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DIANE ENGLISH FINALLY GETS HER REMAKE OF THE WOMEN IN THEATERS-TOO BAD IT'S SO DIFFICULT TO WATCH by Armond White It's the opposite of progress when the new adaptation of Clare Booth Luce's proto-feminist play The Women flaunts an openly gay character yet sets a scene in a lesbian-chic restaurant where the lighting is so poor it turns all the actresses into ghouls. This new version of The Women fails to celebrate its characters as women. It patronizes the C-list cast of Meg Ryan, Annette Bening, Debra Messing, Eva Mendes, Jada Pinkett Smith, Bette Midler and Candice Bergen as politically correct pawns. George Cukor's 1939 version enhanced Luce's material. Although it could lapse into shrillness, it also featured testaments of female living that were impressively genuine. Poised against each other in the plot about a woman competing with her husband's mistress, Norma Shearer's naive grand dame and Joan Crawford's pragmatic shop girl brought experience to the frivolity. Plus, Cukor celebrated his actresses: Shearer, Crawford, Paulette Goddard, Rosalind Russell and Joan Fontaine were dressed by Adrian with cosmetics by Max Factor. This new cast looks as if they were styled by John Deere. Never before has so many rough-chopped facelifts and unflattering hairdos appeared in a single film or contradicted its message. Cukor was euphemistically known as a "woman's director." Since then, his ability to enhance actresses' performances has been appreciated as more than just gay-male rapport; he knew how to present personality and shape characterizations with narrative clarity. TV veteran Diane English (credited for "creating" TV's Murphy Brown series) wrote and directed this version of The Women, but she proves clueless about cinematic form-as did Michael Patrick King in Sex and the City. Through television-style crudeness, The Women loses the details-the almost microscopic aesthetics-of the original. It's an oddity, a classic example of MGM's mythmaking apparatus where female glamour (sexual power and intellectual pride) transcended Hollywood's male-dominated ideology. Diane English's strident polemics (about career anxieties, teenage body issues, playing the lesbian card) lessen the story's drama-which was provided by Luce's emotional truth. English's adaptation represents updated attitudes, but are her changes actually more feminist or just contemporary sentimentality? It's hard to tell, especially when the climactic showdown between Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes-jilted wife vs. ambitious hussy; chirpy Wasp vs. sexy Latina Amazon-fizzles. The scene's construct of female social manners collapses because of the modern complexity of ethnic and class rivalry. English doesn't bother to sketch the intricacies of multiracial sisterhood. (Jada Pinkett Smith never helps.) Where's Tyler Perry when you need him? "When did this become a 1930s movie?" Ryan quips when her predicament becomes absurd. Yet she then follows the 21st-century formula of The Devil Wears Prada, Sex and the City and TV's Noah's Arc-all declensions of The Women that break down Luce's concerns into crude camp. Nothing in the pre-feminist 1939 movie is as insulting as English's opening shopaholic tease-at Saks Fifth Avenue a woman's POV turns into a CGI countdown clock. English's modern sarcasm is why The Women fails. Condescension is also evident in the lousy visual style that butchers Ryan, Bening and Mendes' performances; their lighting and make-up are hideously unflattering. In Jerry Maguire and Meet Joe Black, cinematographers Janusz Kaminski and Emmanuel Lubezki molded light to feature the actors' faces, also adding character and meaning to the stories. How can The Women honor actresses while making it so difficult to look at them? -- The Women Directed by Diane English, Running time: 114 min. --

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