Among the more inspiring miracles of the modern movie business is the way a producer’s first choice for a role always ends up playing that very same part. “It was written with her in mind,” one might say (of the blond in her 40s playing the brunet in her 20s). Or, “The picture simply could not have been made without him” (Matthew Modine, perhaps, in “Cutthroat Island”). Blessed are the faithful, for they shall believe the press kit.
In the case of “The First Wives Club,” however, one can actually swallow it whole.
Adapted from Olivia Goldsmith’s best-selling potboiler, “The First Wives Club,” which began shooting here in December and was to wrap late last week, is a “revenge comedy” (coinage courtesy of director Hugh Wilson). It’s about three well-off women, estranged college classmates, former friends, who think they’re successful. And happy. And satisfied.
And then their husbands leave them for younger women. And take the money with them.
There is pain. There is self-recrimination. Self-evaluation. Reevaluation. Re-reevaluation. And a plot by three very different spurned women, reunited in a sisterhood of indignation, to avenge themselves on the ungrateful curs who’ve ruined their lives.
Catharsis. Epiphany. A dish best served cold. A cast of supporting players, any one of whom could motor his or her own movie. And a script that takes the broadest possible swipe at modern marriage. Or lack thereof.
But what you really need--not just to make it all work, but to keep it from floating away entirely--are actresses with gravity. With star power. With well-defined personas that are permanently projected in the very private screening room of the mass American psyche.
What you need are a brat, a ditz and--what’s the female equivalent of mensch?
Goldie Hawn is eating egg salad and explaining.
“Every day at 10:30 I have to eat,” she says.
And the movie? Is it an anti-male screed? “It’s about a cross-section of society, but it’s certainly no blanket statement about men. I couldn’t stand it,” she says through a chunk of sandwich. “Eyeluffmeh [I love men].”
Not so her character. Elise Eliot, an Oscar-winning actress, is aging out of starring roles. Her husband, Bill (Victor Garber), whom she molded into a film producer during their long partnership, has taken up with a luscious bimbo (Elizabeth Berkley); Elise finds solace in cosmetic surgery and a bad attitude. She has come here today to reconcile with her old friend Brenda Cushman (Bette Midler), whose husband (Dan Hedaya) has left her for a knockout named Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker).
(The third avenging angel is Annie Paradise, played by Diane Keaton, a semi-delusional, cockeyed-optimistic self-help devotee whose husband, played by Stephen Collins, has also walked out on her and is cavorting with Heather Locklear. On this scene, though, it’s just Elise and Brenda.)
The set is on a tony stretch of Manhattan’s Riverside Drive, in an apartment of cavernous proportions (by city standards anyway). Through its lobby, suspicious inhabitants walk small dogs and the crew watches on a monitor as Midler, in a blue cardigan over a flannel nightdress, her hair a snarl of copper wire, schleps to the door in furry black boots. The door seems to be stuck; one might expect it to be intimidated. “It’s too heavy,” Midler grumbles and stomps back into the room.
There is a retake--the door opens, Hawn and Midler embrace, move into the room, deliver the laugh lines. But there are more retakes. And more retakes. Something’s not working.
Midler and Hawn eventually come out to the lobby and watch the playback themselves. “They’re only going to use it up to this point,” Hawn says, pointing at their picture, “and then cut away. So why are we spending so much time on this?”
“Tell me about it,” mumbles Midler. They return to the apartment. The shot is over.
Asked how it’s all going, director Wilson, a genial, smiling southerner, simply smiles. “I’m not telling anything. I’m just giving my name, rank and serial number.”
He’s joking. Of course. “I’m lucky,” he says. “The truth is they’re terrific. I’ve told Goldie this, but she’s the most professional actress I’ve ever worked with. Keaton’s a dream. And Bette--you probably saw her grumbling, ‘I can’t get this door open,’ but then she goes and does it as well as anything. I guess she’s got to go through that rigmarole.”
So she’s staying in character? “No, that’s Bette,” Wilson says. “I think that’s how she deals with her nerves. But the three of them have been very nice to me. On top of that, you have Maggie Smith, Sarah Jessica Parker, Heather Locklear, Elizabeth Berkley, Marcia Gay Harden, Dan Hedaya, Philip Bosco. Stockard Channing did a day with us,” playing the woman whose lovesick suicide prompts the reunion of the other three. There are other cameos as well--including Rob Reiner, who plays Elise’s plastic surgeon, and Giancarlo Esposito as a deranged homeless man.
Wilson’s extensive TV credits include “WKRP in Cincinnati,” “Frank’s Place” and “The Famous Teddy Z”; among his films are the original “Police Academy” and “Guarding Tess.” He has a friendly, informal manner, and it translates into his direction. Scenes never seemto be played the same way twice, for one thing. There’s a lot of leeway.
“That’s Hugh, that’s all Hugh, whom I love,” Keaton says later. “I think with comedy you ought to keep it loose.”
A not-so-loose Midler, who has “a big, big scene in a meat locker” down in Greenwich Village later in the day, is entertaining--if that’s the word--a question:
“The First Wives Club” boasts three of the better-known actresses in film, three mature women . . .
“Mature is a good word.”
. . . who are playing actresses for whom age . . .
”. . . yeah?”
”. . . is an enormously big deal. So, is there anything particularly, uh, personal about this film?
“I think we’re playing women who are much more on the edge than any of us are,” says Midler, who is 51. “I’m not having a bad time and I don’t think the other two girls are either. We’re not hanging on by the skin of our teeth the way these characters are, although I know a lot of women who are and this does happen in society and I think it’s too bad.”
Getting a take on just what “The First Wives Club” is all about is tough, based on watching just a few scenes being shot. Written for Paramount by Robert Harling--with rewrites by Paul Rudnick after Harling left to direct the studio’s “Evening Star"--the film is supposed to be broad comedy with a bite. But on a set there’s never any sense of continuity, form, or style--not to the casual observer anyway, which makes the finished product all the more remarkable. But this film does deal with some pretty heavy social issues. In a screwball kind of way.
“Yeah,” Midler says, “it does have a message buried in there way, way deep, about people being valuable even if they’re older; that people get older and maybe don’t look the same but they shouldn’t be thrown away, because they have value.”
So people will learn a lesson from all this?
“I don’t expect people to learn a lesson from anything,” she says with a laugh. “I just hope they pay their seven bucks and have a good time.”
Meanwhile, outside in the lobby, Hawn is asked the same rude question:
What’s it all about, a movie about three women who are obsessed with age, being played by actresses who are, well . . .
“Older? We are older,” says Hawn, also 51. “I’m not sure what you’re trying to say. Are you saying we’re supposed to stay young forever? Admittedly, it’s the greatest of fears for some. The aging process, for someone in the limelight, can be very grueling--unless you’re solid and balanced and approach it from a realistic point of view.
“I think we’re perfectly cast,” she adds, “and we’re having fun with our characters. Now: Am I really an actress who’s miserable? No. Do I identify with this character? Not at all. I can’t find any similarities between this character and myself. But she is the extreme of the actress who is self-centered, self-obsessed, who is deathly afraid of the young girls coming up. But because I see it and understand it, it’s great fun to be able to have fun with that very extreme character. And, of course, it’s very high comedy, so all that put together makes it great laughs.
“We’re having a ball,” Hawn says. “At the risk of sounding like I’m full of [expletive], I don’t think I’ve ever had more laughs. And I’ve worked with some fun people.”
They look like fun people, but the scene is decidedly weird. In an empty East Village storefront tarted up to resemble a women’s center turned party space, a hundred or more people shimmy across a crowded dance floor, arms flailing in the air, in a room that is utterly silent.
It’s a party scene, being shot without music. When the music does kick in--on playback--the all-woman Kit McClure Band lip-syncs (horn-syncs?) and swings, as does the boom camera.
After entering this set in a classic Georgian-style loft building, you proceed through rooms where stylists conjure faux food for the camera, through a door half-blocked by a painter whitewashing scenery panels, into a room that’s half industrial space and half Waldorf-Astoria.
Diane Keaton is in a white skirt suit, which plays off the white tea roses, lilies of the valley and jumbo tulips swaying from each of the tables. That her character’s name is Annie can’t be lost on anyone. Nor is the fact that her image and her character--like the others'--are pretty much identical.
“Oh, do you think?” she asks, smiling brightly. “Somehow I don’t see Goldie as an actress with grandiose notions of herself. I do see Bette playing her part and me playing my part. Goldie has done it before, I guess, in that Meryl Streep movie [“Death Becomes Her”]. Oh, and in ‘Overboard’ she was kinda bratty--well, maybe you’re right . . . maybe I’m wrong about this.”
And the age thing? (Keaton is 50.) “Oh, no, I think the thing with my character is much more about trying to be optimistic and being hurt by your husband. I think she’s just totally devastated by the fact that her husband’s left her and she’s going to ‘find her way.’ She has all these self-help notions.
“Actually, for me the thing that’s interesting and what I’d like to do sometime soon is the physical comedy stuff. I get to fall down here, and I’d like nothing better than to do a Three Stooges kind of part, y’know, where I’m the one to get hit and I fall down, because it’s the most fun I’ve ever had doing comedy. . . . That kind of part would be a great kind of comedy role for me. There’s a little bit of it here and I love it.”
Back on the dance floor, Philip Bosco, one of the great actors of the New York stage, is asking Maggie Smith to dance. Smith looks pained. But it’s only because she has an abscessed tooth and is awaiting antibiotics. They rise, do their scene; their timing is flawless. “Cut! Print!”
Bosco makes few films, largely because of what he says is panic disorder: He can’t fly. Consequently, he ordinarily makes films only in New York.
Dan Hedaya has no such problem. Constantly working and always in demand--his last three released films were “Nixon” (the Bebe Rebozo role), “Clueless” (the father) and “To Die For” (the father-in-law)--Hedaya is once again playing the husband-as-schlemiel (he was Carla’s husband on “Cheers,” lest we forget).
“I don’t know if I bring any unsympathetic-husband qualities to the picture,” he said. “If I do it’s certainly not from any experience of my own, ‘cause I’ve never been married. But yeah, it’s a feminist movie, a women’s rights movie. It’s a protest against very unjust behavior on the part of a lot of husbands who don’t fulfill their duties. It’s serious issues done in a funny way.”
On this project, Hedaya--and Bosco, and Keaton, and many of the others involved--have reunited with Scott Rudin, the ursa major of independent producers. “I always feel if somebody does a smaller part in one movie, I look to take care of them on the next movie,” Rudin says. “I happen to like people who can play this high-comedy style. This is a very stylized kind of film, the sort that requires stage actors more than movie actors in a way. It requires this kind of Tiffany supporting cast to make it work.”
At the moment Gloria Steinem, looking very chic, is sitting by the fake bar by the fake pictures of “suffragists” and awaiting her scene. Why is she here?
“Someone called my office,” she says, smiling. “But it was especially because of Bette Midler. I’ve interviewed her a few times over the years; we did a couple of covers on her in Ms. magazine. And she sang at my 50th birthday party. I admire her very much. And they told me that Bella [Abzug] was doing it. And the setting makes sense, the fact that it’s a benefit for a women’s shelter. What’s good about this--the movie--is that it’s not just about getting revenge on husbands, but doing something positive for other women.”
Steinem’s scene is a small one, involving an encounter between her and Brenda’s designer friend, Duarto (Bronson Pinchot).
“He says, ‘Isn’t it great that all these women are getting their lives together?’ and I say yes, and then he says, ‘Are you dating?’ and I say, ‘Got anybody in mind?’
“Now,” Steinem says, taking a breath, “I have given them a substitute, because as it is the scene will only depress women--as if I, at age 61, am wandering around looking for a date. Give me a break. And also, it plays into the idea that feminists don’t get along with men.
“So I’ve given them alternatives. In one, I say, ‘Men are much nicer now. We were their mothers.’ Y’know? I thought that was funny. Or he says, ‘I’ve always wondered if you were a lesbian.’ And I say, ‘Are you my alternative?’ ”