BOSTON -- Every once in a while in the history of womankind, a doormat rises off the floor and, breaking all evolutionary speed records, develops a pair of legs to stand on.
At this moment, you can be sure, someone asks: Why is she so angry?
So too in the history of cinema -- a celluloid time line that has left the bodies of sex bombs or slasher victims all over the cineplex -- there come a few films starring women who fight back. At which point, you can be sure, the movie will be accused of male-bashing.
It's how it is now with "The First Wives Club," a movie that is making middle-aged women laugh, middle-aged men squirm, and gender watchers work overtime. Without a single space alien or nude scene, it broke box-office records for the first weekend. It did so with an audience that was 59 percent female and mostly over 25.
A midlife ritual
"The First Wives Club" is a comedy about three old college friends -- Diane Keaton, Bette Midler and Goldie Hawn -- dumped by their husbands for newer models in what has become a midlife ritual among the upper caste. The three reunite at the funeral of a friend who took a dive off her Manhattan balcony after reading about her husband's remarriage in a tabloid headline: "Takeover King Takes Princess."
Pretty soon they set off on a caper to level the playing field. Or at least to level their ex-husbands.
In a world of slasher movies, it must be noted that not a blow is actually struck against these men. But maybe fighting for yourself constitutes male-bashing these days.
In any case, we are being treated to treatises on whether this movie "pushed a button" among women. To which the only intelligent, academic, well-thought-out response has to be: Duh.
In some tribes, when a rich, older male takes a second, younger wife, it's called polygamy. In our country, it's serial monogamy. But the initial effect is pretty much the same.
This is a comedy of caricatures. Not every first wife is innocent, not every first husband is a cad, and not every young second wife is a bimbo. As for revenge, I think a second set of adolescents when Dad's in his 60s is punishment enough.
XTC But in an era exhorting women to experience "post-menopausal zest," in workshops promising that we aren't getting older we're getting better, there is most surely a lingering sensitive spot in the female psyche. It's the female vulnerability to aging. And the discomfort at feeling that vulnerable.
This insecurity is the driving force behind the Cadillac ad in which one upscale fiftysomething wife talks about her husband's ominous restlessness, saying: "He says he wants more space." "Uh-oh," says her friend. They titter in relief when it turns out that he wants a DeVille, not a 25-year-old.
Extra man at dinner
It's also the edge in the reaction of older women to 51-year-old Tom Selleck's TV romance with 32-year-old Courtney Cox on "Friends," or to 59-year-old Robert Redford's love scenes with 39-year-old Michelle Pfeiffer. It's the primal response when an ex-husband becomes the much-invited extra man at dinners while his ex-wife stays home. It's the angst behind endless female speculation about a celebrity's or a colleague's nips and tucks.
Some of this insecurity is not just an "age-old issue" as Goldie Hawn put it. It is aided and abetted by the endless bombardment of images of young, younger and youngest women. Indeed, the high point of "The First Wives Club" for gender and culture watchers may be the movie in the movie about movies.
At one moment, Goldie Hawn, the 50-year-old actress playing a 45-year-old actress -- a star who may have had as many lifts in real life as her character has had in the movie -- says to her plastic surgeon: "There are three ages for women in Hollywood: babe, D.A. and 'Driving Miss Daisy.' "
Well, if there's any female subculture in America that knows more about early replacement than first wives, it's actresses. A couple of laugh lines too many and they drop off the screen. Taking a generation with them.
When this story was first shopped around Hollywood a few years ago, the only studio head who 'got it' and bought it was 52-year-old Sherry Lansing at Paramount. By the end of the film, Ms. Hawn's character is starring in a hit play called "A Certain Age." The moment is a subtle reminder to Hollywood.
Never mind male-bashing. For women looking for new roles and new role models, doing well -- at the box office -- is the best revenge.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 10/01/96