Have you ever seen the romantic movie, “How to Marry a Millionaire”? It’s got Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable sharing a fancy apartment, hoping to land monied husbands. In an excellent 2004 article in Vanity Fair, Laura Jacobs describes this common subgenre of women’s movies, usually three girls looking for husbands. She cites “Three on a Match” and “Moon Over Miami,” as well as the glossy 1954 movie, “Three Coins in the Fountain.”
The Best of Everything was a bestselling novel for Rona Jaffe in the 1950s, written especially to be turned into a high-gloss women’s movie in 1959. Although it seems like just another in the same subgenre, it marked a subtle change in this kind of movie because it wasn’t specifically about women seeking husbands. It was about a young woman seeking her fortune in the big city, and what happened to her and to other women she knew. Of course they were looking for true love, but they weren’t looking to marry rich. These women did not have an easy time of it. Men put them down and betrayed them, both personally and professionally. It made them crazy, or it made them victims. Other women (Joan Crawford), themselves betrayed, were bitter and hateful to them. Bad things happened before the narrator main character (Hope Lange) managed to reach equilibrium and a presumed happy ending with yummy Stephen Boyd. The book doesn’t give this character a romantic happy ending, though.
Flash forward to 1995 when Waiting to Exhale, the bestselling book by Terry McMillan, was made into a glossy movie. In it, a group of women who are friends have difficulties achieving satisfying personal relationships with men, while easily succeeding in their careers. I confess that I found much of “Waiting to Exhale” confusing, because I hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie. I did not entirely understand who all the main characters were or what they were to each other. The betrayed wife was easy to recognize and empathize with, as was the single mom beauty salon owner. But the other two women didn’t seem all that different from each other; they both were being victimized by lying boyfriends until finally dumping the jerks. Much of the movie focuses on depressing aspects of romantic relationships: Husbands who abandon wives for newer models, lonely women who try too hard, cheating boyfriends who lie to wives and girlfriends, and revenge.
But what did “Waiting to Exhale” have that “The Best of Everything” and the many others of its ilk in the past didn’t? There is the wonderful, extended girlfriends scene, which is worth the whole movie. This scene celebrates friendship between women, and it’s just great. It’s nice to see such very different women together as friends. There’s a healing quality to friendships that are accepting of differences and of follies. These women are not judging each other, and they are not rivals. They aren’t in the same room just to borrow each other’s clothes and get ready for dates with men, the way the women in earlier movies were. They are present for each other, spending time with each other, enjoying time with each other. In this respect, “Waiting to Exhale” was revolutionary. The bottom line is the very positive message that it’s bearable to make mistakes and to suffer bad things in search of true love if you have good girlfriends to sustain you.
“The Best of Everything,” both the book and the movie, leaves one with a much more negative message, that young women have to weather a difficult learning experience—that most men can’t be trusted—all alone. The main characters have gotten through the confusions of early adulthood, but not with illusions intact. I prefer the more positive message of “Waiting to Exhale,” even though the story starts with illusions being shattered and continues that way. By the end, Bernadine (the always stunning Angela Bassett) wins her fair share of the family assets in court and finds some romantic hope for her future. And Gloria (Loretta Devine) gets Marvin, the solid, dependable man played by Gregory Hines. The most put-upon of the women, Robin (played by Lela Rochon), tells off her unapologetically unfaithful lover and sends him away. Plus, Whitney Houston as Savannah finally sees through her own lying lover and refuses to let him play her anymore. In neither movie do all of the women end up marrying and living happily ever after. But they do improve their understanding of who they are and what they need from men. And all along, these women have each other.
Maybe today’s movies are more realistic, and sometimes more depressing. But they also celebrate female unity in a way the old movies did not. Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, published in 1996, was a rather muddled book and it was turned into almost as confusing a movie in 2002, which probably explains why it was not a blockbuster hit. The strongest, most appealing element was the sisterhood of the women through many years and many tears. This story isn’t about marrying well, or marrying money. More and more today, we’re seeing stories about the true bonds women form with each other, and how those bonds sustain them through life’s vicissitudes. Unfortunately, the frequent problem in women’s lives is their romantic relationships with men. But with good girlfriends, we can survive.