Wilson: The First Wives Club (1996)

Few films feel so precious to me as The First Wives Club. As a child who was predominantly raised by my mother in the 90s, it was rare to see flattering depictions of single mothers, single-parent families, or middle-aged independent women on the big screen. Even now, Hugh Wilson’s film, based on Olivia Goldsmith’s novel, feels ahead of its time – as radical, in its own way, as Thelma and Louise, although it ends with a very different vision of the horizons to feminist solidarity. Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn play Annie, Brenda and Elise, a trio of old friends who reunite when the fourth member of their college circle, Cynthia, played by Stockard Channing, commits suicide. Upon learning that Cynthia took her own life when she was left by her husband, and realising that they are all in the midst of marriage breakdowns, they set out to reclaim their lives, and offer hope for single women everywhere.

From the outset, this is a generational narrative, a vision of Baby Boomers reassessing their legacy at the end of the 90s. The prologue presents us with the four friends celebrating the end of college in “1969, the year of walking on the moon, Yellow Submarine, and Woodstock,” and then introduces Annie in sharp distinction to both her mother and daughter. Her mother Catherine, played by Eileen Heckart, represents the pre-war generation, and advises Annie that “you’re married, you have a daughter, you’re very happy – you don’t need self-esteem.” However, Annie’s daughter Chris, played by Jennifer Dundas, comes out as a lesbian to both her mother and grandmother in this same scene, evoking the next wave of sexual liberation.

Having established this as a Boomer narrative, Wilson (and Goldsmith) present the mid-life crisis as the end point of the Boomer experiment. In the haunting opening scene, Cynthia, the one “most likely to succeed,” slinks out to her balcony, conjuring up Gloria Swanson’s Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, the relic of an older regime. Since Cynthia is played by Channing in this one brief glimpse, she has a real presence in the film – she is, as Annie insists, always with them, and an integral part of the institution they end up naming in her honour. When the three friends reunite at Cynthia’s funeral, they learn that they are all in different stages of separation. Elise’s husband Bill (Victor Garber) has left her for Phoebe (Elizabeth Berkeley), an up-and-coming actress, Brenda’s husband Morty (Dan Hedaya) has left her for Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Annie’s husband Aaron (Stephen Collins) has asked for a separation, even as he continues to rely on her to look after their son and support his career.

In other words, all three women are relegated to mere motherhood, including Elise, who is a childless actress, but can suddenly only get roles as a mother. For all that critics felt that the film wasn’t edgy enough, it gets the stigma of single mothers, and single-parent families, exactly right, especially as it stood at this moment in time. Little by little, Annie, Brenda and Elise realise there is no safe institution for middle-aged women. Annie discovers it particularly acutely, since Aaron turns out to be having an affair with their marriage therapist, Leslie (Marcia Gay Harden), who tries to counsel her when she catches them in the same hotel room: “He’s found someone new – you’re free. Closure!” Likewise, the film industry discards Elise as quickly as Bill, while Brenda doesn’t find any solace in her own synagogue community.

Yet while Cynthia’s suicide draws these crises into the open, it also precipitates the reunion of the three friends, who go out for a long boozy dinner directly after the funeral service. There, they decide that men were the main beneficiaries of Boomer liberation, and commit to forming a second wave that prioritises women. The main problem with the first wave was that, for all its liberation, it still ended with marriage, which traditionally favours men. Accordingly, they cement this second wave by dropping their wedding rings in a glass of champagne. From there the film doesn’t exactly reject or restore marriage, but displaces it as an aspiration, creating a more provisional and open-ended screwball comedy of remarriage.

For the first part of the film, this idea of a second wave of sexual liberation helmed by middle-aged women is so novel that the three friends can only approach it negatively, by embracing all the abject grotesquerie that is projected onto them by the world at large. Everyone else sees middle-aged women as absurd, so they take ownership of it, producing a farcical physical comedy that starts with Annie hitting Leslie with a pillowed glove as part of her therapy. Elise also finds herself consigned to the realm of hagsploitation, despite being barely fifty years old, and amps up her Botox as a result, to the point where she seems to have received a fresh injection with each new appearance. This early part of the film is the least memorable, but it’s a critical step for the three women to come to terms with their own internalised misogyny, which makes it easy to fall into the role society has allocated to them: “the three witches.”

The film really hits its stride in the second act, when the three women start to conceive of the mid-life crisis as a crisis of social, sexual and, above all, spatial capital. Cynthia’s suicide is prefaced by a panoramic vista of New York, the first establishing-shot we see, but instantly forecloses it by suggesting there is no space in the city for middle-aged women, who are instead doomed to self-destructive freefall. All three husbands in the film work in the image economy, with jobs in advertising, film and electronics, meaning that the three women have to make inroads to this media sphere if they’re going to restore their autonomy. Their first step is exploring next-gen liberation, both sexually and spatially, starting with a visit to Chris’ favourite gay bar, a recently gentrified warehouse in what appears to be the Meatpacking District, and moving onto an interior décor heist with the help of Duarto, a gay man played by Bronson Pinchot. From here, personal and spatial rehabilitation quickly start to converge, as Elise suggests that they gentrify a building she owns downtown as their hub of operations.

While the trio, who have now named themselves the First Wives Club, aren’t sure what to do with this downtown hub, the very fact of occupying and refurbishing the space provides their answer. In order to jack into the same spatial capital as their husbands, they need to bridge the Old New York money of their marriages with the postmodern jouissance their husbands have sought in younger women. The second act plays out as a zany subsumption of Old New York into postmodern New York, starting with the bricolage of Elise’s apartment, which is so full of objects she has seized from her husband that she only has room for her treadmill. Running maniacally but also staying in the same place, she embodies the spatial consolidation that drives this part of the film, eroding and affirming space like the Roy Lichtenstein print that hangs behind her treadmill, and turns up at key moments in this postmodern acquisition.

This acquisition involves three distinct stages, each of which are orchestrated by Gunilla Goldberg, an aristocratic socialite played by Maggie Smith, whose English-American diction feels closer to the the Gilded 1890s than the postmodern 1990s. In step one, she lures Shelly, Morty’s mistress, to her house, and promises to take her under her wing, while observing her gauche manners from a distance, and steering her in the wrong direction in all matters of taste. In step two, she insists that Shelly hires a prominent designer, played by Pinchot’s Duarto, so that the three women can gain an inroad to her shared apartment with Morty, the most postmodern space in the film. Flattered, Shelly hires Duarto write away, and obeys him blindly when he insists on an hour alone in her apartment, at which point the friends arrive.

This second stage in the plan now blooms into a heist, or home invasion, as the trio take in the peak of postmodernism – more an art gallery than a dwelling, full of disparate historical artefacts placed against sleek backdrops, all infused with a poised sense of play that crystallises around the recurring shots of a tissue box with the Mona Lisa painted on all four sides. Yet this is also, specifically, a high point of 80s postmodernism, as Elise realises when she looks at her face in a mirror framed by a Patrick Nagel print, as if measuring her 90s self against the 80s ideal that the apartment espouses. By the 90s, everything in this space feels provisional, hypothetical, open to recombination, if the women can just jack into it, absorb its energy, and draw it into a cutting-edge 90s that leaves their husbands far behind. In order to effect that shift from 80s to 90s postmodern space, they invade cyberspace, hacking into Morty’s computer in order to discern the financial scheme that keeps the apartment afloat.

Of course, Morty and Shelly return too early, forcing the three women to flee to the top floor, and then to the balcony, where they jump onto a window-cleaning platform. This is their counterpoint to the opening suicide scene, their line of flight from Cynthia’s balcony trajectory, and it produces the comic centrepiece of the film, as the platform jams just outside Morty’s window, which momentarily frames them as the abject ridiculous no-hopers that the Hollywood optic would typically assume them to be. Yet they escape unscathed, and broker this comic energy for the emotional centrepiece of the film – toasting Cynthia for her birthday, and singing “You Don’t Own Me,” in a primal hit of Boomer energy. There’s a poignant vulnerability to this a cappella rendition, since none of them can quite summon the ebullient energy of 1969, meaning the song stays within the diegetic field of the film for the moment.

Nevertheless, these comic and dramatic flashpoints usher in the third step in the plan, which involves recirculating and redistributing their husbands’ financial and spatial capital as their own. This sequence starts with the trio channelling information in a proto-social media manner, against a montage of phones and answering machines, and then crystallises around a beautifully orchestrated auction scene. Elise’s possessions are up for sale, Elise and Brenda are overbidding in the audience, and Gunilla encourages Shelly to pay a ridiculous price for every object, which enfranchises the women at the expense of Morty’s bank account. From there, Annie can afford to buy majority shares in her husband’s company, while Brenda confronts her husband with evidence of fraud and takes over advertising, marketing and optics in his electronics company. Meanwhile, the trio arrange things so that Elise only has to pay her husband a dollar in alimony, while also revealing that his newfound lover is underage. Finally, to cap it all off, Chris comes out to her father just before the plan reaches it zenith.  

By this point, the three women have pooled their resources to reclaim the image economy as their own, and yet their motivation has exceeded mere revenge. Instead, they fuse the spirit of a 60s collective, or co-operative, with the power of a 90s corporation, while extending their feminist project beyond the fate of first wives to form The Cynthia Swann Griffin Crisis Centre for Women, an institution that offers “counselling, family therapy and abuse intervention.” As they refurbish the building to “Sisters Are Doin’ It For Themselves,” and Annie Lennox fuses with Aretha Franklin, Wilson takes the 80s montage sequence, so often associated with action heroes or upwardly mobile male yuppies, and reframes it as a vehicle for middle-aged women. In the final moments we glimpse a world where marriage is no longer important enough to be affirmed or rejected, a world after the comedy of remarriage, as Brenda gets back with Morty, Elise starts dating again, and Annie is happy living her life as a single woman.

In the beautiful closing scene, the three women sing “You Don’t Own Me,” and this time conjure up the non-diegetic soundtrack, dancing out to the street, and then along the street, into a gorgeous Technicolor dawn, as the camera pulls further and further back, like an out take from One From the Heart. Boomers can get a bad wrap in our own time, but this shot captures everything enduring about the Boomer project, both in terms of its sexual liberation and its cinematic longevity. It’s no coincidence that the younger women here all feel like the harbingers of a less enduring cinematic regime – whether because they were destined for television, like Sarah Jessica Parker or Heather Locklear, who plays the mistress of Cynthia’s husband, or because their cinematic career was destined to burn bright and short, like Elizabeth Berkeley, who is already in full Showgirls mode in her maniacal appearance here.

Sarah Jessica Parker, in particular, feels like a forerunner of everything that was conservative about Gen X compared to her Boomer ancestors. In spirit, this is effectively a prequel for Carrie Bradshaw, whose chic “cosmopolitanism” couldn’t be more different from the ease with which Goldie Hawn commands a scene in the St. Regis, home of the Bloody Mary, and infinitely classier than anything in the entire Sex and the City universe. You only have to look to the way And Just Like That, the SATC reboot, imagines middle-aged womanhood to appreciate how progressive The First Wives’ Club was, or to understand Morty’s perennial disappointment when he tries to cast Shelly in one of his advertisements. Of course, Gen X have their virtues, and Boomers have their flaws, but no film captured Gen X’s failure to live up to Boomers quite like this one, a high watermark for the three leads, who riff with a late career abandon here that would flow through their work over the following decades.

About Billy Stevenson (936 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: