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.
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 – as long as the “mean-spiritedness” of the original remains in place.
March 2019 update: More on the – as it turned out, widely panned – early 21st-century The Women movie adaptation further below.
1939 ‘The Women’ movie cast
Besides Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell as Mary Haines’ frenemy/busybody Sylvia Fowler, MGM’s 1939 The Women movie version features an extensive name cast that’s surely no less prestigious than the one intended for the 21st-century remake:
- Scene-stealing stage and film veteran Mary Boland (Three Cornered Moon, Ruggles of Red Gap), who, wailing in despair, delivers the movie’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 nominees Lucile Watson (Watch on the Rhine, 1943), Marjorie Main (The Egg and I, 1947), and Ruth Hussey (The Philadelphia Story, 1940).
- Soon-to-be (minor) leading ladies 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/gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Don Juan, Topper).
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 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.
But first, one must acknowledge that The Women was – officially, at least – penned by two veteran female screenwriters:
- Anita Loos (Red-Headed Woman, San Francisco), who also happened to be the author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
- Jane Murfin (Roberta, Alice Adams), who, in collaboration with actress Jane Cowl, also happened to be a successful playwright (Lilac Time, Smilin’ Through).
But even then, uncredited The Women 1939 contributors included at least two male writers:
- The Great Gatsby and Tender Is the Night author F. Scott Fitzgerald (whose sole screenwriting credit was for another MGM release, the 1938 drama Three Comrades).
- Screenwriter, former George Cukor collaborator (Tarnished Lady, Dinner at Eight, Holiday), and future Hollywood Blacklist victim Donald Ogden Stewart.
The men behind ‘The Women’
The Women, like nearly every other movie of that era, was produced by a man, MGM stalwart Hunt Stromberg (The Thin Man, The Great Ziegfeld), and directed by another, the aforementioned George Cukor. Other behind-the-scenes male talent who helped with the film’s artistic success includes:
- Art director Cedric Gibbons & set decorator Edwin B. Willis (according to various sources, with the uncredited assistance of Jack D. Moore).
- Cinematographers Oliver T. Marsh & Joseph Ruttenberg.
- Composers David Snell & 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 was a solid hit with moviegoers ($1.6 million in rentals). On the downside, the film – hindered by (mostly) men fighting in the deadliest conflagration in history – was only a modest performer internationally ($660,000 in rentals).
Due to its high production cost ($1.7 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).
First ‘The Women’ movie remake: ‘The Opposite Sex’
The first The Women movie remake – like the original, an MGM production – came out nearly half a century ago.
Directed by David Miller, and starring June Allyson (instead of initial choices Esther Williams and Eleanor Parker) as Kay Hilliard (the old “Mary Haines”), Joan Collins as Crystal Allen, and Dolores Grey as Sylvia Fowler, 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).
Unfortunately for the studio, name cast or no, The Opposite Sex was a sizable box office flop ($1.5 million in the red).
‘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 remake: Widely derided feminist comedy
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 Boothe 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-budget 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.
“The Women Movie Original vs. 21st-Century Remake: Classic ‘Bitchfest’ Easily Beats Widely Panned Feminist Comedy” follow-up post:
Annette Bening Oscar nominations
 In early 2005, not too long after the announcement that she was to star in Diane English’s The Women movie reboot, Annette Bening received another Best Actress Oscar nomination, for István Szabo’s Being Julia (2004).
A couple of years or so after the 2008 The Women movie came out, she garnered her third Best Actress nod (fourth overall), for Lisa Cholodenko’s The Kids Are All Right (2010).
‘The Women’ on Broadway
 The original stage presentation of The Women, which opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theater in December 1936, starred Margalo Gilmore as Mary Haines, Betty Lawford as Crystal, and Ilka Chase as Sylvia.
Also in the cast: Margaret Douglass, Arlene Francis, Audrey Christie, Adrienne Marden, and the aforementioned Phyllis Povah and Marjorie Main.
The production was directed by Robert B. Sinclair, whose relatively few movie credits include MGM’s female-centered Dramatic School and And One Was Beautiful.
A relatively brief 1973 Broadway revival – 63 performances – featured Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Kim Hunter (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951) as Mary, Marie Wallace (of the TV soap Dark Shadows) as Crystal, and former Warner Bros. star Alexis Smith (Rhapsody in Blue, Night and Day) as Sylvia.
Also in the cast: Jan Miner, Dorothy Loudon, Marian Hailey, Mary Louise Wilson, Doris Dowling, and, in their Broadway debuts, former MGM star Myrna Loy (Manhattan Melodrama, Love Crazy) and 1950s sex symbol Rhonda Fleming (The Redhead and the Cowboy, Serpent of the Nile).
Morton DaCosta, whose rare movie credits include the Best Picture Oscar nominees Auntie Mame and The Music Man, handled the proceedings.
Directed by Scott Elliott, a 2001 Broadway revival – 77 performances – starred Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon as Mary and, in her Broadway debuts, Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Jennifer Tilly (Bullets Over Broadway, 1994) as Crystal, and two-time Emmy-winning 3rd Rock from the Sun actress Kristen Johnston as Sylvia.
As part of the “Stage on Screen” series, this production of The Women was broadcast on PBS stations in the United States.
‘The Women’ movie & ‘The Opposite Sex’ budget & box office information
 Production budget (not including marketing and distribution expenses) and box office information on MGM’s 1939 The Women movie and The Opposite Sex: online sources referencing the studio’s Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ library. Inflation-adjusted figures can be found in the follow-up post.
Note: “Rentals” refers to the studios’ share of their films’ total box office gross.
Cast and other information about the Broadway stagings of The Women via ibdb.com.
Images of Mary Boland, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer in George Cukor’s 1939 The Women movie: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Women 1939 movie clip: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Warner Archive.
Image of Annette Bening and Meg Ryan in Diane English’s 2008 The Women movie: Picturehouse.
“The Women Movie Original vs. 21st-Century Remake: Classic ‘Bitchfest’ Easily Beats Widely Panned Feminist Comedy” last updated in September 2019.