Chapter 1She's All That and a Bag of Fries: Diva Movies
Does it seem that having it all means doing it all, but no matter how much you do, it still isn't enough, and at the end of a very long day, you wind up with a whole lot of nothing for your effort but a cramp in your lower lumbar?
Listen, what are you killing yourself for? Take a tip from the great divas of the silver screen and let somebody else worry about the gory details for a change. We all deserve star billing in our own lives every once in a while, so if you're feeling overwhelmed, settle in for some self-pampering Cinematherapy
style, where for a few hours at least, you get to have it all without doing a blessed thing.
So go on. Take off those work gloves, break out the ruby nail polish, and watch one of these Diva Movies featuring unmanageable heroines who put their own needs first, ruling their roosts with an iron fist, without ever breaking a nail.
* Gentlemen Prefer Blondes
(1953) Stars: Marilyn Monroe, Jane Russell Director: Howard Hawks Writers: Anita Loos, Joseph Fields, Charles Lederer
Who better than the original Material Girl to teach us all a little something about looking out for number one? This flick stars the eternally iconic Marilyn Monroe as the immortal little girl from Little Rock, Lorelei Lee, who sets her tiara for a rich husband to satisfy her insatiable appetite for diamonds.
Lorelei is undeterred from her bottom-line-driven approach to matrimony by her less mercenary friend Dorothy Shaw (Jane Russell), who manages, in the course of one sea voyage, to fall in love with the entire men's Olympic relay team including the shot-putter. The plot employs the usual Hollywood high jinks to generate hysteria: mistaken identities, men in women's lingerie, large derrieres and small portholes, and chorus girls in Schiaparelli-inspired S and M gear hanging from the chandeliers. You get the picture. But what this movie is really about is the incomparable Marilyn, who infuses her dumb blonde routine with a fourteen-karat authenticity that has never been equaled by her cubic zirconian imitators.
What's most notable about this movie, though, is that the fortune-seeking Lorelei actually marries her fortune. This is a great movie to watch when you're having a few entitlement issues and need to remind yourself that all us little girls from Little Rock, or Boise, or even Manhattan, are entitled to the best, and that the true definition of a diva is a woman who knows how to take care of herself.
* Torch Song
(1953) Stars: Joan Crawford, Michael Wilding Director: Charles Walters Writers: John Michael Hayes, Jan Lustig
Joan Crawford plays the alpha diva in this bitch-on-wheels performance that features inspiring fashions, even more inspiring temper tantrums, and Joan in blackface with rhinestones on her eyelids and an Afro wig. This is a getup that only a woman with the self-possession of Joan Crawford could carry off, and frankly, we're not even sure she gets away with it.
In Torch Song
, Joan plays dancer/singer Jenny Stewart and no one, but no one, will get in her way as she valiantly strives to please her audience. And if that means that the male dancer who keeps tripping over her outstretched right leg as she strikes a pose gets ground into the floor like a half-smoked cigarette under her elegantly pointed toe, well, that's showbiz. Somebody fix me a drink and get me a new boy--pronto!
It takes a poised, talented, patient, and psychologically astute musical arranger to rein Jenny in and teach her to trot like a good girl. Tye Graham (Michael Wilding) is all those things, and he sees through to her vulnerable and lovable inner core, despite his being blind (the war, you know) and thus unable to appreciate her astonishing ability to match all her lounging robes to her mules (really, have you tried to find lemon mules lately?). To Tye, Jenny is a gypsy Madonna, a vibrant and fiery performer who simply needs the love of a good man, a man who knows that, as the butler says, "The easy ones are no fun." Ooo, girl, you got that right.
Watch this one when you're feeling in need of just a little understanding and appreciation for your specialness, or if you're looking for some fabulous fashion guidance (check out that navy-into-sunset-splash-orange dress--too Vogue).
* The First Wives Club
(1996) Stars: Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton Director: Hugh Wilson Writer: Robert Harling, based on the novel by Olivia Goldsmith
This movie is like a cinematic trifecta featuring three, three, three divas in one. Estranged college girlfriends Brenda (Bette Midler), Elise (Goldie Hawn), and Annie (Diane Keaton) reunite twenty-five years later, after the suicide of a mutual friend. Over a Manhattan-style ladies' lunch of low-fat vertical New Wave fusion food and way too many Bloody Marys, they discover they are just like their dear departed friend: they are all wounded soldiers in retreat from the atrocities of a male midlife crisis.
Just as they pledged to a sorority years ago, they pledge to help each other make their ex-husbands pay for their love crimes--in spades. Strengthened by their sisterhood, and drunk on vigilante justice, they gradually rediscover their inner divas and rise, like three fabulous phoenixes, from the ashes of their seventh-inning slump.The First Wives Club
is a scorned woman's all-you-can-eat brunch, featuring a selection of vicarious revenge delicacies that will satisfy even the most exacting and voracious thirst for blood. Sit down to this diva buffet with your best girlfriends and a Bloody Mary or two. And if you happen to break into a spontaneous and well-choreographed girl group number such as "You Don't Own Me," go for it! Just be sure to tip generously.
(1972) Stars: Liza Minnelli, Michael York, Joel Grey Director: Bob Fosse Writers: Jay Presson Allen, Joe Masteroff, John Van Druten, based on the book Berlin Stories by Christopher IsherwoodCabaret
turns the spotlight on one of divadom's primary truths: if you keep your eyes glued to the disco ball, life can seem like a perpetual cocktail party, even if you're on the verge of the Holocaust and you and your boyfriend are cheating on each other with the same rich international playboy.
Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli) is an American heiress in self-imposed exile in prewar Berlin. There she engages in various acts of harmless adolescent rebellion. She wears green nail polish in a shade called Divine Decadence, slams prairie oysters at 10 a.m., and performs socially provocative numbers at a questionable local watering hole, accompanied by an androgynous and darkly ingratiating master of ceremonies (Joel Grey) who is really just a tap-dancing metaphor for the ultimate decline of Western civilization. Our kind of diva, right?
Abruptly the movie takes a sentimental turn, and seems to suggest that beneath our diva's gravity-defying lashes, blood-red lipstick, and vampire-white foundation is just a little girl from Kansas who needs to learn to be content to stay in her own monochromatic backyard, and not go looking for her heart's desire.
But then we and Sally get real. We realize that this is not a frothy romp that winds up with a reformed diva snuggled up in a cozy bungalow in Cambridge. This is a Brechtian commentary on the dangers of denial and the horror of the Holocaust--and the terrible cost of the disco era. And that's not Dorothy up there in the ruby slippers. That's Liza with a Z, on the verge of her Studio 54 period, and last call is at least ten years away.
This is a great movie to watch when you're on the brink of a personal world war. Pop in Cabaret, paint your fingernails green, and dance in the face of disaster along with Liza, without ever having to confront the inevitable morning after.
* My Little Chickadee
(1940) Stars: Mae West, W. C. Fields Director: Edward F. Cline Writers: W. C. Fields, Mae West
Mae West, the founding mother of the American diva, stars as Flower Belle Lee, a voluptuous prairie rose with a bad reputation that she completely deserves. Flower Belle is run out of her small town of origin by a sour-faced busybody (Margaret "Wicked Witch of the West
" Hamilton) because she is suspected of fooling around with the handsome Masked Bandit who has been terrorizing the countryside. And those suspicions are right on the money.
But Flower Belle sneaks out at night to meet her paramour on a remote hillside on the wrong side of town, only to come face-to-face with the authorities, who insist that she become respectable and get hitched already. Flower Belle meets Cuthbert J. Twillie (W. C. Fields) on a train, and ties the knot with him because he is carrying a bag full of money. Once in the honeymoon suite, however, she discovers that all that glitters is not necessarily Cuthbert.
As is the case with most Mae West vehicles, this is not a movie about plot. It's about watching two groundbreaking comic geniuses going head-to-head in a heavyweight bout of one-liners, and about the inimitable Mae West, who created the mold for opinionated, self-directed, full-figured heroines who take what they want from the world and don't make any apologies.
* Mr. Skeffington
(1944) Stars: Bette Davis, Claude Rains, Marjorie Riordan Director: Vincent Sherman Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, based on the novel by Elizabeth von Arnim
Alright, so Fanny Skeffington (Bette Davis) is a tiny bit shallow--while world wars rage and the stock market crashes, she's getting yet another facial and fussing over her many hats. Eventually a self-centered, vain, mercenary rich bitch like Fanny has to get her comeuppance, of course, and it's a safe bet that it's going to involve losing her looks one day and hence her drawing room full of clucking male admirers, but at least she gets in a couple of good decades of diva fun before that happens.
Still, for all Fanny's many character flaws she's got one terrific trait that everyone seems to overlook: her forthrightness. Yes, Fanny matter-of-factly and even humorously accepts the truths of life and speaks them aloud--except, of course, for the one that she finds most threatening, which is that her lovely face has begun to sink to the floor. As for Fanny's shallow nature, maybe if she had access to psychotherapists who didn't verbally abuse her, contemptuously suggesting that middle-aged women should give up their notions of romance and crawl back to their estranged husbands, she'd be aging a little more gracefully. Although, to be honest, we kind of prefer Miss D. when she's simply having a smashing time and dressing to kill.
Having a bad hair decade? Shake up some Cosmopolitans, give yourself a facial, and indulge in Mr. Skeffington. It's a fun reminder that there are times when getting the latest beauty treatment, engaging in a whirlwind social life, and having a jolly good laugh ought to be a gal's number-one priority.
* Guarding Tess
(1994) Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Nicolas Cage, Austin Pendleton Director: Hugh Wilson Writers: Peter Torokvei, Hugh Wilson
Divas don't always come in gold lame and sequined slippers; sometimes, like Tess Carlisle (Shirley MacLaine), they wear conservative tweeds and sensible shoes. Tess is a popular former first lady, now widowed, who lives surrounded by a battalion of Secret Service men appointed to protect her in her dotage. What lurks beneath the kindly eyes and demure pillbox hats of this American treasure, however, is an unmanageable and steel-willed woman who rules her roost with an iron cane, and is less reminiscent of Barbara Bush than FDR in his heyday.
No one knows her true nature better than her secret special agent in charge, Doug Chesnic (Nicolas Cage), who longs to wear mirrored sunglasses, speak covertly into his wrist, and be where the action is. Instead, Doug is forced to serve a life term in small-town America because Tess has taken a shine to him. What ensues is a wonderful battle of wills between a persnickety old lady and a stoical gun-toting tough guy, who proves to be no match for Tess's nickel-plated resilience.
This is a great movie to watch when you're feeling as if the parade has passed you by. Tess proves that you can be a diva at any age so long as you're not afraid to take life by the lapels, force it to leave its firearms outside the door, and take you golfing in December.
(1933) Stars: Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Frank Morgan, Una Merkel, Ted Healy Director: Victor Fleming Writers: John Lee Mahin, Jules Furthman, based on the play by Mack Crane and Caroline Francke
People just don't understand, do they? Oh, sure, they see the jewels, furs, and beaded satin gowns, the endorsement deals, the location shoots, the romantic scenes you play with Hollywood's leading men, the mansion in Beverly Hills, the late nights dancing at the Coconut Grove, the hordes of autograph seekers. They think it must be wonderful to be Lola Burns, movie star. But they don't know what a burden it all is. Lola just wants to marry the marquis and lead a quiet life with three sheepdogs in the living room and a baby in the nursery. That's not asking too much, is it? And if she could have all that, Lola could give up motion pictures tomorrow, honest, she could.
In this thinly disguised parody of the real Jean Harlow's life, Harlow plays a put-upon starlet who is tired of supporting her father (Frank Morgan), who is often found pickled at 6 a.m.; her brother (Ted Healy), who's been "taking a sleigh ride on the roulette wheel in Tijuana"; and an embezzling secretary (Una Merkel). She's also had it up to her platinum blond wig with the studio publicist (Lee Tracy) whose sole purpose in life is to cook up phony scandals about Lola to place in the papers. Can't these people find another gravy train to latch on to?
Somewhere amid all the histrionics there's a nonsensical plot, but you'll be too distracted watching Lola flip back and forth between hissy fits and starry-eyed dreaming to care. Watch Bombshell when you're feeling ignored--you can vicariously enjoy being a flighty drama queen without having to pay the liquor and furrier bills.
* Hello, Dolly!
(1969) Stars: Barbra Streisand, Walter Matthau Director: Gene Kelly Writers: Ernest Lehman, Michael Stewart
World-class diva Barbra Streisand plays Dolly Levi, a fast-talking, double-dealing, matchmaking diva of the gilded age who proves that love is just as satisfying the second time around, particularly if there are large bank accounts involved.
After her beloved husband dies, Dolly dedicates herself to making everybody else's dreams come true. And what Dolly wants, Dolly gets. In the course of one movie she manages to pair off most of Yonkers and a good portion of the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
Excerpted from Advanced Cinematherapy by Nancy Peske and Beverly West. Copyright © 2002 by Nancy Peske and Beverly West. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.