This post is one that I originally wrote for Bitch Flicks for their “Older Women in Film” week. I did it as a guest post. They kindly allowed me to cross-post it here.
The First Wives Club is the story of four women who became friends with each other when they were in college. After graduation, the friends ended up drifting apart. This is a situation that happens to a lot of women. Life gets in the way.
People get married, have children, and (hopefully) find “real jobs”. It becomes increasingly difficult to find the time (or the energy) to socialize with friends who are no longer a part of our day-to-day lives. When you are in your 20’s, you truly believe that you will be best friends forever. You intend to stay connected. Years later, you wonder whatever happened to those friends (whom you haven’t heard from in years).
In the movie, three of the friends reunite after learning that the fourth friend, Cynthia Swann Griffin (played by Stockard Channing) died by suicide after her husband divorced her. The surviving friends are now in their mid-forties. Each one is either divorced or is going through the process of divorce.
The movie does a good job of picking up on some of the thoughts that women who are 40 or over struggle with. Elise Elliot (played by Goldie Hawn) is overly concerned about aging. There is a scene where she begs her plastic surgeon to make her lips fuller (again). He resists, reminding her of all the plastic surgery she has already undergone and pointing out that she is beautiful.
Not every woman over 40 is going to turn to plastic surgery as a “fountain of youth”. Elise chose it because she is an actress who is having difficulty finding work. Suddenly (or so it seems to Elise) she is only being offered the role of “the mother”. For her, aging essentially means that she will no longer have a career. Elise is the perfect example of what really does happen to actresses once they turn 40.
She is a more extreme example of what many women (who are not actresses) feel when their hair starts turning gray and they begin to get “crow’s feet”. The fear is that these very natural parts of aging mean that the woman is no longer desirable, or sexy, or beautiful. There are women who are absolutely terrified of “getting old” because they worry that no one will want them.
Unfortunately, this fear is not an unfounded one. Elise’s husband, Bill Atchison (played by Victor Garber) is divorcing her and has started dating a woman who is much younger than than Elise. Tension builds when Elise is asked to play the role of “the mother” in a script where Bill’s new lover will play the lead role of the daughter.
A similar thing happened to Brenda Cushman (played by Bette Midler). She got married to Morton “Morty” Cushman when they were young, ran the cash register in his electronic stores, and had a son with him. Now, Brenda is 45 and Morty has left her and gotten into a serious relationship with Shelly Stewart (played by Sarah Jessica Parker). Brenda and Morty’s fifteen year old son is having trouble coping with this situation.
Brenda laments to her friends that everything with her and Morty was just fine. Then, on their 20th wedding anniversary, Morty began having what Brenda calls a mid-life crisis. In short, he decides that she isn’t fun anymore, and is holding him back. He replaces her with a thinner, younger, blond woman who is about half her age.
There is a scene where Brenda is walking past a department store with a friend. She stops to look at a tiny black dress in the window. “Who’s supposed to wear that?” she rhetorically asks her friend, “Some anorexic teenager? Some fetus?” Her rant continues with her intent to lead a protest by never buying any more clothing until the designers “come to their senses”.
Her words are something I can personally relate to. I recently turned 40, and I am no longer the “anorexic teenager” that I was in high school. I’ve gained some weight since then. This is normal. We get older, our metabolisms slow down, and weight loss becomes more difficult. I, too, wonder when the designers will “come to their senses” and produce clothing that real, adult, women can actually fit into!
Annie Paradis (played by Diane Keaton) has a slightly different story. She isn’t actually divorced yet. She and her husband Aaron Paradis (played by Stephen Collins) are separated. They had been going to couple’s therapy, but now are each seeing a therapist individually. Annie truly believes that they are in the process of working things out and getting back together.
Her daughter, Chris Paradis (played by Jennifer Dundas) describes her mother as a “doormat”. Chris is a college student and old enough to see that her father isn’t treating her mother very well. She is frustrated that her mom allows it. Unlike Brenda’s son, Chris doesn’t want her parents to get back together.
There is a scene where Annie is going on (what she believes) is a date with Aaron. She is convinced that he is going to tell her that he wants to get back together. Instead, after they have become intimate in his hotel room, he announces that he wants a divorce. This completely destroys Annie.
She is a woman who, like many women, has issues with self-esteem. After a lifetime of suppressing her anger, and striving to always be “nice”, Annie finally lets out her feelings in a loud, sobbing, messy way. At the same time, the phrase she uses most often during this catharsis is “I’m sorry”.
Annie, Brenda, and Elise form the “First Wives Club” and decide that they want to find a way to take revenge upon their husbands. The main plot of the movie focuses on the many ways the women do exactly that. Their ex-husbands find themselves losing favorite possessions, losing money, and (potentially) losing their jobs. Women who are going through a divorce may want to watch this movie simply to live vicariously through it. What happens is overblown and unlikely to happen in the real lives of most women.
Later, the women start to want more than revenge. They decide to turn their efforts towards helping other divorced women. Again, this requires their ex-husbands, whom they have now managed to blackmail, to spend more money. To me, this part of the plot felt a bit forced and strange. The change from “let’s get ’em” to “let’s open a charity” was rather abrupt.
First Wives Club was released in 1996, a time when almost no one carried a cell phone. As such, the majority of phone calls that take place in the movie are done on land-line phones with clunky receivers. There is a scene where Brenda goes out to dinner by herself. She doesn’t spend the meal fiddling with her cell phone – and neither do any of the other people in the restaurant. Times have changed since the late 1990’s (and realizing this makes me feel “old”).