The First Wives Club

Rating ** Worth seeing

Directed by Hugh Wilson

Written by Robert Harling

With Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Maggie Smith, and Sarah Jessica Parker

By Anthony Puccinelli

The First Wives Club opens with a flashback. Best friends Cynthia (Stockard Channing), Brenda (Bette Midler), Elise (Goldie Hawn), and Annie (Diane Keaton) are graduating from college full of expectations about their futures. But they end up sacrificing their dreams, devoting themselves instead to advancing their husbands’ careers and losing touch with one another until Cynthia, who’s been dumped by her husband for a younger woman, commits suicide. At her funeral they learn of their common bond–after giving their husbands the best years of their lives, all three have been rewarded with impending divorces. But rather than punish themselves, as Cynthia has done, they decide to take revenge. Dumping their wedding rings in champagne glasses, they toast one another and declare war on cheating hubbies.

On one level, The First Wives Club is a snappy satire, well written by Robert Harling (also the author of Steel Magnolias–another vehicle for women). When Elise moans in ecstasy, “Do it to me. Do it to me now!” she’s talking to her plastic surgeon, asking him to “fill up” her lips with collagen. When Annie voices concerns about her sense of self, her mother chastises her: “You’re still married. You have a daughter. You’re very happy. You don’t need self-esteem.” When Annie tries to say something positive about herself, all she can come up with is “I’m seeing a wonderful therapist.” Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker), the gauche mistress of Brenda’s husband, betrays her lack of class by exclaiming about the food to her society-matron hostess, “This is restaurant quality!” Brenda calls Shelly “Princess Pelvis,” and Elise’s husband calls Elise “a sack of silicone, a piece of plastic.” That may not be Poe, but it is alliteration, and Hollywood screenplays aren’t generally known for their poetic devices.

What’s most striking about The First Wives Club, however, is the way the jokes are hammered home. In a classic screwball comedy–which this film resembles–such lines would have wit and sparkle: Ralph Bellamy would exclaim with gusto, “This food is of restaurant quality!” and Cary Grant and Irene Dunne would exchange surreptitious looks across the table. But in The First Wives Club the society matron (Maggie Smith, in the movie’s most subtle performance) rolls her eyes and screws up her face in distaste because the filmmakers don’t trust the audience to get the joke. If The Awful Truth came out today it would require a laugh track–and frankly that would be preferable to the way Midler pumps her arms faster and faster to generate farcical energy. She punches her jokes across as if she were still playing the bathhouses, and in some scenes she comes across like Jay Leno in drag. (But like RuPaul, Dennis Rodman, and The Birdcage, she proves that camp has gone mainstream.)

Certain films of dubious artistic merit are nonetheless worth watching and preserving for what they tell us about ourselves and our culture. Two hundred years from now The First Wives Club will be an anthropological artifact for historians studying the 1990s, revealing the degree of self-consciousness that comes with living in a media culture. Cary Grant makes us feel that the pervasive playfulness in his performances–it’s often impossible to determine whether or not he’s being serious–emerges from the character he’s playing. In today’s comedies we see the actor, not the role.

The fourth wall has been breached in this film, not by so obvious a device as one of Burt Reynolds’s commiserating winks, but rather by an exaggerated sense of performance: the actors seem to be playing blatantly to one another and to the director, who is our stand-in. Cary Grant privileged us with glimpses of his own private jokes without ever betraying his awareness of the audience. Midler, Hawn, and Keaton, on the other hand, are definitely performing for us. It’s as if they were at a party and determined to show us they were having a good time. But their laughter is so loud and boisterous it sounds desperate, forced, and hollow. They remind me of a Replacements song: “The people at your party they all look depressed / Dressing sunny, acting funny, color me impressed.”

The plot of The First Wives Club also implies that nothing is worth doing unless it’s observed. For example, Brenda, Elise, and Annie build the Cynthia Swann Griffin Crisis Center for Women in honor of their dear departed friend. But this act of charity isn’t a magnificent obsession, it’s not carried out in secret, as a private act of devotion. It’s real only because Kathie Lee Gifford is applauding, and because there’s a building–concrete proof of their right feeling. When Brenda, Elise, and Annie don hard hats, they’re just another fashion accessory. The women can’t wear it, but the same is true of the crisis center.

Just as nothing is worth doing unless somebody is watching, nothing is worth feeling unless somebody knows about it. When Brenda’s feelings are hurt, syrupy strings underline the fact, as does the melting expression on her friend’s face. Brenda greets her son after employing a rock band for his bar mitzvah by pointing a finger at her cheek and demanding, “Affection.” In The First Wives Club the words “I love you” no longer mean “I feel a deep emotional commitment to you.” Rather they mean “I am beautiful and special because I have feelings.” It’s the same three words, but they’re no longer sincere–they’re used to signify sincerity.

The success of The First Wives Club rests on the way it makes the audience feel like insiders, like part of a glamorous Hollywood club. The screwball comedies of the Great Depression were pure fantasy and completely escapist, but today we share in the affluence onscreen by identifying with the rich and famous, sharing the language, the references, the hip insider’s humor. Nowadays people actually read about the box-office gross of films as if it means something personal to them. Premiere publishes an annual list of the most powerful people in Hollywood. Apparently the general public actually cares about Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen, and Don Simpson. In one of the jokes in The First Wives Club Brenda exclaims, “This is just like Mission Impossible!” and Annie replies, “Oh, that was a big hit!” We audience members may not have enough money to buy one of Jackie O’s used Kleenexes, but we can all laugh when the auction of her stuff is used as a punch line. (The people who don’t get the joke are the real unfortunates, not us.) Gloria Steinem, Ivana Trump, and Ed Koch make cameo appearances, and we laugh because…because…well, because we know who they are.

In this archetypal film of the 90s, its preoccupations with the actors’ world, the act of performance, and self-consciousness are summed up perfectly in the women’s climactic dance through the streets of New York. They’re not just having fun, grooving, goofing around, improvising, discovering steps, or expressing themselves. Their spontaneity has been perfected–it’s flawless, a plastic ideal. Edited to conform to our notions of how perfect we can look being ourselves, the scene isn’t human. In real life we don’t get a swelling orchestra and applause.

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