H. L. Mencken once said that a misogynist is "a man who hates women as much as they hate one another." Terrible, isn't it? Yet I admit that's one of my favorite quotes. After all, we ladies do have a nasty reputation for picking on each other. It's the one pissing contest in which we've always been eligible to compete. While I personally abhor girl-on-girl cattiness and try to exclude it (and its enthusiasts) from my social interactions as much as possible, I'd be lying if I were to claim that I've never engaged in it. I suspect this is a common struggle amongst us self-proclaimed feminists. After so many generations of women abusing women, I sometimes wonder if this spitefulness we've inherited is something we all just need to get out of our systems.
I may have stumbled upon an outlet. In lieu of attacking other ladies, I seek a healthy dose of bitchiness in my entertainment.* My favorite unsung film genre is something that I like to call "The Bitchfest". These are the stories about women being awful to each other. The plot usually involves a "good" girl and a "bad" girl fighting over a guy (though it may be a job or a thing). Oftentimes the good girl adopts bad girl tendencies to win her man/thing. Sometimes this method succeeds, sometimes it is the heroine's undoing. This hackneyed scenario remains surprisingly entertaining despite its shallowness, which is why I've watched movies like "The Devil Wears Prada" when I probably had something better to do.
So in the spirit of wintry, pent-up aggression, I present this selection of much better films, along with an explanation of what makes each one so great. I consider these five movies to be the Best of the Best of the Bitchfest.
NOTE: I originally intended to include all five films in one post, but it was getting crazy long, even for me. Instead, I will publish several installments over the coming days. Beginning in reverse alphabetical order (which just happens to lead to the gem of the genre) ~
The Women 1939 / Dir: George Cukor
SYNOPSIS: Sickeningly contented society matron Mary (Norma Shearer) has no idea that her beloved spouse Stephen has been stepping out with scheming shop girl Crystal (Joan Crawford), until her obnoxious friends set her up to be informed by a gossipy manicurist. Clinging to her waning sense of dignity, Mary rejects her repentant husband and heads to Reno for a "quickie" divorce. She encounters several other wannabe divorcees on the westbound train, including her two-faced pal Sylvia (Rosalind Russell), who is all too eager to see Mary's marriage crumble. Seeing these various women enter and exit marriages that are based on money and status, Mary realizes that she may have made a mistake in leaving a man that she actually loved.
There's a gimmick behind this story, which is based on the play by Clare Boothe Luce - no men appear at any point during the film. So even though the characterizations, the storyline, and especially the resolution can be disheartening (I don't much care for the way that Mary "wins" in the end), this angle allows plenty of room for wonderful acting by women.
Shearer brings both glamor and a true intelligence to her very privileged heroine, which makes her more likable than you'd initially expect. She gets off to a rough start in some early "calm before the storm" scenes with her annoying daughter, Little Mary (portrayed by cringe-worthy child actor Virginia Weidler, who is fortunately absent from the bulk of the film). The two are so blissfully self-satisfied that you may want to vomit. But once the cracks in Mary's seemingly perfect marriage are revealed, Shearer plays her various stages of grief with convincing grace. She really is the sort of mature, upright, self-respecting friend that you would identify as an especially good person.
Crawford's Crystal is exactly what you'd expect - a cunning and icy vamp. Her character bears the fewest dimensions, but she plays that bad-girl-you-love-to-hate brilliantly. She absolutely nails lines like, "There is a name for you, ladies, but it isn't used in high society... outside of a kennel." Now that Crawford is doomed to be forever associated with wire hangers, it's difficult for a modern viewer to imagine an actress who would have been better suited for the role.
The various supporting characters - especially Paulette Goddard's charming homewrecker Miriam and Mary Boland's flighty and much-married Countess De Lave - help round out the drama with plenty of sparkling humor, but Russell is flat out the funniest. Her Sylvia is the perfect cat, toying with the other ladies for nothing more than her own amusement. Consistently crass and occasionally histrionic, Russell makes a very amusing ass of herself; her unflattering antics were truly remarkable for the era.** In one of her best scenes, she bares her teeth in the mirror, just to be sure there's nothing stuck up in there. It's only a moment, but the film is replete with these little impressions of how women behave when men aren't around. That's something that we rarely see in any movies ever, which is why this 72 year old film remains refreshing today.
Tune in for the next installment, 2004's "Mean Girls"
*Of course, if lady-on-lady meanness ceased to be a recognizable thing, this sort of entertainment wouldn't exist. Luckily, I'm not really here to solve social problems, thank goodness!
**Russell's comedic performance attracted future husband Frederick Brisson, who became obsessed with her when he saw repeat screenings of "The Women" as he was sailing to the US. He convinced his friend Cary Grant to introduce him to her during the filming of "His Girl Friday" and the two married shortly after that.