With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform.
Bette Midler, Diane Keaton, and Goldie Hawn all together in one movie — they just don’t make ’em like they used to. This delectable trio would have been plenty to float even a middling script, but no one does fabulous women of a certain age like “Steel Magnolias” and “Soapdish” scribe Robert Harling. Released in 1996, when mid-budget studio comedies were still commonplace, “The First Wives Club” delivered a surprise hit for Paramount while reigniting the careers of its “middle-aged” stars. Though it received mixed reviews at the time, “The First Wives Club” has found many fans over the years, and for good reason: Like its trio-of-women-led predecessor “9 to 5,” the movie delivers its message of women’s empowerment with old-school Hollywood farce and eminently quotable brash one-liners.
“The First Wives Club” follows a group of estranged college friends who reconnect after a friend’s suicide. Brenda (Midler) is the overly-doting Jewish mother and funny lady, Elise (Hawn) is the aging actress with too much plastic surgery and a drinking problem, and Annie (Keaton) is the naive and upbeat uniting figure. Over drinks after the funeral, they’re shocked to discover each of their husbands have left them for younger women. Annie’s husband files for divorce after sleeping with their couples therapist, Elise finds out her ex is suing her for alimony, and Brenda confronts her ex’s new girlfriend. Determined to get revenge, they form The First Wives Club and hatch their plans.
The film is littered with pithy quips that can be applied to any number of situations. While Donald Trump’s shameless screen appearances soured many great moments in pop culture, “The First Wives Club” features a cameo from Ivana Trump, the ultimate first wife, that holds up surprisingly well: “Don’t get mad, get everything!” (Wonder what she’d say now.)
The central trio, all comedic geniuses at their peak who play off each other with effortless charm, are supported by a dizzying array of esteemed character actors. Most notable among these is one of Sarah Jessica Parker’s final pre-“Sex and The City” character roles. Before she was Carrie Bradshaw, Parker was a fixture in off-kilter comedies like “Hocus Pocus,” “Mars Attacks!”, and “Ed Wood.” In “The First Wives Club,” she brings an evil panache to spendthrift mistress Shelly. Her scenes with Midler contain some of the most biting lines she’s ever delivered, bolstered by a comedic timing that would soon take her from funny arm candy to New York’s second-most iconic leading lady. (Rivaled only by the Statue of Liberty.)
But there’s plenty more to keep your eyes peeled for. Victor Garber, Dame Maggie Smith, Stockard Channing, Marcia Gay Harden, Rob Reiner, J. Smith Cameron, Timothy Olyphant, Kate Burton, Lea Delaria, and J.K. Simmons all make appearances with varying degrees of note. In addition to the first Mrs. Trump, Ed Koch, Gloria Steinem, and Kathie Lee Gifford play themselves.
There’s even a somewhat meaty role for Elizabeth Berkley, shortly after “Showgirls” basically tanked her career. She holds her own in her scenes with Hawn, fawning over her idol with a Nomi Malone-esque youthful exuberance. Though the characters are similar, the projects are wildly different, and she’s good enough that one can’t help but wonder what could have been. Viewed in retrospect, her presence adds even more relevance to the film’s feminist themes: The cruel double standards women in Hollywood face, how disposable their careers and lives are, the unseen labor they never get credit for while being blamed for men’s failures — all can be encapsulated in Berkley’s fall from grace.
“The First Wives Club” was also surprisingly ahead of its time for LGBTQ representation, especially in a studio movie. Annie’s daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas) is a lesbian; she comes out in her very first scene and it’s basically a non-issue except for a few non-disparaging jokes. Moms everywhere could learn a lot from the way Keaton gushes: “Chris is just perfect, I mean, lesbians are great nowadays.” This leads to one of the movie’s most iconic scenes, in which the ladies have a grand ‘ole time at a lesbian bar and Elise almost goes home with a very persuasive butch (played — as all butches were in the ’90s — by Lea Delaria.) There’s also Brenda’s gay friend Duarto (Bronson Pinchot), a sidekick of sorts who proves quite helpful.
With (good) comedy in short supply these days, both in life and in Hollywood, there has never been a better time for a nostalgia-viewing of “The First Wives Club.” If that weren’t enough, BET recently ordered a second season of its half-hour comedy based on the film (and the original Olivia Goldsmith book). Michelle Buteau, Jill Scott, and Ryan Michelle Bathe play the central trio, and episode directors have included Stella Meghie and Jamie Babbit.
“The First Wives Club” paved the way for many careers, as it did for women-led studio comedies, though the studios still haven’t caught on. Still, the movie is a trailblazing success and always fun for a rewatch. As Elise tells her plastic surgeon (played by Rob Reiner), “There are only three ages for women in Hollywood — Babe, District Attorney, and ‘Driving Miss Daisy.'” With any luck, maybe we can squeeze a few more in there.
“The First Wives Club” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime.