Film: The First Wives Club
Don't get angry. Get even.
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.
This film provides examples of:
- Abuse Is Okay When It Is 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.
- Although 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.
- The Alcoholic: Elise.
Elise: I drink because I am a sensitive and highly-strung person.
Brenda: No, that's why your co-stars drink.
- All-Star Cast: Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Stockard Channing, Sarah Jessica Parker, Heather Locklear, that guy from Perfect Strangers, Victor Garber and Stephen Collins.
- 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, the bitchy, dimwitted second wives are all thin, glamorous, and gorgeous. This is enough to designate them as evil and stupid long before they open their mouths and confirm it.
- Black and White Morality: The protagonists are constructed as "good, period" and the antagonists as "bad, period". Thus, any immoral or illegal act done by the protagonists are constructed as a good thing, by virtue of the victims being bad people.
- 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 people about being fat? Despicable. Jokes about a potentially deadly eating disorder that millions of people struggle with? Perfectly acceptable.
- It's more like, "Getting back at a young woman with a socially acceptable physique who's bullying you with the same messages that have been visited upon overweight women for decades, noting that such behavior and attitudes are still condoned by most of the mainstream to this day and said 'overweight woman' was (a.) fed up with such insults and (b.) being insulted by someone her ungrateful husband left her for" = "perfectly acceptable".
- Butch Lesbian: Most, if not all, of the women in the gay bar scene.
- 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.
- 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.
- Kick the Dog: One of the new wives get one of these moments early on, and one of the men gets a truly awful one a little bit deeper into the film. Thus establishing the protagonists as innocent victims who are justified in any form of revenge they might take - even when the targets of their malice are other people than this particular man and this particular woman.
- 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 (Chain-smoking, slightly self-centered alcoholic 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 protagonists are constructed as "good, period" and the antagonists as "bad, period". Thus, any immoral or illegal act done by the protagonists are constructed as a good thing, by virtue of the victims being bad people.
- 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. Phoebe, the self-absorbed starlet, and Shelly, the empty-headed gold-digger, are the two most prominent trophy second wives, who help inspire the women they've replaced to create the club.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: One of the designated punching bags is an innocent young woman depicted as truly loving her boyfriend, truly having a chance of building a great future as a movie star, truly having no other chance of building an anything but mediocre life as she's a high-school dropout, and truly being Wrong Genre Savvy enough to admire the protagonist and try to bond with her. Towards the end of the movie, we see the protagonist using this relationship as a tool for controlling her ex and extort money from him, but we never get to find out what happens to the girl itself. Although it seems likely from context that the protagonist forced her ex to dump this new girlfriend and crush all her hopes and dreams. Either way, her fate is treated as irrelevant as the audience is not supposed to sympathize with her or care for her.
- 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.