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It Pays to Have Women in Films

Joan Peters has a master of fine arts degree in motion picture/television screenwriting from UCLA. She is a member of Women in Film, which selected scenes from her original screenplay "Jewish Afro-American Princess" for a public reading at a post-Oscar talent showcase

A voice whispered, “If you film a comedy about three middle-aged wives who get dumped by their husbands for younger women and then seek revenge, they will come.” The voice was right. They came in droves.

Who wouldn’t come to see Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, three powerhouse comedians, bonding and tallying up some well-deserved revenge on their ex-husbands who discarded them like used Kleenex? Who could resist watching the Divine Miss M, Cactus Flower and Annie Hall, now seasoned mature actresses and part of that Old Girls’ Club, the Menopausal Baby Boomers, looking simply smashing and singing at film’s end, “You Don’t Own Me”? Big deal if Siskel & Ebert gave “The First Wives Club” two thumbs down. It didn’t stop women from stampeding to multiplexes to see the film. As one 50-plus woman commented about Siskel & Ebert’s negative review, “They’re men, what do they know?”

Obviously Sherry Lansing, chair of Paramount Pictures’ motion picture group, which produced the film, knew what women wanted when she bought the unpublished manuscript by Olivia Goldsmith six years ago. She knew that women were hungry for films that dealt with real women’s issues and that this film, despite its comedic shenanigans and hilarious one-liners, would hit a deep emotional chord in women, especially the many 40-plus women who have lived through just such a tale, and who now find their lives thrust in front of them on a giant screen as art imitates life. “I think it’s a real victory for the 40-plus female,” Lansing said (“Make Way for 40-Plus ‘Club,’ ” Calendar, Sept. 26).

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The film has also hit a raw nerve among women because realistically the majority of women are less empowered financially than their husbands. Women are flocking to the theaters, in record numbers, for the vicarious thrill of watching their “reel-life sisters” dish out the revenge that they can only dream about. They’re loving every moment of it, including the cameo by Ivana Trump Mazzucchelli, the high priestess of dumped wives, whose sage advice is, “Don’t get mad. Get everything!”

Traditionally, Hollywood has taken the stance that women can’t open a film. Thanks to the mega-success of “The First Wives Club,” Midler, Hawn and Keaton have paved the way and proved that mature actresses do bring in audiences and can make cash-register magic, including an opening weekend of $18.9 million that set a record for any September film debut.

Perhaps now the studio executives will take a more serious look at the screenplays they pass over because they feature 40-plus heroines. As Lansing said: “Hopefully it will open up more roles for women.” And hopefully the screenwriter who writes roles for the 40-plus woman won’t hear these words: “Can you lower the age of your female lead? Roles for women over 40 are not commercial.”

The women came. They came in droves and they will continue to come to laugh at themselves, to cry, to celebrate the passages of a woman’s life, to feel vindicated and empowered if only vicariously for 105 minutes in the darkness of a theater. Let’s hope that Hollywood wakes up and smells the box-office receipts, takes a clue from “The First Wives Club” and will start making more films featuring mature actresses.

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