Diane English, “The Women” and Women Critics – Jennifer Merin comments

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Diane English showed up for the New York press day for “The Women” wearing a blush-colored satin Valentino. It was grownup prom queen attire, and the costume was clearly important to her. We knew that because she mentioned the designer’s name several times.

But why not a prom dress? “The Women” was 14 years gestation, so releasing it deserves celebration.

Diane English was running very, very late. But, hey, you figure she’s spent such a long time making the film, she deserves some leeway.

However, when the schedule lags to the degree that interviews that had been shifted are cancelled, impatience quite naturally gives rise to questions, including one that seems particularly relevant: If this is how she runs her press day, how’d she handle herself on set?

A flurry of comments revives the sotto voce rumblings that stars Annette Bening (who is not at the New York press day) and Meg Ryan (who is) had held English’s hand through production, even coaching her on cinematic basics. But, hey, “The Women” is the directorial debut of the legendarily impressive Diane English, the grand dame of sitcom who gave us the iconic “Murphy Brown.” We love “Murphy Brown”–and gossip can be so nasty and is often unwarranted. Let it go.

With English finally at the round table and ready to answer questions, everyone wants to know why she chose to (and fought to) remake George Cukor’s 1939 depression era movie (a ‘bitchfest,’ as it’s been termed, about a catty coterie of privileged Park Avenue women and how they handled the then taboo subjects of infidelity and divorce), what she’s done to make the story and characters more appealing, more meaningful for contemporary audiences and what it means to move from little box to big screen.

In summary, English says the story appealed to her because it was about women, and the most important revision she’d made was to show that friendship is not only possible between women, but is a redeeming factor in their lives. Nice message. Bravo.

As for the TV to film transition, English says the biggest difference is better toys–a crane, for example–that you get on a movie set.

Then, with a reference to “The Women’s” opening title sequence (a montage of shots of high end heels on long-limbed ladies parading along NYC sidewalks), the discourse turns towards English’s take on how her film follows in the wake of “Sex and The City” and “Mamma Mia” and fits in to what some are calling this ‘women’s cultural moment,’ a ‘summer season of women’s films.’

“We were waaaaaay before them,” says English. “I’m very glad about their success because it shows there’s a real market for women’s films. I hope “The Women” will be as successful, but to make that happen, women have got to get to the theaters for the opening weekend. It’s the first weekend that counts.”

And, so, the discussion leaves the realm of cinema aesthetics and audience sensibilities and moves into the real world of marketing. More specifically, marketing to women–a theme that continues when Meg Ryan, attached to “The Women” almost since the project’s inception, replaces Diane English at the round table. “Hollywood is all about money. They market to quadrants,” says Ryan. “The blockbusters this summer–“Sex and The City,” “Mamma Mia” and “Sisterhood” show that you don’t have to market to all four quadrants, you can market to one or two, and still make money. That can mean that more films with women leads will be made.”

Maybe so. But will that prove to be true even if/when intended blockbusters aren’t worthy of watching, don’t deserve the delivery of women’s dwindling discretionary funds to box office totes, won’t warrant critical acclaim?

And, what does being one of Hollywood’s marketing quadrants mean for women? Have women become–in Hollywood’s eyes as unshuttered to us by Ryan’s comments, at least–the next set of ad-influenced kids clamoring for the latest Tonka? Or, would that be the hottest Barbie? If so, how sad.

Every woman moviegoer I know wanted to like “The Women.” And, buying into the theory that another successful summer 2008 women’s blockbuster would open opportunities for women in film, wanted the film to succeed. Whether or not Hollywood’s marketing push and women’s will to support women in film prevails at the box office remains to be seen. But, women critics–members of AWFJ in particular–have not been able to praise this film–not as a guilty pleasure, not as a fashion show, not as a reaffirmation of women’s power to accomplish whatever we set out to do.

Hopefully, the critical discussion about “The Women” will lead to a clearer focus on women’s cinematic sensibilities, to a more frequent and richer debate about women’s perspectives on film.

In all the blockbuster fracas and quadrant commentary, nobody’s mentioned films like “Frozen River,” “Hounddog,” “Towelhead” and others made by and/or about women. These features will not blast with blockbuster status onto screens across the nation, and nobody ever expected that they would. They didn’t rely on Hollywood’s green light. Yet, they were made–with their singular stories about female characters (not female fantasies). They seem to have some true impact on the lives of women who see them, and they will, hopefully, achieve the longevity of appeal that roots a film in our culture and, ultimately, far outdistances splashy flash-in-the-pan weekend grossers.

Read AWFJ members’ reviews to see what women critics think about “The Women.” We resist the push to pin our hopes on the tail of this donkey.

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Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and About.com. She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).