The Women is back in cinemas from 17 August 2018
Back in cinemas nearly 80 years after its first release, George Cukor’s star-studded, all-female, classic The Women (1939) revolves around the lives and romantic entanglements of a group of Manhattan socialites. Comprising a heady whirl of luncheons, fashion shows, divorces and catfights, it presents a world in which men – while often the topic of discussion – are never seen.
Norma Shearer headlines it all as Mary Haines, whose seemingly ideal marriage falls apart when she learns of her husband’s affair with a perfume salesgirl, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford). They’re surrounded by an immortal ensemble cast, with Cukor deftly balancing the likes of Rosalind Russell’s city gossip with Shearer’s naive wholesomeness and Crawford’s icy composure.
Adapted from Clare Boothe Luce’s popular Broadway play, with a screenplay by Anita Loos (Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and Jane Murfin, The Women avoids heavy moralising. Instead, it focuses on the backbiting and betrayals, as the women trade barely concealed insults, while maintaining at least a facade of decorum.
Although some of the ideas in Cukor’s film may seem quaint and outdated now, there’s something radical about its explicit foregrounding of female friendship and experience. In this, it can be seen as a forerunner of a whole strain of New York narratives that put women front and centre. Told primarily from a female point of view, the women in the films listed below are not mere love interests or sidekicks, but the creators of their own stories.
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Director Mervyn Le Roy
Mixing street-level realism with opulent fantasy, this audacious and immensely entertaining dance musical focuses on the camaraderie and chemistry between a trio of unemployed New York City chorus girls. Singer Carol King (Joan Blondell), wisecracking Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon) and innocent ingénue Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler) struggle to pay rent, stealing milk from their neighbour’s balcony, while fighting to get backing for a new show being put together by producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) in the midst of the Great Depression.
In addition to the stunning dance sequences – created by the eccentric genius of choreographer Busby Berkeley – the film is surprising for its liberated sexual attitudes. This was typical of Hollywood’s bawdy pre-Code era when studios tested the limits of decency with films of increasing frankness and fearlessness.
Stage Door (1937)
Director Gregory La Cava
Filled with snappy dialogue, thick with sarcasm, from a cast made up mostly of women, Gregory La Cava’s funny and poignant 1937 classic comedy is based on a successful play by George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber. It stars Katharine Hepburn as ambitious socialite Terry Randall and Ginger Rogers as the cynical and feisty Joan Maitland. The duo spar delightfully as young, aspiring actresses sharing a New York boarding house on West 53 Street while waiting for their big break on Broadway.
As Stage Door veers wildly from a comedy of manners to melodrama, the two stars are matched by a sparkling supporting cast, including the then little-known Lucille Ball, Eve Arden, Andrea Leeds, Ann Miller and Phyllis Kennedy, with Constance Collier as the self-appointed stage mother. Notable for its proto-feminist sensibility, the film eschews much of the play’s romantic dealings with men, concentrating squarely on the sisterhood and its catty but never malicious one-liners.
Director Claudia Weill
A landmark in feminist US indie filmmaking, Claudia Weill’s little-seen debut feature brings honesty, authenticity and humour to the tale of aspiring young Jewish photographer Susan Weinblatt (Melanie Mayron), who is bereft when her best friend and flatmate, Anne (Anita Skinner), marries and moves out, leaving her behind in the city. Girlfriends observes the independent-minded Susan as she struggles to gain artistic merit while navigating her way through awkward SoHo parties, floundering friendships and romantic entanglements as a determinedly single and self-reliant girl in a pre-gentrified Manhattan.
Although Stanley Kubrick was known to admire the film, Girlfriends was scarcely celebrated for decades. Thanks in part to the success of Frances Ha (2012), however, with which it shares much DNA, Weill’s neglected gem is finally starting to get the attention it deserves.
Working Girl (1988)
Director Mike Nichols
A precious time capsule of 80s hairstyles and fashion, as well as a reminder of what the workplace looked like for women before sexual harassment laws, this is a whip-smart satire and infectiously feel-good tale from The Graduate (1967) director Mike Nichols. Melanie Griffith stars as a working-class secretary from Staten Island trying to make it in the world of Wall Street. When Tess’s ruthlessly manipulative boss, Kathryne (Sigourney Weaver), who steals her idea for a media merger, breaks her leg on a skiing trip, Tess decides to take matters into her own hands by assuming an executive role and closing the deal herself.
Along with a great ensemble cast including Harrison Ford, Alec Baldwin, Philip Bosco and a scene-stealing Joan Cusack as best friend Cyn, Working Girl offers up a sleek, witty and satisfying Reagan-era throwback to the screwball comedies of the 1930s.
Director Larry Clark
Set on the streets of Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Larry Clark’s provocative look at horny, disaffected youth focuses primarily on the nihilistic exploits of best friends Casper (Justin Pierce) and Telly (Leo Fitzpatrick), who roam around the city looking for girls, booze, weed and prescription drugs. But a far more interesting aspect of the film is its portrayal of girlhood. Anchored by Rosario Dawson’s Ruby and Chloë Sevigny’s Jennie, the film’s female-focused storylines depict sex, friendship, family hardships and the experience of living in NYC with raw authenticity.
In one of the film’s most enduring scenes, Clark deftly intercuts conversations between the boys and the girls as they share explicit details of their sexual encounters. Almost every assertion the boys make about their conquests is immediately undermined by the equally frank young women, who are portrayed as candid, supportive, shrewd, humorous, vulnerable but still tough as nails.
Walking and Talking (1996)
Director Nicole Holofcener
Unfolding over a summer of change in Manhattan’s West Village, writer-director Nicole Holofcener’s pearl of a debut focuses on long-time friends and former roommates Amelia (Catherine Keener) and Laura (Anne Heche), who are growing apart. While therapist Laura struggles with the conflicts and compromises of impending marriage, classified ads editor Amelia navigates New York City single life, tending to sabotage each romance by announcing her insecurities straight off the bat.
This is no standard romantic comedy. The most important relationship here is between the two women, and Holofcener – who’s less interested in plot than in the everyday rhythms of her characters’ lives – coolly illustrates the difficulties in maintaining friendships as we get older and life grows more complicated. Walking and Talking is an exquisitely observed, assured indie gem that still feels refreshing more than 20 years later.
Our Song (2000)
Director Jim McKay
Jim McKay’s unassuming and quietly revelatory Our Song chronicles the friendship of three teenage girls and classmates, Lanisha (Kerry Washington), Joycelyn (Anna Simpson), and Maria (Melissa Martinez), through the anxious closing weeks of summer vacation in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Loosely structuring the film around the girls’ high-school marching band rehearsals and the everyday dilemmas they face – a pregnancy, a breakup, the temporary closure of their school – McKay takes care to steer clear of condescension and sentimentality, while giving a fully rounded sense of his characters’ lives and the world they inhabit.
Rich with scenes of affection, anger and reconciliation, while drawing the most honest moments from simple things, such as the trio lounging on beds, eating ice-cream or daydreaming, Our Song delivers natural and nuanced performances from a non-professional cast, with Washington the standout.
Frances Ha (2012)
Director Noah Baumbach
In Noah Baumbach’s amiable urban fable, jointly written and envisioned by the film’s star, Greta Gerwig plays Frances, a young woman living in Brooklyn who works as an apprentice at a dance studio and spends her days hanging out with her best friend and roommate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). They wrestle in the park, share cigarettes on their fire escape, sip from the same beer bottles and discuss intimate details of their personal lives. But when Sophie announces she is moving to a flat in Tribeca, which Frances can’t afford, the latter finds herself drifting from apartment to apartment and sliding into debt as she stumbles across the city from one unfulfilling experience to the next.
Inspired by the spirit and spontaneity of the French New Wave, Frances Ha offers up a refreshing depiction of the uncertainty that comes with life’s transitional phases, while carving out a unique filmic space for a woman to be unreservedly herself.
Appropriate Behavior (2014)
Director Desiree Akhavan
Channelling an endearing strain of self-deprecating humour, writer-director Desiree Akhavan stars here as Shirin, an Iranian-American bisexual Brooklynite who, desperate for a successful rebound, struggles through a late-20s malaise of sexual and occupational uncertainty. She’s been dumped by her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson), in part because of Shirin’s reluctance to come out to her immigrant parents (Anh Duong and Hooman Majd).
Beginning with this calamitous breakup, the film then fills in the gaps of their once idyllic union through intricately woven flashbacks, while Shirin struggles to cope with the change in circumstances. Bolstered by Akhavan’s down-and-dirty interpretation of New York and a frank treatment of sexuality, Appropriate Behavior is a refreshingly open, frequently hilarious and closely autobiographical first feature film, which refuses to sentimentalise the everyday.
All This Panic (2016)
Director Jenny Gage
Shot over a three-year period, Jenny Gage’s achingly raw coming-of-age documentary centres on a group of teenage girls – an interconnected group of sisters and friends – in Brooklyn, as they transition from high school into the world at large. Alternating vérité footage with interviews, Jenny Gage and cinematographer Tom Betterton follow their subjects around the city with a handheld camera, quietly observing the shifting dynamics of female friendships, sisterhood and female identity, while recording their most personal moments in a remarkably candid way – from drug use to sexual discussions.
Aware of both their intelligence and their naiveté, Gage gives the girls a chance to speak, and she pays attention. The result is a respectful and tender portrait of youth that deftly captures the ephemeral haze of adolescence in all its freneticism and fragility.