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Film / The First Wives Club

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"Don't get mad. Get everything."
Ivana Trump

The First Wives Club is a 1996 comedy directed by Hugh Wilson, adapted from the novel by Olivia Goldsmith. 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 her playing in B movies, and then she is 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 he 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 fared much better. She married Aaron Paradis, CEO of an advertising agency, and she has spent 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 reconnects 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 sixteen-years-old and Bill can be arrested for statutory rape.

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:

  • Actor Allusion: Annie refers to the trio as “the three witches” after losing faith in their initial scheme to get revenge. Her co-stars Bette Midler and Sarah Jessica Parker previously played two thirds of a trio of real witches. Coincidentally, their characters in that film also had a tense relationship due to a man’s infidelity.
  • Adaptational Jerkass: Downplayed with Bill. In the book, he's still a weak and greedy man, but he's more respectful to Elise during their divorce and sacrifices his relationship with Phoebe by making her get involuntary (but much-needed) psychiatric treatment after witnessing how messed up she is. In the film, he's a pure Hate Sink.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Downplayed, but a lot of the husbands' behavior is toned down from the book. Morty, Aaron, and Cynthia's husband Gil are all involved in insider trading in the novel (with Aaron having embezzled his daughter's college fund for the money), while Bill has been stealing from his company with a false expense account. Gil is also a Domestic Abuser and Politically Incorrect Villain in the novel who also bullied Cynthia into aborting their second child and later into taking their first child off of life-support after an accident, with his internal narration revealing that he was jealous of his own children for taking away attention from him. Morty also drags his feet on paying child support and alimony in the book and deliberately hurts Brenda and her family during the divorce by revealing her sexuality to her father. Aaron is also a Mean Boss who has the gall to try and get Annie to take him back after his relationship with Dr. Rosen falls apart.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: Brenda is bisexual in the novel, and ends up in a relationship with a woman, but shows no signs of this in the film. In fact, she seems uncomfortable stepping foot in a gay bar and pretends to be a couple with Elise just to get away from another woman trying to hit on her.
  • Adaptational Personality Change: Several of them, but one notable one is Phoebe. In the film, she is is an underage small-town runaway prone to being Innocently Insensitive, yet also admiring Elise, while seeming devoted to Bill. In the book, she is a twenty-something society girl, Manic Pixie Dream Girl and Mad Artist who barely acknowledges Elise, cheats on Bill with a critic she wants to give her work a good review and is eventually being revealed to be suffering from psychological problems as a result of being raped by her grandfather and receiving incompetent treatment for it from Dr. Rosen.
    • While the husbands in the movie come off poorly, they are miles better than the book versions. In the novel, Aaron holds one son as perfect and ignores the other while "borrowing" money from his mentally ill daughter's trust fund. And unlike the movie where he realizes how bad he is and reconnects with Brenda, Morty remains a total scumbag who ends with nothing thanks to his greed while blaming everyone else for his problems.
  • The Alcoholic: Elise.
    Elise: I drink because I am a sensitive and highly-strung person.
    Brenda: No, that's why your co-stars drink.
    • Cynthia is also implied to have been one at the time of her suicide.
  • Alliterative Name: Elise Elliot, Shelly Stewart, Gilbert Griffin, and one heck of an example in Gunilla Garson Goldberg.
  • An Offer You Can't Refuse: Like the good Mafia Princess she is, Brenda makes a very good one - he'd give her the leadership of his company and all the power or she'll expose him for fraud. Bonus for this happening in a cold room, kidnapped by real Mafia.
  • "Anger Is Healthy" Aesop:
    • Timid Annie deals with unexpressed anger in therapy. After talking to her recently divorced college friends, she is disappointed with how angry and bitter they seemed... only for her to discover her own husband has been sleeping with their therapist and letting them both have it. (Oddly, the therapist herself tries to placate Annie by saying she's allowed to be angry, only to gaslight her into seeing this as a good thing). She then starts the First Wives Club with Elise and Brenda to get justice against all their ex-husbands.
    • The First Wives Club turn their anger and frustration against each other at one point, with Annie considering abandoning the whole plan because they've let bitterness consume them. But Brenda and Elise reason their anger wasn't the problem — they were just too focused on their own petty problems instead of about something bigger. Thus, they decide to get back at their exes by blackmailing them to fund a women's crisis center.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Brenda gives one to Elise after everything falls apart for them and the three stop talking.
    Brenda: She's right, you know? Just ask yourself, how drunk do you think Cynthia was when she decided to do a jack-knife onto Park Avenue?
  • Artistic License – Law: In reality, Elise would not have been able to sell her and Bill's joint assets for a dollar, as the divorce court would have insisted on the fair market value being split between them. Of course, given that she's blackmailing him for (unknowingly) having sex with a minor, he probably won't complain too much.
  • 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 (plus contributions from their unwilling but blackmailed ex-husbands) to found a shelter for victims of domestic abuse.
  • Bitch Alert: Shelly Stewart's Establishing Character Moment is being passive-aggressive towards Brenda and being blatantly a Gold Digger.
  • 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.
  • Bookends: The movie starts with the three women dressed in black, attending their friend's funeral and lamenting the state of their marriages. It ends with them dressed in white, cheerfully celebrating their new lives.
  • Brainless Beauty: Phoebe and Shelly, and a good chunk of the other younger women featured.
  • Brick Joke:
    • Early in the film, Annie's daughter Chris comes out as a lesbian but tells her not to tell Aaron because she wants to do it on a special day. As she leads Aaron and the rest of the ex-husbands to the First Wives Club's office for negotations, Aaron mentions he doesn't want any more surprises, to which she responds...
    Chris: Oh by the way, you should know. I'm a lesbian. A big one.
    • Elise provides Bill with proof that Phoebe is underage (to his credit, he dumps her immediately). In the end, when he starts flirting with Shelly, he makes a point of asking her how old she is.
  • 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.
    • There's also the fact that every man involved with a younger woman is made out to be a lecherous jerk, but when Elise starts dating a younger man towards the end of the film, it's a "you go, girl!" moment.
  • Butch Lesbian: Most, if not all, of the women in the gay bar scene, including Annie's daughter Chris. One also mistakes Morty for one when Brenda shows her his picture.
  • Clumsy Copyright Censorship: A rather weird example: during the part where Annie meets up with Aaron in the restaurant, a Contemporary Soul cover of "Isn't It Romantic?" is heard in the background. However, sometimes when the film is aired on basic cable, it's just a generic piano piece playing throughout.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: The women are clad in black at the beginning of the movie. Fitting, as they're not only attending a funeral but are depressed about the end of their marriages. By the end of the film, having embarked on new lives and new relationships ( a reconciliation in Brenda's case), they're wearing white.
  • Composite Character: Chris is a combination of two of Annie's three children from the book, her daughter Sylvie (who she cares for and has down syndrome) and her son Chris, who is a decent person who works for his father but becomes disillusioned with him.
  • Coming-Out Story: Subverted. After Annie suspects her daughter being cranky as an attribute to having "boy problems", Chris comes out as a lesbian but tells her mother that her being gay is not the issue right now.
  • Cool Uncle: Uncle Carmine is a cool uncle with Mafia connections who offers to his niece to deal with her ex-husband.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: To a degree, Morty is. After all, he is guilty of income tax fraud.
  • Creator Cameo: The late Olivia Goldsmith, who wrote the original book, appears as a mourner at Cynthia's funeral.
  • Dance Party Ending: The closing scene features Elise, Annie, and Brenda dancing down the street while singing Lesley Gore's "You Don't Own Me".
  • 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's script is mostly made of snarky lines. To a lesser degree, even Elise and Morty do count. And, of course, it is a capital crime not mentioning Gunilla Garson Goldberg when she's played by Maggie Smith.
  • Divorce Is Temporary: After all, it was the case with Brenda and Morty.
  • 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 crucial in the men's successes in the first place only to be tossed aside 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. She does it again when the three can't find any bad evidence to use against her ex Bill.
  • Dumb Blonde: Shelly. Especially bad as she's an accountant and surely had to have completed college and a master's degree to achieve this.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Bill is a grade-A jerk, but he's genuinely shocked and horrified when he learns Phoebe is underage and dumps her immediately. (Of course, part of this quick turnaround was likely to save his own skin since he could get arrested if the truth got out.)
  • The Ex's New Jerkass:
    • Played straight with Shelly, for her shallow gold digging and body-shaming of Brenda, in public and private.
    • Downplayed with Dr. Rosen. While her condescension and clear breaking of the therapist code of ethics by sleeping with her patient qualify her as a jerkass, she is still a decent therapist and isn't outright mean to anyone.
    • Subverted with Phoebe, who despite being Bill's new girlfriend and the actress who got the part Elise wanted, is incredibly sweet and a huge fan of Elise. She even attends Elise's play at the end of the film. She falls more into Innocently Insensitive than anything else. Played straight for book!Phoebe (see Adaptational Personality Change above).
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Brenda works for a dilettante interior designer, according to Annie "one of the ten worst interior decorators in New York".
  • Four Is Death: The fourth "first wife," Cynthia.
  • For the Evulz: After coming out to her mother as a lesbian, Chris says she wants to come out to her father when it's a special day like Christmas or Father's Day just to spite him for hurting her mother. She does just that by the end and the look on his face is priceless.
  • Faux Yay: Brenda pretends to be a lesbian picking up Elise to keep another lesbian from dating her. It works.
  • Freudian Trio:
    • Id: Elise (Impulse-driven, over-dramatic White-Dwarf Starlet)
    • Ego: Brenda (Reasonable, frank but blunt)
    • Superego: Annie (Conciliatory, calm, emotional)
  • Gold Digger: Bill is heavily implied to be a male variation of this to Elise, becoming a star from her own ties and then divorcing her and claiming her assets (and being portrayed as thoroughly smug about it). Morty pulls a similar scam, though the ending implies he does have some genuine love for Brenda. Shelly to Morty also, as most of her scenes make it clear that she enjoys spending his money.
  • Heel–Face Door-Slam: After Brenda and Morty are shown reconciling at the crisis center's opening ceremony, Annie goes on to narrate that Aaron also came up to her and offered to start over again. To which Annie told him to drop dead.
  • Hollywood Old: As explained by Elise: "There are three ages for women in Hollywood: Babe, District Attorney and Driving Miss Daisy."
  • In Memoriam: In-Universe, the three first wives name the women's crisis center after Cynthia.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: When Annie asks her ex-husband Bill if there's someone else he's seeing, he denies it. Then the doors open up and their psychiatrist walks in.
  • Interrupted Intimacy: The trio accidentally interrupts a husband and wife's time in bed together when they fall outside their bedroom window escaping Morty's apartment.
  • 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 aside from Annie's verbal tear down. She could have lost her license if Annie had informed the state medical board that her therapist slept with her husband and contributed to the collapse of their marriage, especially since he was another patient. And since Annie was paying her a fortune, she also could have sued her to oblivion.
    • Cynthia's ex-husband Gil never gets punished for what he did to her in the movie (although in the book, he was targeted just as much as the other three husbands, and ruined even more thoroughly than they were).
  • 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.
  • Laser-Guided Karma: For all three husbands, in addition to the loss of money they have to endure: Morty, who is facing federal charges on tax evasion, Aaron, who is about to be bought out of his company by Annie and unable to find work elsewhere and Bill, who could not only have his career ruined but imprisoned for unknowingly dating a sixteen-year-old. Of the three, Bill (the nastiest of the three men) probably gets hit the hardest due to both the aforementioned reason but when he signs over the money to Elise, he's crying. Then he meets Shelly...
  • Lipstick Lesbian: Elise and Brenda are mistaken for one when they enter the gay bar looking for Chris. Elise goes along with it for attention. Brenda pretends to be one just to rescue her from a butch lesbian who wants to dance with her.
  • Lighter and Softer: The movie is a comedy, while the book is a lot more serious, including abuse as a theme.
  • Mafia Princess: Brenda. In the book, her connections were 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.
  • The Mole: Annie's daughter gets a job working at her father's advertising firm to spy on him for Annie.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Elise is recognized at the gay club by a woman who is absolutely ecstatic to "discover" that her hunch about Elise's sexuality is correct. Elise doesn't even try to correct her, instead, enjoying the attention.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Bill says this word for word when he discovers that his girlfriend Phoebe is a minor.
  • My Friends... and Zoidberg: Annie's daughter (working as a receptionist at the First Wives Club office) greets her father and the other two husbands (both of whom she doesn't know) as "gentlemen and Daddy".
  • My Beloved Smother: Played for laughs with Annie's mother is over-controlling at best, which has given her lifelong self-esteem issues, but it also turns out when Annie takes things into her own hands, she could be supportive when Annie really asks for her opinion.
  • Oh, Crap!: The looks on the husbands' faces when things go bad for them are a hilarious example.
  • Open-Minded Parent: While Aaron is shocked to learn from Chris herself that she is a lesbian, Annie is accepting of their daughter Chris after her coming out.
  • Pair the Spares: Twice. The final scene shows Uncle Carmine talking up Gunilla (aiming perhaps to make him her next husband), and Bill flirting with Shelly.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Cynthia's suicide is what drives the plot since it brings the main characters together again.
  • Pretty in Mink: The movie has quite a few furs.
  • 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. One argument between Brenda and Elise highlights it:
    Elise: You were always jealous of me! And because of the fact that I could have any guy I want!
    Brenda: And did! Every guy! Most of the senior class and half the faculty!
    Elise: (beat) Well, it was the 60's!
  • Revenge Against Men: In spades. The protagonists have been unfairly treated by their ex-husbands and the plot explores their elaborate revenge.
  • Romantic False Lead: Shelly ends up being this for Morty.
  • Smug Snake: Both Bill and Morty have shades of this to get the audience on Brenda and Elise's side. Ironically however it's the more neurotic Aaron that is portrayed as more odious and emotionally manipulative towards Annie (likely because he at least partially believes his own bullshit).
  • Starts with a Suicide: Pretty much, other than a brief flashback.
  • Stepping Stone Spouse: The inciting event is the suicide of a mutual friend who killed herself after her husband, who'd she'd supported during the lean years, left her for a trophy wife after striking it rich.
  • Tempting Fate: While with Aaron in a hotel room thinking they're getting back together, Annie mentions that she wishes her therapist was here to see it. Guess who walks through the door a few minutes later calling Aaron "babe"?
  • Theatre is True Acting: Zig-Zagged.
    • Inverted with Elise's ex-husband/producer, who discouraged her from doing theater when they were married because it would be bad for her film career (which he conveniently benefitted from).
    • Implied when Elise takes a lead role in a play that better suits her than the ageist film roles she was being offered in Hollywood, which, along with becoming sober, becomes a point of character development for her that leads to great career success.
  • 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.
  • Twofer Token Minority: Chris's lover in the gay bar who is Asian and a lesbian.
  • Wham Line:
    • When it seems like things are reconciling between Aaron and Annie, he drops this to her.
    • As Elise, Brenda, and Annie fail to dig up any dirt they could use against Bill, one of them delivers this:
    Elise: I mean, everything [Bill] does is legal, as far as he knows...
    • When Brenda talks to her uncle Carmine about her ex Morty:
    Carmine: You know, some of his merchandise fell off of our trucks one day.
    • Elise revealing something shocking to Bill about his new girlfriend that he didn't know about:
    Bill: She's 21.
    Elise: *pulls out a school yearbook* Yeah. In about 5 years. She's 16.
    • Wham Shot: Aaron's mistress showing up at the same hotel as he and Annie argue:
    Dr. Leslie Rosen: Babe?
  • What Happened to the Mouse?:
    • We're never shown what happens to Dr. Rosen once her affair with Aaron is revealed, even though she should be in serious legal trouble since Annie could have told everything to the state medical board about her therapist sleeping with her husband, who was also one of her patients!
    • Phoebe pretty much drops out of the story entirely once it's revealed that she's underage, and we're never shown how she's affected by the abrupt end of her relationship with Bill and, presumably, the loss of the film role that came with it. However, there is a brief shot of her 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's and Brenda's intervention and support.
  • Where Everybody Knows Your Flame: A rare lesbian example. It's like Babylon (both the UK original and the US remake) on steroids. Of course, they are in Manhattan.
  • Younger Than They Look: The tall, blonde actress Phoebe who dates Bill and worships Elise, is revealed to actually be a 16-year-old runaway rather than 21 years old as claimed by Bill. Bill is horrified when he learns this as Elise threatens him with felony charges.