Long-gestating ‘The Women’ movie remake to star Meg Ryan & Annette Bening
Based on Manhattan socialite Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 all-female stage comedy hit about (mostly) upscale New Yorkers and their men problems and men-related rivalries, George Cukor’s 1939 The Women movie adaptation – starring the Queen of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Norma Shearer; her studio rival, Joan Crawford, at the time going through a career downturn; and the up-and-coming Rosalind Russell – is the apotheosis of big-screen bitchiness.
Nearly seven decades after Boothe Luce’s play opened on Broadway – where it ran for 657 performances – another cinematic version is in the works. (Note: See updated information further below.)
According to Variety, this early 21st-century The Women will mark the feature film debut – as writer-director – of Diane English, the writer-creator of the long-running, two-time Emmy-wining television comedy series Murphy Brown (1988–1998).
English had initially been attached as the screenwriter of a planned mid-1990s The Women remake to have starred actresses-producers Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts, with James L. Brooks as director. She has been trying to get the project off the ground ever since.
Julia Roberts has moved on, but Meg Ryan remains on board. Variety states that Ryan, Annette Bening, Sandra Bullock, and Ashley Judd are all in negotiations to star in the remake, while Uma Thurman has been mentioned as a possible addition to the cast.
Betrayed wife Annette Bening
Two-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (as Best Supporting Actress for The Grifters, 1990; as Best Actress for American Beauty, 1999) is supposed to take over the old Norma Shearer role: cuckolded wife Mary Haines, all sweetness and light, in addition to nobility in suffering, smart taste in clothes, and, if you look closely, a touch of vindictive ruthlessness.
If indeed cast in the film, Uma Thurman will play the scheming, shopgirl/husband-stealer Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford in the 1939 version).
The reboot is to be co-produced by, of all people, Mick Jagger, alongside Victoria Pearman and Christopher Eberts. New Line Cinema is the potential distributor.
‘Mean-spirited’ original & forgotten remake
As quoted in Variety, Diane English sees the play as “funny but very mean-spirited. It was Luce’s attack on her gender.”
English adds that “the catalyst of the story [in the new version] is still one of the women discovering her husband is having an affair, and the reaction of her friends. Unless I screw it up, there’s a built-in audience for this movie.”
Perhaps there is. And, as long as the “mean-spiritedness” of the original remains in place, perhaps The Women is indeed ripe for its second movie remake.
‘The Opposite Sex’
The first one, like the original an MGM production, came out nearly half a century ago.
Directed by David Miller, and starring June Allyson, Joan Collins, and Dolores Grey in the roles previously played by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell, The Opposite Sex – with added color, widescreen, and songs – was released in 1956.
Another notable addition: male actors (Leslie Nielsen, Jeff Richards, Sam Levene, etc.), who were featured alongside the all-star female cast (Allyson, Collins, Grey, Ann Sheridan, Ann Miller, Joan Blondell, Agnes Moorehead, Charlotte Greenwood, etc.).
Unfortunately for the studio, name cast or no, The Opposite Sex was a sizable box office flop.
March 2019 update: More on the – widely panned – early 21st-century The Women movie adaptation further below.
1939 ‘The Women’ movie cast
Besides Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell, MGM’s 1939 The Women movie version features an extensive name cast:
- Scene-stealing film and stage veteran Mary Boland (Three Cornered Moon, Ruggles of Red Gap), who, wailing in despair, delivers The Women‘s funniest line (“Oh, the publicity! La publicité!”).
- Future Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Paulette Goddard (So Proudly We Hail!, 1943), on the cusp of becoming a Paramount star (The Cat and the Canary, The Ghost Breakers).
- Future Best Actress Oscar winner Joan Fontaine (Suspicion, 1941).
- Future Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominees Lucile Watson (Watch on the Rhine, 1943) and Marjorie Main (The Egg and I, 1947).
- Soon-to-be – minor to mid-level – leading ladies Ruth Hussey (Our Wife, The Uninvited), Mary Beth Hughes (Dressed to Kill, Charlie Chan in Rio), and Virginia Grey (Hullabaloo, Strangers in the Night).
- Stage veterans Phyllis Povah, Florence Nash, and Cora Witherspoon.
- Child actress Virginia Weidler (The Great Man Votes, The Philadelphia Story).
- Actress-turned-gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Don Juan, Alice Adams).
Phyllis Povah and Marjorie Main were the only two The Women movie cast members also seen in the stage production.
Only women allowed (on screen)
One key aspect of the 1939 The Women movie is that even though its female characters’ lives revolve around men – loving them, leaving them, being left by them, fighting over them – not a single male specimen is to be found on screen.
Off-screen, of course, things were quite different.
Admittedly, The Women was – officially, at least – penned by two veteran female screenwriters:
- Anita Loos (A Virtuous Vamp, Red-Headed Woman, San Francisco), who also happened to be the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
- Jane Murfin (What Price Hollywood?, Roberta, Alice Adams), who, in collaboration with actress Jane Cowl, also happened to be a successful playwright (Lilac Time, Smilin’ Through).
Even so, uncredited contributors included at least two male writers:
- The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night author F. Scott Fitzgerald.
- Screenwriter, former George Cukor collaborator (Tarnished Lady, Dinner at Eight, Holiday), and future Hollywood Blacklist victim Donald Ogden Stewart.
The men behind ‘The Women’
Some more behind-the-scenes male talent that helped with the film’s artistic success:
- Art director Cedric Gibbons and set decorator Edwin B. Willis (according to various sources, with the uncredited assistance of Jack D. Moore).
- Cinematographers Oliver T. Marsh and Joseph Ruttenberg.
- Composers David Snell and Edward Ward.
- Film editor Robert Kern.
- Costume designer Adrian.
- Sound recording director Douglas Shearer (Norma’s brother).
In the 1939 The Women movie clip below, Mary Boland, accompanied by Norma Shearer and Paulette Goddard, reflects on “l’amour, l’amour.”
Box office: Female battle royal vs. WWII
As per various online sources, The Women was released on Sept. 1, 1939 – the very day Germany invaded Poland.
Reviews were generally positive, with the New York Times’ Frank S. Nugent calling George Cukor’s escapist comedy – his first directorial effort since being removed from David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind – a “glorious cat-clawing rampage” and “one of the merriest pictures of the season.”
At the domestic box office, The Women turned out to be a solid success ($1.61 million in rentals). On the downside, the film – hindered by (mostly) men fighting the deadliest conflict in human history – was only a modest performer internationally ($660,000 in rentals).
Due to its high production cost ($1.69 million; not including marketing and distribution expenses), in its initial run The Women was a money-loser for MGM ($262,000 in the red). A 1947 re-release would push it barely into the black ($52,000).
‘The Women’ movie that got away
Another The Women movie version that shouldn’t be forgotten is the one that never got made.
In the late 1970s/early 1980s, producers Polly Platt (I’ll Do Anything, The Evening Star) and Jon Peters (Eyes of Laura Mars, The Main Event) – not necessarily working in tandem – considered an adaptation of The Women for Platt’s friend and Peters’ then-companion Barbra Streisand.
Joining the 1970s’ top female domestic box office draw would have been two-time Best Actress Oscar winner Jane Fonda (Klute, 1971; Coming Home, 1978) and, according to online sources, another Best Actress winner, Faye Dunaway (Network, 1976).
‘The Women’ movie: The 2008 reboot
March 2019 update: Ultimately released in 2008 – after being, in various forms, nearly 14 years in the works – writer-director Diane English’s early 21st-century movie version of Clare Booth Luce’s The Women strived to present a more “positive” view of interpersonal female relationships. This “sisterhood” approach, supposed to make the storyline more palatable to modern audiences, proved to be a critical disaster and a commercial letdown.
New Line Cinema and HBO Films’ recently formed joint venture Picturehouse was to have released the $16.5 million-budgeted all-female comedy, but the indie distributor was swallowed up when New Line merged with Warner Bros. while The Women was in production. Initially to be relegated to the sidelines at the now Warners-owned entity, English’s film was seen with renewed interest after the financial success of another female-centered 2008 release, New Line’s big-screen version of the TV hit Sex and the City.
Warners reportedly decided to expand The Women‘s launch – the movie debuted at 2,962 locations – while increasing its marketing budget from $7–$8 million to $25–$30 million. If the upgraded figure range is accurate, that was a hefty sum for such a modestly budgeted production.
Betrayed wife Meg Ryan
Meg Ryan – not Annette Bening – starred as Mary Haines, the betrayed wife played by Norma Shearer in the 1939 original and by June Allyson in The Opposite Sex.
Bening, back then a three-time Academy Award nominee, and Eva Mendes (replacing Uma Thurman) were cast as Mary Haines’ (flawed) best friend Sylvie Fowler and rival Crystal Allen, roles first played on screen by, respectively, Rosalind Russell (as the backstabbing busybody Sylvia, with an “a”) and Joan Crawford, and, in The Opposite Sex, by Dolores Gray and Joan Collins.
‘The Women’ 2008 movie cast
Also in the 2008 The Women cast:
- Murphy Brown star and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Candice Bergen (Starting Over, 1979) as Meg Ryan’s mother. Coincidentally, Bergen also mothered Ryan in the 1981 comedy-drama Rich and Famous, Ryan’s feature debut and the last film directed by the 1939 The Women‘s George Cukor.
- Two-time Best Actress Oscar nominee Bette Midler (The Rose, 1979; For the Boys, 1991) as a pot-smoking, flamboyant-but-pragmatic Hollywood agent nicknamed “The Countess” – supposedly inspired by former super-agent Sue Mengers and a radical departure from Mary Boland’s harebrained, amour-prone Countess De Lave.
- Star Wars franchise actress Carrie Fisher in a variation of Hedda Hopper’s gossip columnist in the 1939 movie.
- Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, 1971).
- TV and sometime film actress Debra Messing (Will & Grace, The Starter Wife) as a perennially baby-popping housewife.
- Jada Pinkett Smith (The Matrix Reloaded, Ali) as a cynical lesbian writer with the manly moniker Alex Fisher.
- Plus: Debi Mazar, Joanna Gleason, India Ennenga, and Jill Flint.
‘The Women’ that might have been
Lisa Kudrow and Anne Hathaway had also been named in connection with the project, in the roles originally played by Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine. These were eventually dropped from the 2008 remake.
Other actresses at some point or other listed as potential The Women cast members were Sandra Bullock (announced in 2004 as Ryan’s and Bening’s co-star), Best Actress Oscar winner Holly Hunter (The Piano, 1993), Best Supporting Actress winner Marisa Tomei (My Cousin Vinny, 1992), singer and sometime actress Whitney Houston, and veteran stage and film performer Blythe Danner.
As for the featured male actors, there’s only one: the baby seen at the end is supposed to be a boy. Additionally, as per one report, one can also spot a male extra playing a waiter at a café.
Check out the 2008 The Women movie trailer below.
Bowdlerized ‘bitchfest’ = dismal reviews & anemic box office
At the time of The Women‘s release, Diane English told Erica Abeel at ifc.com, “If you’re writing a bitchfest, the humor comes very easy and quickly. The challenge here was to shift the attitude from ‘we’re stabbing each other in the back’ to ‘we’re supporting each other.’ But at the same time, I tried to maintain the level of humor and wit and dialogue and pacing of the old movie.”
Most U.S. critics felt the remake’s mix of old and new sensibilities – plus some heavy-duty feminist lecturing – failed to gel. Kenneth Turan, for one, wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
“In The Women, suburban wife and mother Mary Haines comes to see the error of trying to be all things to all people. It’s too bad that the film she’s in didn’t learn the same lesson and instead tries way too hard [to] be everything for all women. …
“Graced with a big-name cast, … this version sees itself as both a farce and a manifesto, a glorification of female friendship and a celebration of women’s need for self-realization.”
Relatively speaking, The Women received a warmer reception from audiences – though not nearly warm enough, grossing $26.9 million in the U.S. and Canada, plus $23.1 million internationally. The $50 million total might have been enough for the low-budget comedy to break even, but only if its distribution and marketing expenses had remained in the $7–$8 million range.
Awards season brickbats
During awards season 2008, the female-geared The Women was the Alliance of Women Film Journalists’ selection in two categories: Movie You Wanted to Love, But Just Couldn’t (tied with another female-centered and -directed release, Phyllida Lloyd’s Mamma Mia!) and Remake That Shouldn’t Have Been Made.
It was also the Women Film Critics Circle Awards’ Hall of Shame choice, getting dismissed as “Sex, Lies and Shopping, as filthy rich leisure class females lament their personal woes as victims, not so much of men, but working class women.”
Lastly, Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, and Jada Pinkett Smith were all shortlisted (as an ensemble) in the Razzie Awards’ Worst Actress category. They lost to Paris Hilton for The Hottie & the Nottie.
1939 ‘The Women’ movie box office
If one uses the Motion Picture Association of America’s estimates (via Boxofficemojo.com) of average annual domestic movie ticket prices (not directly correlated to the Consumer Price Index), The Women 1939 would have earned approximately $70 million in worldwide rentals if released in 2008.
Its actual box office gross, if in line with reports for movies of the last half century of so – and that’s a not insignificant if – would have been close to twice that amount, or about $130–$140 million.
Based on the same method, the 1956 remake, The Opposite Sex, would have earned about $40 million in worldwide rentals in 2008. Its box office gross would have been around $70–$80 million.
Although a more accurate reflection of a film’s success with the public (i.e., its number of tickets sold), bear in mind that such inflation-adjusted estimates should be taken with caution, as they’re based on average ticket prices whereas many major releases earned a large chunk of their grosses at top-price theaters. Besides, when using worldwide data, currency exchange fluctuations and international “movie ticket inflation rates” would need to be factored in as well.
Annette Bening Oscar nominations
 Following the 2004 announcement that she was to star in Diane English’s The Women movie reboot, Annette Bening would receive two more Best Actress Oscar nominations: for István Szabo’s Being Julia (2004) and, a couple of years after The Women came out, for Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010).
Box office information related to MGM’s 1939 The Women and The Opposite Sex via online sources referencing the studio’s Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ library.
Frank S. Nugent’s The Women movie review can be found in The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.
Image of Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer in the 1939 The Women movie: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Image of Annette Bening and Meg Ryan in the 2008 The Women movie: Picturehouse.
“The Women Movie Original vs. Remake: Classic ‘Bitchfest’ vs. Widely Panned Feminist Comedy” last updated in May 2019.