical act in our society; to live such a life is even more radical. As feminist scholar Carolyn Heilbrun notes in Writing a Woman’s Life, “We women have lived too much with closure. ‘If he notices me, if I marry him, if I get into college, if I get this work accepted, if I get that job’–there always seems to loom the possibility of something being over, settled, sweeping clear the way for contentment. This is the delusion of a passive life. When the hope for closure is abandoned, when there is an end to fantasy, adventure for women will begin. Endings–the kind [Jane] Austen tacked onto her novels–are for romance or for daydreams, but not for life.” By making a film about a woman who doesn’t walk down the aisle, Hogan and Roberts have done women a service.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.