Follow TV Tropes


Film / The First Wives Club

Go To

"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 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 fared much better. She married Aaron Paradis, CEO of an advertising agency, and 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 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.

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.
    • Cynthia is also implied to have been one at the time of her suicide.
  • Alliterative Name: Elise Elliot, Shelly Stewart, 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.
  • 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: Elise provides Bill with proof that Phoebe is underage (to his credit, he dumps her immediately). At 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. 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.
  • 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 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 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.
  • 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.
  • Fallen-on-Hard-Times Job: Brenda works for dilettante interior designer, according to Annie "one of the ten worst interior decorators in New York".
  • Four Is Death: The fourth "first wife," Cynthia.
  • 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.
  • Hollywood Old: As explained by Elise: "There are three ages for women in Hollywood: Babe, District Attorney and Driving Miss Daisy."
  • Jailbait: Phoebe. Elise provides Bill with proof that she's only 16, shocking him, as he was genuinely not aware of this.
  • 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.
  • 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...
  • 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 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.
  • 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 an hilarious example.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: Cynthia's suicide is what drives the plot, since it brings the main characters together again.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • The Southpaw: Towards the end of the film, we see that both Morty and Bill (like their respective actors, Dan Hedaya and Victor Garber) are left-handed.
  • 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 affected 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.


How well does it match the trope?

Example of:


Media sources: