Several years ago, a question circulated around Twitter asking, "If you could write the Criterion Collection essay for any film, what would it be?" I knew my answer immediately, both because I thought it would be funny and because I knew it was also probably the correct answer - Hugh Wilson's hit 1996 comedy 'The First Wives Club'. Obviously that was never going to happen (both 'The First Wives Club' entering the Criterion Collection and my ever being asked to write any kind of essay for them), so in honour of the film's 25th anniversary, here is the essay I probably would have written.
The maligned, vengeful woman has been a staple of Hollywood cinema since its very beginning, from Bette Davis with a southern drawl to Glenn Close with a boiling bunny. Filmmakers are continuously drawn to these figures, often set up as both protagonist and antagonist, a character we can sympathise with but ultimately damn for their harridan behaviour. We love them because we get to watch them misbehave and push against the patriarchal structures, but regardless of whether they are justified or not, this journey outside of moral or societal law, we understand their punishment at the end, the rules under which the world turns falling comfortably back into place.
This is part of what makes 'The First Wives Club' such a surprisingly subversive film. Based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith, the film features a trio of maligned women whose husbands have left them for younger women, but their need for revenge leads them towards a path uninterested in punishment or redemption. What the film ultimately seeks for its characters is salvation, a world where the performative relationships between men and women aren't shattered as much as dismissed.
Objectively, it's obviously hard to argue that 'The First Wives Club' is a "great film". There's no panache in its craft, its continuity is a mess, and the screenplay - while outrageously funny - is a structural mess. It's also hard to argue though that it isn't a tremendously entertaining film, filled with iconic one-liners, preposterous set-pieces and a pitch-perfect cast. Looking at the film 25 years after its release, you find yourself wondering if these are amongst the best performances Diane Keaton, Goldie Hawn and Bette Midler have given on-screen (I'd strongly argue for that), so astute is their comic timing and so incandescent is their on-screen chemistry. Unlike many frivolous comedies of the 90s though, 'The First Wives Club' has persisted as a cultural icon, and this may have to do with its surprisingly powerful subtext as much as its entertainment values.
The central conceit of the film has mountains of comic potential, but it doesn't shy away from the emotional consequences of this setup. It's right there in the second scene of the film, heartbroken Cynthia (Stockard Channing, 'Grease') taking her own life after her husband Gil leaves her. There is an expectation in the film of marriage being a complete commitment to your husband, always at a cost. These four college friends all suffer individually within their marriages, but the connecting loss is each other, leaving them all isolated when they need each other most. For Cynthia, there is no discernible future; she is of no emotional or sexual use to her husband, who has simply cast her away without a moment's thought, and the world she now must step into holds no value for women above a certain age. Her currency seems to be spent, leaving her no choice but to step away. For a film as silly as 'The First Wives Club', it's a sobering way to begin, but this instigating event sends emotional shockwaves through the film, a reminder that there is something more at stake in the film than revenge.
All of the women in the film are trapped within a patriarchal prison (yes, even Shelly the Barracuda (Sarah Jessica Parker, TV's 'Sex and the City'), who believes that her body is her only asset, and Dr Rosen (Marcia Gay Harden), who is just as susceptible to Annie's manipulative ex, regardless of her intelligence. For Annie (Diane Keaton, 'Something's Gotta Give'), Brenda (Bette Midler, 'Hocus Pocus') and Elise (Goldie Hawn, 'Death Becomes Her'), that prison is financial and emotional. Even after leaving them, their ex-husbands still have control over them, dictating what they can do with their personal possessions or even whether they can pay their rent. When we meet the three women, they are all crippled with self-doubt and self-loathing. At one extreme is Brenda, guilting herself about her weight as a form of self-punishment, and at the other is Elise, subjecting herself to endless extreme plastic surgery to reshape her body in a way that men might still find attractive. All of the women in the film define their self-worth through how men value them, a sickening Satre-like nightmare hidden within the raucous comedy. We laugh at Brenda's crying or Annie's shrieking or Elise's enormous lips, not just because it's funny, but because we recognise the uncomfortable truth at the heart of it.
The solution to their problem is to use the three pillars of the patriarchal power structures against their ex-husbands, take the power that was used to control them and, in turn, control their abusers. Annie's weapon is power, turning the mechanisms Aaron used to manipulate her into non-existence back onto him. For Brenda, her weapon is money, the one thing she knows Morty cares about and the one thing he can use to control her. And for Elise, her power is sex, what defined her relationship with Bill and the industry she works in, what dictates all of Bill's choices and what ultimately leads him to his downfall. Considering none of the three men demonstrates a capacity for empathy or emotional understanding, it makes sense to hit them hard in the balls with what they value most, and in turn, to make them feel as meaningless as the women they abused. And yes, I would argue that, even with their privilege, the women of the First Wives Club are victims of abuse. It's written in their body language and behaviour in the first act, the degree to which they allow themselves to be trodden upon, their crippling perception of themselves as meaningless, but also in their emergence as powerful, self-confident women in the final act.
As much as revenge is a dish we all enjoy, especially when delivered by a trio of beloved iconic actresses, it can also be an unfulfilling dish, and this is where the film transcends the trope of the maligned woman and offers a powerful message. As they tell their ex-husbands once their revenge has begun, their original plan would have only been of benefit to themselves, making them no better than the men who had mistreated them. That's the trick with the pillars of sex, power and money. They are self-serving, self-oriented, selfishly masculine. The first wives may have enjoyed a fleeting moment of satisfaction, but that wouldn't make their lives any better. You can see this in the collapse of their relationship in the second act. The three women begin this enterprise in the spirit of sisterly support, but when the mechanisms of the plan are being worked out, their own selfishness becomes apparent. This isn't about collective justice but about their own satisfaction, a satisfaction still dictated entirely by the men. That's another weapon men use against women - that the power structures they have set up not only keep women in check, but turn them against each other, encouraging them to tear themselves apart while the men watch as proof of their masculine power. These three personal acts of revenge, rather than liberating them, would only strengthen the bars of the prisons these men have built for them. In the end, even the acts of revenge are all about, and ultimately to the benefit of, the men themselves.
Men have turned the interaction between men and women into a battle; in 'The First Wives Club', the women get to deliver a final blow.
If those pillars of sex, power and money are self-serving, then the ultimate revenge is to use them in a more selfless manner. It's a powerful visual totem to end the film with the First Wives Club opening a crisis centre for women, because what they ultimately need - and what all women trapped in similarly impossible situations need - is a means to escape, a world not defined by men but by other women who understand their right to safety and self-worth, who will actually listen to them when they're crying for help. This is the lesson of Cynthia's death echoing across the film - it isn't about taking revenge on the men, but helping the women they've left behind. This is the revenge Annie, Brenda and Elise unleash on their ex-husbands: to cast them aside just as easily as they did them in order to care for one another. The women say this isn't about men versus women, but that's exactly what it is, and rightly so. Men have turned the interaction between men and women into a battle; in 'The First Wives Club', the women get to deliver a final blow.
And with that, we have a form of liberation, not just for the First Wives Club, but for almost all the women in the film. During the final scene, we are told that even the women their husbands left them for have walked away, leaving only Shelly holding onto the patriarchal system, her dismissal of the Centre as "just a lot of battered women dancing around", hiding the terror of her own potential disposal. Elise, Annie and Brenda now have an understanding of their own self-worth and of their place within the world, a purpose completely of their own. Brenda's decision to take Morty back is just as powerful a gesture as Annie telling Aaron to drop dead, because they each have the power within their relationships. The transition of this trio from broken to brilliant is so seamless, so honest, reminding you that, regardless of how funny they are, Keaton and Midler and Hawn are three of the greatest actors of our time, and their inherent intelligence is what guides their performances. The silliness has a purpose, the melodrama has a purpose, to make us feel for them and fall in love with them and cheer them on.
The choice of song for the iconic final scene makes perfect sense. As the First Wives Club throw on their fabulous white coats, symbols of power in their dazzling purity, they do so with the knowledge that no man owns them, that no man can tell them what to say or what to do. At the beginning of the film, we see these four women in their youth, optimistic and unified. We return to this image as they dance, just as complete even without Cynthia there in body. Another tactic of abuse men use is to isolate women from each other, dismissing their sisterhood while vehemently defending their right to brotherhood. This is why they didn't write or call one another, why Cynthia felt so isolated that suicide was the only option, because their marriages didn't allow them the space to be together. The final dance sequence is a dance of triumph, of liberation, of togetherness. That is the ultimate revenge they can deliver on the men who wronged them and the world of men in which they are forced to comply - their revenge is survival.
This is why 'The First Wives Club' persists. The film is tremendously entertaining, wickedly funny and, at times, enormously silly. The performances are wonderfully over-the-top, a rare example of a cast in perfect sync with one another and with the film they are in (just look at Maggie Smith's magnificent turn as Gunilla Garson Goldberg and tell me this film isn't entirely aware of itself). These would all be assets enough, but they would be meaningless without such a powerful foundation - the lingering trauma of abuse, the suppression of female self-worth by the patriarchy, the journey to liberation and the healing power of sisterhood. 'The First Wives Club' might be a fantasy of the privileged (in this case, privileged white ladies, with not a person of colour to be seen), but like the best fantasies, we love to live within them and, in the process, see a reflection of the world we come from and how we might shape that world to be better.
How's that, Criterion?