Film: The First Wives Club

Don't get angry. Get everything.
Ivana Trump

The First Wives Club is a 1996 comedy, directed by Hugh Wilson. It features a trio of middle-aged women teaming up against their estranged husbands and their current lovers.

The film starts in 1969, with a graduation day at Middlebury College, Vermont. Among the graduating class are four close friends Elise Elliot (Goldie Hawn), Cynthia Griffin (Stockard Channing), Annie Mac Duggan (Diane Keaton), and Brenda Morelli (Bette Midler). Cynthia makes them all promise that they "will always be there for each other throughout the remainder of their lives." The scene then switches to the 1990s. The promise has not been kept as they have all lost touch with each other. Cynthia is an affluent but lonely and depressed woman. Her husband has just divorced her for a younger woman. She takes care of some final arrangements and then commits suicide.

The story proceeds with what has happened to the other three ladies. Elise had become a successful actress, even winning an Oscar once. But as she entered middle-age, her career has declined to playing in B movies, and then mostly cast as the "mother" of various leading ladies. Her husband Bill Atchison (Victor Garber) became a major film producer due to her contacts, but has now divorced her and moved on to starlet Phoebe LaVelle (Elizabeth Berkley), and he and Elise are involved in a legal battle over their joint assets.

Annie has not faired much better. She married Aaron Paradis, CEO of an advertising agency, and has spend many years as a housewife. Aaron has recently left her for their therapist, Dr. Leslie Rosen (Marcia Gay Harden) - a therapist who was already overseeing Annie's considerable self-esteem problems. Brenda is even worse. She helped set up her husband Morton 'Morty' Cushman as an electronics tycoon, only for him to trick her into signing away any claim to his assets and then leave her for his 'executive assistant', young Shelly Stewart (Sarah Jessica Parker).

When Cynthia's last message reaches them, the trio reconnect and, inspired by the ways in which each of them has been wronged by their ex-husbands, form the First Wives Club and set out to get their own back and take revenge. With the willing assistance of Annie's lesbian daughter Chris Paradis (Jennifer Dundas), aspiring designer Duarto (Bronson Pinchot), and society leader Gunilla Garson Goldberg (Maggie Smith), they have little trouble finding weaknesses in their former husbands' respective armors... particularly when they find that Phoebe LaVelle is only 16-year-old and Bill can be arrested for statutory rape.

The film had little precedent and was not expected to be particularly successful. Instead it turned to a surprise commercial hit, gaining $181,489,203 in the international market. With $105,489,203 from the United States market alone, it was the 11th most successful film of its year. It gained cult status among middle-aged women, an audience mostly ignored at the time. It helped revitalize the careers of all three leading actresses, becoming their biggest hit in the decade. Discussions for a sequel resulted in Development Hell for a decade. By 2006, all three actresses considered the prospects for a second film to be rather slim.

A musical Screen-to-Stage Adaptation with a book by Rupert Holmes and songs by the Motown team of Holland-Dozier-Holland ran for several weeks in San Diego in 2009 in what was hyped as a pre-Broadway engagement, but that fell into Development Hell. A new version of the show (with a different book writer, director, and choreographer attached) is set to attempt its own pre-Broadway tryout in Chicago come 2015.


This film provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic: Elise.
    Elise: I drink because I am a sensitive and highly-strung person.
    Brenda: No, that's why your co-stars drink.
  • Artistic Title: The film uses a series of 1960s-style images of women, along with a song about being the perfect wife.
  • Auction: To resolve her legal issues with Bill, Elise agrees to sell her extensive collection of furniture, artwork, and other valuables (including Bill's Lamborghini convertible) and split the profits equally with him. She proceeds to sell the whole mess to Annie for $1, and Annie auctions everything off with Duarto and Gunilla encouraging Shelly to buy as much as possible with Morty's money. At the end of the film, the three women use the profits from the auction to found a shelter for victims of domestic abuse.
  • Bitch Alert: Shelly Stewart.
  • Beauty Is Bad: While the titular characters are hardly unattractive, much is made of the fact that they're being dumped by their husbands for younger, prettier women. Of the three, Shelly is depicted as a catty social climber, Phoebe as a ditz, and Leslie has betrayed her professional obligations as Annie's therapist by sleeping with her husband.
  • Broken Aesop: When Shelly taunts Brenda about her weight, it's rightfully seen as incredibly cruel, but only minutes earlier, no one batted an eye when Brenda snarked "the bulimia has certainly paid off" in reference to Shelly's slimness. In fact, Brenda makes similar comments throughout the movie about slim women in general such as "anorexic fetus", etc, all of which are presented as amusing. So to clarify - teasing overweight/average weight people about being fat? Despicable. Jokes about a potentially deadly eating disorder that millions of people struggle with? Perfectly acceptable.
  • Butch Lesbian: Most, if not all, of the women in the gay bar scene.
  • Completely Different Title: In German, the film has the title "Der Club der Teufelinnen" - "The Club of the She-Devils".
  • Cool Uncle: Uncle Carmine is pretty this to Brenda.
  • Dead Star Walking: Stockard Channing as Cynthia Griffin.
  • Demoted to Extra: Cynthia's husband and his new wife have basically one scene in the movie.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Brenda, so much.
  • Double Standard: Abuse, Female on Male: After being dumped for younger women, the titular characters spend the movie making their exes miserable ruining job opportunities, blackmail, and hurling verbal abuse at them and their new girlfriends (and most younger women in general). One even has her husband kidnapped. On the other hand, considering that in two cases the women were critical in the men's successes in the first place only to be tossed aside once later and the third is a horrible breach of ethical professional practice, it may also be viewed as a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • Drowning My Sorrows: Elise, after aiming for the lead role in a film and instead being offered the role of the lead's "grotesque" mother while the lead role goes to Phoebe.
  • Four Is Death: The fourth "first wife," Cynthia.
  • Lighter and Softer: The movie is a comedy, while the book is a lot more serious, including abuse as a theme.
  • Karma Houdini: Other than a quick mention of her break up with Aaron at the end, Dr. Rosen disappears after her second scene and receives no comeuppance. In the real world, she would be exposed as a fraud, be hauled in front of the state medical board, and have her license revoked, or at the very least suspended, for sleeping with a patient and contributing to the collapse of his marriage, especially since his spouse was another patient. Annie, who mentions having paid this woman a fortune, also should have sued her into oblivion.
  • Kick the Dog: Most of the husbands get at least one to help justify the protagonists taking action against them. Aaron kicks the hardest when he spends a romantic night with Annie, leading her to believe they're reconciling, only to tell her that he wants a divorce.
  • Mafia Princess: Brenda. In the book, her connections was a way her husband got her to shut up during the divorce. In the movie, finding out her family helped Morty's business at first was how she got him.
  • Oh Crap!: The looks on the husbands' faces when things go bad for them are an hilarious example.
  • Power Trio:
    • Id: Elise (Impulse-driven, over-dramatic White-Dwarf Starlet)
    • Ego: Brenda (Reasonable, frank but blunt)
    • Superego: Annie (Conciliatory, calm, emotional)
  • Pretty in Mink: The movie has quite a few furs.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: The sympathy of the narrative is heavily on the side of the protagonists, and their actions - some of which are manipulative and on at least one occasion illegal - are depicted as justified.
  • Really Gets Around: Elise. She's on her third marriage and during an argument, Brenda snarks about her sleeping around while they were in college.
  • Romantic False Lead: Shelly ends up being this for Morty.
  • Starts with a Suicide: Pretty much, other than a brief flashback.
  • Trophy Wife: The movie is about women who get dumped, often to be replaced by trophy wives/girlfriends. Phoebe, the ditzy starlet, and Shelly, the catty gold-digger, are the two most prominent examples, helping inspire the women they've replaced to create the club.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: Phoebe drops out of the story entirely once it's revealed that she's underage, and we're never shown how she's effected by the abrupt end of her relationship with Bill and, presumably, the loss of the film role that came with it.
    • Phoebe is actually in the audience at Elise's play, clapping enthusiastically. Since, unlike the other "other women", she never actually bore any ill will toward Elise and actually idolized her as an actress, one may assume that with Bill out of the picture they've become friends.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Elise Elliot is on her way to becoming this. She is still recognised by her fans, but her career is fading. She is struggling to get a role and when she finally thinks she will be cast as the star of a new film it turns out the young and hip regisseur wants her as the ugly and grotesque Mother. She has undergone major plastic surgery and is an alcoholic. She drunkenly complains about how Sean Connery is 300 years old and "still a stud," while women in Hollywood have only three ages: "babe, District Attorney, and Driving Miss Daisy." In her apartment she has an entire room filled with her memorabilia, including prizes she won, gifts etc. Fortunately, by the end of the film she's doing much better thanks to Annie and Brenda's intervention and support.
  • Where Everybody Knows Your Flame: A rare lesbian example. It's like Babylon on steroids. Of course, they are in Manhattan.