Long-gestating 'The Women' movie remake to star Meg Ryan & Annette Bening?
Based on Clare Boothe Luce's 1936 all-female stage comedy hit about (mostly) New York socialites and their men problems and men-related rivalries, George Cukor's 1939 The Women movie version – starring the Queen of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Norma Shearer; her studio rival, Joan Crawford, at the time going through a professional 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 adaptation is currently 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 some nobility in suffering and 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).
Diane English's The Women movie 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
“The original was funny but very mean-spirited,” Diane English told Variety. “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 another movie remake – its second in the last half century.
Starring June Allyson, Joan Collins, and Dolores Grey in the roles previously played by Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, and Rosalind Russell, The Opposite Sex, an all-star (Ann Sheridan, Ann Miller, Joan Blondell, Agnes Moorehead, etc.) musical version of The Women, also featuring a number of male actors (Leslie Nielsen, Jeff Richards, Sam Levene, etc.) was released in 1956.
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, the 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 film's most humorous line (“Oh, the publicity! La publicité!”).
- Future Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee (So Proudly We Hail!, 1943) Paulette Goddard, right before 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).
Povah and 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 adaptation 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 markedly different.
Admittedly, the film 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 Gentleman 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).
However, 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.
Some more behind-the-scenes male talent:
- Cinematographers Oliver T. Marsh and Joseph Ruttenberg.
- Film editor Robert Kern.
- Art director Cedric Gibbons and set decorator Edwin B. Willis (according to various sources, with the uncredited assistance of Jack D. Moore).
- Costume designer Adrian.
- Composers David Snell and Edward Ward.
- Sound recording director Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma).
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.
George Cukor's escapist comedy – his first directorial effort since being removed from David O. Selznick's Gone with the Wind – turned out to be a solid domestic box office success ($1.61 million in rentals). Not helped by World War II, it 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 turned out to be 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' 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' 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. Robert B. Sinclair (whose movie credits include the female-centered Dramatic School and And One Was Beautiful) directed.
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 (the TV soap Dark Shadows) as Crystal, and former Warners 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 movie credits include the Best Picture Oscar nominees Auntie Mame and The Music Man) directed.
Directed by Scott Elliott, a 2001 Broadway revival – 77 performances – starred Sex and the City actress Cynthia Nixon 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 2008 version
March 2019 update: Eventually 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 was a major critical flop and a box office underperformer.
New Line Cinema/HBO Films' Picturehouse was to have released the $16.5 million-budgeted The Women, but the indie distributor disappeared when New Line merged with Warner Bros. while English's film was in production.
Initially to be relegated to the sidelines, The Women gained importance for the studio following the financial success of another female-centered 2008 release, New Line Cinema's big-screen version of the TV hit Sex and the City.
Warners reportedly opted to expand the release of its modestly budgeted acquisition while increasing its marketing budget from $7–$8 million to $25–$30 million. If the figures are accurate, that was a hefty sum for a $16.5 million 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 ultimately cast as Mary Haines' best friend Sylvie Fowler and archrival Crystal Allen, roles first played on screen by, respectively, Rosalind Russell (as the backstabbing Sylvia, with an “a”) and Joan Crawford.
Others in the (nearly) all-female cast of the 2008 The Women movie were:
- As Meg Ryan's mother, Murphy Brown star and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Candice Bergen (Starting Over, 1979). Coincidentally, Bergen also played Ryan's mother in the 1981 comedy-drama Rich and Famous, 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 cynical Hollywood agent nicknamed “The Countess” – a radical departure from the harebrained Countess played by Mary Boland in the original.
- Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Cloris Leachman (The Last Picture Show, 1971).
- Star Wars franchise actress Carrie Fisher in a variation of Hedda Hopper's role – a gossip columnist – in the original.
- Plus: Debra Messing, Jada Pinkett Smith (as the film's token lesbian), Debi Mazar, and Joanna Gleason.
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 dropped from the 2008 remake.
Sandra Bullock was by then gone from the project, which, at some point or other, also had, among others, Holly Hunter, Marisa Tomei, Whitney Houston, and Blythe Danner listed as potential cast members.
As for the male actors, there's reportedly only one: the baby seen at the end is (supposed to be) a boy. And, as per one report, one can also spot a male extra playing a waiter at a café.
At the time of the film's release, 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.”
Critics felt the old and new mix failed to gel. In the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan, for one, wrote:
“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 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.”
Meg Ryan, for her part, has been gone from films since the 2009 release Serious Moonlight. Her – failed – comeback vehicle was Ithaca in 2015, which she also directed.
There were no Academy Award nominations for the 2008 The Women movie cast members. There were, however, lots of Razzie Award mentions to go around. Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Eva Mendes, Debra Messing, and Jada Pinkett Smith were all shortlisted (as an ensemble) in the Worst Actress category. (They lost to Paris Hilton for The Hottie & the Nottie.)
Besides, English's The Women remake was Alliance of Women Film Journalists' winner 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 – and the Women Film Critics Circle Awards' Hall of Shame winner, described 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.”
'The Women' movie box office
 “Rentals” refers to the studios' share of their films' box office gross. If using the Motion Picture Association of America's estimates (via Boxofficemojo.com) for average annual domestic movie ticket prices (not directly correlated to the Consumer Price Index), The Women would have earned approximately $60 million in worldwide rentals if released in 2004. Its box office gross would have been around $120 million.
Based on the same method, the 1956 remake, The Opposite Sex, would have earned about $34 million in worldwide rentals in 2004. Its box office gross would have been around $65–70 million.
Bear in mind that such estimates are iffy, as they rely on average ticket prices; many major releases earned a large chunk of their grosses at top-price theaters. Besides, when using worldwide data, currency exchange fluctuations should be taken into account.
Annette Bening Oscar nominations
 Following the 2004 announcement that she would be one of the stars in Diane English's The Women movie version, Annette Bening would receive two more Best Actress Oscar nominations: for István Szabo's Being Julia (2004) and, a couple of years after the 2008 The Women, Lisa Cholodenko's The Kids Are All Right (2010).
Box office information related to MGM's 1939 The Women movie version 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.
Information about the Broadway productions of The Women via the ibdb.com.
Image of Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford, and Norma Shearer in The Women movie (1939): Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Image of Annette Bening and Meg Ryan in The Women movie (2008): Picturehouse.
“The Women Movie Remake?” last updated in March 2019.