Over the last couple of decades, the battle for women’s lib seemed to many to have been won. Yet though the situation may be better, the fight goes on. Women are still paid less, occupy fewer high-up positions in business and remain hugely under-represented in politics. 2008 was the year that many American women thought the tide would finally change with Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the US presidency – and yet her bid failed.
The choice by the Democratic Party of Barack Obama as their candidate may still be a huge leap forward for equal rights, him being the first African American to gain the nomination of one of the two big parties, but women have once again been left on the sidelines. America must continue to wait for its first female president – and for how long, no one knows.
The situation of Hollywood actresses has long been indicative of one aspect of the problem. The glass ceiling met by women in other areas of business is even more obvious in an industry where looks and youth count for so much. Little wonder the old moan about how there are no good parts for women over the age of 40 is just as valid today as it was almost 70 years ago when the original version of The Women first came out. Based on the hit 1936 play of the same name by prolific female playwright (and later politician, winning a seat in the US House of Representatives in 1942 before becoming American ambassador to Italy during the 1950s) Clara Boothe Luce, the 1939 version of The Women was a bold experiment by director George Cuckor.
Cuckor was one of late-Thirties Hollywood golden boys, not quite an early Spielberg, but certainly a big name. Without this it is doubtful he could ever have persuaded MGM to finance a film with an all-female cast, not least one based on a play with decidedly subversive sexual innuendo. As it was, the innuendo was cut out, and the film rounded off with one of the most impressive casts that had yet been seen – including megastars Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine alongside a host of top-quality character actors. Not a single man featured on screen – and yet the film was a massive success, even in a year widely regarded as one of the most successful in Hollywood history.
That we are getting a remake 70 years on, and that the all-female cast is still seen as a bit of a gimmick, may be an indication of how short a distance we have come. This time, however, the surprise is as much in the age of the big-name actresses on board: Meg Ryan (46), Annette Bening (50), Candice Bergen (62), Carrie Fisher (51) and Bette Midler (62) are all still – bar perhaps Ryan, for whom this is a bit of a comeback – at the top of their game, yet how often do they get starring roles these days? With Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith and Debra Messing filling out the main roles, the cast is a superb one, and the updating both sympathetic to the original play and film while being fully appropriate to a tale revolving around the suspicions and sexual jealousies of wealthy East Coast society women. An entertaining and amusing acting masterclass, it’s hard not to see this as a manifesto for the “good parts for older actresses” campaign and a highly effective and welcome one at that.