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Sex and the City (2008) -vs- The Women (1939)

Sherry CobenThe Smackdown

In this corner, catty, clever and classic, The Women. Mother of all chickflicks. And striding confidently into the ring high atop a pair of Manolos, currently raking in the big bucks all over the world, the HBO phenom brought to the big screen with big hype and big box office to match: Sex And The City.  It’s a cat fight for the ages.  Ladies?




The Challenger


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Carrie and Miranda and Samantha and Charlotte leave the small screen behind for the multiplex in Sex And The City(2008). Older but no wiser, they give their legions of fans a little taste of what ever happened to. Will she or won’t she? The earthbound screenplay grounds them from taking full flight with only the pale rhythm of wit and no real follow-through. The four squeal like schoolgirls and act like little kids playing house and dress-up. (A word about the real heroine of the entire franchise: costumer Patricia Field.Yoinks. Evoking oohs and ahs with every costume change, this visionary never stops to ask herself: “Does this go with that?”  Taking Japanese street fashion ethos and raising the couture ante and price tag to astronomical, a ride so exhilaratingly awful it’s actually quite wonderful, Ms. Field might be True Genius. Possibly an evil genius but genius nonetheless. Kudos.)

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The Defending Champion

Only two big female stars under contract at MGM at the time don’t appear in the film The Women (1939) – Myrna Loy and Greta Garbo. Starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, Paulette Goddard (playing the only one of the whole species I’d really want for a friend), and a cast of over one hundred take the Clare Booth Luce play for a cinematic ride worth its weight in estrogen. No male images appear on the screen for the duration — no male animals, no photographs, no paintings. None. Stunning and more than a little disheartening that this achievement is still noteworthy some sixty-nine years later, considering that so many films since have graced our screens with exclusively male images, The Women’s trick has never been repeated. A woman loses her man and wins him back again. It’s been done before and since but never with so much ado and brio.  How can you not love a film that features a real catfight between Rosalind Russell and Paulette Goddard? No stunt doubles. With real biting.

The Scorecard

They (some scientists – I don’t know who – just they) recently discovered that women are not significantly stimulated by images of naked men. Apparently, women preferred images of monkeys copulating to images of undressed males. I’m no scientific expert on female arrival, but I suspect those scientists missed a sure bet. Hot monkey love may trump naked guys, but according to the orgasmic sighs and oohs and ahs of the estrogen-charged matinee audience at the local multiplex, expensive shoes and oversized uplit closets, are the new millennium’s no-fail porn.

I don’t know how else to explain the huge success of SATC.

How far we have not come, baby. The women in The Women change partners and hats. And watch fashion shows. Thelma and Louise pillage, plunder, and ultimately plunge off a cliff in the name of friendship and misguided feminist rage. Samantha, Miranda, Carrie and Charlotte strive and consume and pose and eat and drink and pose some more.  (As for fashion shows, I’ll take the dated and funny Technicolor one from The Women over the already-dated and instantly hilarious one from SATC.)

So. What do women want?Love and labels.That’s the SATC premise and raison d’etre. Is that really hat we want? Seriously? I’m asking. Because I must have missed something in the manual if that’s the deal. For me, that’s a gay male fantasy of what women want. The women in SATC don’t feel fully realized to me. Like Bratz dolls come to plasticized flesh-y half-life, they preen and suffer and yammer in an unconvincing version — more female impersonators than female persons.

What do they/we want? Big closets? If the scores of women in the weekday matinee audience are any indicator, big closets are the non-stop ticket to Nirvana and beyond with goofy looking expensive shoes coming in a close second. Not to mention truly garish jewelry.

Apparently they/we also strive inexplicably for unworthy sub-standard men.

Big: The meal ticket. The sugar daddy. Who pays for everything and never seems to work to afford any of it. Who marries at the drop of a hat. Who marries until it matters. Who looks like vinyl on the big screen, his man-tanned giant face smoothed somehow of all expression, the human equivalent of Muppet eagle Sam, all eyebrows and meaningless smirks.  Does Miranda’s careless comment about marriage really influence Big? Isn’t he immune to everyone? (Am I thinking too hard? Why can’t I just lay back and enjoy it?)

Steve: the Wussy guy who cries and confesses his carnal sins as he shares the housework and trundles off Miranda’s borderline retarded trophy child to keep him effectively out of her sight and out of her mind?

Hairless Harry: A good husband. If decidedly marrying way out of his league with the terrible actress but unarguably pretty Charlotte.

Smith: Blond boytoy and superstar in his own right. Without needs or flaws. He comes home from work late on Valentine’s Day. The unforgivable sin. That, and not being the hot new meat next door…Was there ever so gay-male a fantasy attributed to a woman? Let’s face it — isn’t Samantha Jones ultimately just a gay man in a woman’s body? A body splayed on a slab like a sushi- ecked corpse in an episode of Dexter. Mad props to Ms. Cattrall for daring to expose her half-century old flesh and a big slap in the face to Mister King for asking her to do it.

Poor little Brady Hobbes. How old must he be now? Five? Seven? Taught phonetically to say “Happy New Year!” like a retarded parrot. Oh, and he eats in restaurants. Brady’s a genius compared to Charlotte’s adopted daughter. The only underachieving little Asian girl in the country. She barely speaks. An accessory to decorate and carry around when convenient. A puppy in a dress with her own room meant only to match Aunt Carrie’s outfit. A Luis Vuitton purse with eyes and a little less personality.

But more important: Why are the romantic comings and goings and comings of such catty, venal selfish beyotches now the stuff of aspiration instead of the target of timeless social satire as in The Women? Put more Bradshaw-esque: Why do today’s women want to BE the women of Sex and the City?

Are these women really friends at all? What’s friendship anyway? Oh, I admit that those endless brunches look lovely, and the idea of growing fashionably middle aged with a group of familiars week by week, knowing every current of thought, every passing fancy, every fancy pass dropped or thrown or completed…that intimacy over time has its appeal. But the women themselves. Would they ever be able to stand each other?

You’d have to suffer Samantha Jones. Totally worth it. She’s a magic trick incarnate, an all-access pass to everything and everyone — Miss Jones’ Manhattan is just a giant Hogwarts. Nothing is out of her grasping reach. And since she takes nothing seriously, she’s game for the teasing and ridicule she more than earns. That said…When Samantha lets herself go and gets “fat” I honestly didn’t notice she’d put on weight. And let me just go on record to say that I blessedly can not imagine any friends of mine making fat jokes at my expense. Fifteen pounds added to a thin frame, especially for someone in middle age, just isn’t that much of a newsflash. Reality check: not one audience member was as thin as Miss Jones at her fattest.

Charlotte. Married with children. Virtually invisible, adorable children. She’s exactly the kind of adorable that’s impossible for me to love. A girl woman who’s so correct, so East Side, so girly that her bodily functions are the occasions of the highest mirth, her fit of righteous anger is curse-word- ute. Adorable. Not. Even her pregnancy is a veritable bouquet of sitcom-staleness, a cornucopia of onvenient corn. Her water breaks right on schedule…the only detail missing is husband Harry’s fumbling for the car keys or forgetting her suitcase on the way to the hospital. I’d hate her, but I have to admire the actress who had the clout and foresight to sign off on a nudity rider early on. Small favors make up for a lot.

Miranda is all earnestness (and more ill-advised nude scenes), the handsome woman who’s settled, the cautionary tale for serious career types. Too smart (though it rarely shows – her intelligence reveals itself primarily in her no-nonsense short haircut and phosphorescent pallor, her disturbingly marked resemblance to David Bowie in the Ziggy Stardust years) and too busy for any real mothering or it seems even wife-ing, her only son reduced to a clothed housepet that eats at the adults table occasionally and requires a full-time paid guardian. Sexless from the Old Country Magda ho needs nothing…the wife and mother to all, cooking and providing child care so Miranda can globetrot and work in a rarely seen fasttrack career. Miranda is never really happy – not when she gets married, not when she has a baby, not when she finally leaves her unhappy marriage, and not even when she returns to it. She is consigned to her lot, all resignation and duty. What’s the point of having her at your table except to make you feel lighter and happier by contrast? Her snarky commentary has the rhythm of wit with no actual comedy or cleverness. (Oh, and one more thing as long as I’m carping ad nauseum. Was that up close and personal depilatory crisis necessary? Or just cringeworthy? Like most big screen sex scenes. Less might actually be more.)

Carrie. Oh, Carrie. Norma Shearer and SJP look a tad equine, a little cross-eyed, a little less glamorous than the leading lady of a movie might. Perhaps that’s the key. An achievable Everywoman beauty at the center of the tempest. Does anyone believe that Fag Hag Carrie never saw Meet Me In St. Louis before? I thought not. Hiring (Oscar winner) Louise from St. Louis. Of course she’d have to have a beau back home. There are hardly any black men in New York City for her to meet. That’s been established in all those seasons of the television show. And giving her the goodbye purse to end all Christmas gifts. Louis Vuitton or not, that thing is hideous. A classic of its kind. Kudos to Ms. Field for topping herself. (How many middle aged women sit on a bed and watch their friend model bad dresses from the eighties, giggling like adolescents? Uh. None? Yep. That’s right. Oh, wait. Four.) lanning a wedding, jilted at the altar (or check-out desk as the case may be), drowning sorrows in a picturesque setting surrounded by friends, recovering just in time for another rescue. It’s the same old story, but Carrie doesn’t earn any of it. She didn’t cause any of it, and she doesn’t fix the misunderstanding. She just falls into marriage wearing her sensible vintage suit, no bird on her head this time, just devils IN her head.

Can what passes for witty repartee in the new milennium hold a candle to the sparkling dialogue (ghosted by literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald) of Claire Boothe Luce’s 1939 classic The Women? Short answer: Not a chance. Someone’s Writers Guild membership (I’m not naming names) should be hanging by a thread for a joke so terrible about Poughkeepsie, Prada, and pudding. Not quite a punchline. But so telegraphed, so planted, so piddling. Poop-your-pants-bad joke. The only thing worse than the joke is Charlotte’s overacting facial expression. And Carrie’s over-the-top laughter- olves-everything reaction. Can the pain of rejection really be cured by Montezuma taking revenge on a prissy control freak friend? I thought not.

Here’s the thing. The moments captured of Norma Shearer’s relationship with her beloved daughter had more warmth and reality than all two hours of SATC. More felt life. More to aspire to. Fighting for her man, her intact family, sacrificing for her daughter, risking her dignity instead of saving face. That’s a heroine. And genuinely funny dialogue that’s lasted almost seventy years, still fresh, still relevant, still brilliant. That’s heroic.

The Decision

Maybe it’s just me. One of the main reasons I go to the movies and read books…I’m looking for clues. I’m living my life and looking for answers, for characters in similar circumstance. I check out the decisions they make and try them on for size. I look for wit and wisdom and consequence, for the observation of recognizable human behavior, foibles and strength. Fiction provides for me a sort of metaphysical fitting room. That’s why I’m not usually intrigued with car chases and CGI monsters and explosions. My world is small stakes. I’m a parent. A daughter. A sister. A friend. A wife. A writer.

For these reasons, I have to hand it to The Women. Perhaps my favorite moment in the film captures motherhood so beautifully. Norma Shearer (Mary) and her daughter (Little Mary, acted exquisitely by Virginia Weidler, that singular child actress who can’t play a false beat) are in bed, talking and sharing a moment of such truth and intimacy that it takes my breath away. As they talk, Mary scratches her daughter’s back. All the heightened dialogue and rapidfire wit fade in the light of this moment of felt life. Just for the pitch-perfect performance and bona fide mother daughter rhythms established by Norma Shearer and young Virginia Weidler, I’ll take The Women over SATC. (Another sterling VW performance that slays me can be seen in the equally brilliant Philadelphia Story.)

It worries me that women travel in packs of four, assigning themselves roles. I’m the Carrie, you’re the Samantha…are these really archetypes worthy of our aspirations? I think not. Not by a long shot. At least the bitchy selfish narcissistic small-minded women in The Women are supposed to be unlikable cats. Not role models like Carrie and her pussy posse.

As for depicting guys. No whiny guys. No unworthy guys. No guys you don’t want to see naked. No guys at all. I love men. Don’t get me wrong. But I believe that no man is better than the wrong men. I give it to The Women.

(I do dread the remake though. They’ve been trying to do this again for decades. They’re never going to top this film. Why try? Oh yeah. Money.)

So. Let’s check the stats. The Women does children better. The Women does women better. The Women does men better. It’s a knockout. ‘Nuff said. I’m exhausted. I need some chocolate. And to rearrange my closet.

About Sherry Coben 77 Articles
A comedy writer who created the 1980s hit show Kate & Allie, Sherry Coben — tired of malingering in development hell — has enjoyed coaching a high school ComedySportz team in SoCal, making a no-budget, high-ambition webisode series, and biting the hand that feeds her.

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