The Archivist XLVII: The First Wives Get Serious

 

The Archivist
Welcome to the Archive. Following the infamous “Format Wars” (R.I.P. VHS), a multitude of films found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their admittedly niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Disc On Demand & Streaming service devoted to some of the more idiosyncratic pieces of cinema ever made. Being big fans of the label, we here at Cinapse thought it prudent to establish a column devoted to these unusual gems. Thus “The Archivist” was born — a biweekly look at some of the best, boldest and most batshit motion pictures the Shield has to offer. Some of these will be recent additions to the collection, while others will be titles that have been available for awhile. With over 1,500 pictures procurable on Warner Archive (and more being added every month), there’s no possible way we’ll get to all of them. But trust me when we say we’re sure going to try.

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the now-classic girl power comedy The First Wives Club. Originally thought of as something of a throwaway comedy featuring three actresses in their early 50s, the film became a surprise hit with both critics and audiences when released in September of 1996. The First Wives Club reignited the careers of its leading ladies (proving their long-lasting popularity hadn’t missed a beat) and quickly became a comedy staple, not to mention a go-to beacon of hope for many women.

In honor of the film turning 20, this edition of The Archivist takes a look at a pair of earlier titles from two of the movie’s stars, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton. While both films are a far cry from the kind of comedy the two will forever be known for, they signify the kinds of roles most actresses would give their right arm to play, as the parts within them contain the same kind of courage and complexity which even their First Wives characters would have applauded.

Swing Shift

Hawn produced and starred in this Jonathan Demme-directed period piece about a Southern California housewife named Kay (Hawn) who says goodbye to her husband Jack (Ed Harris) when goes off to fight in the middle of WWII. Feeling lonely and aimless during his absence, Kay goes to work in an aviation plant where she befriends the tough-as-nails Hazel (Christine Lahti) and fights off an attraction to her boss Lucky (Kurt Russell). When the attraction develops into something stronger, however, Kay finds herself at the biggest emotional crossroads of her life.

From the start, Swing Shift loads on the Americana factor in the most breathtakingly relentless manner. Very rarely has a film been this in love with the era in which it’s set. However, what seems like a frothy melodrama at first very quickly becomes so much more. Shots of rollerskating on the boardwalk and concerned reactions over news radio reports abound in Swing Shift before the film eventually reveals itself to be an interesting character study. Every ounce of the movie’s substance comes courtesy of its characters, all of whom are as complex as they come, with plenty of conflicting traits in which everyone is led by love, passion, guilt, and regret. Kay, Lucky, Hazel, and Jack are all shining archetypes of the kinds of people the era created, yet there’s nothing remotely cardboard about them nor their fears and desires. Such rich characters could only bring out the best from the actors on hand, and this is certainly true here, with the entire cast (in particular Hawn, who brings out Kay’s tormented heart beautifully) at the top of their game. Stories of behind-the-scenes conflicts over the film’s tone and overall vision have become legendary, but ultimately Swing Shift remains a sincerely thoughtful take on how war has the ability to change everyone.

The Little Drummer Girl

Keaton stars in The Little Drummer Girl, an oft-forgotten adaptation of one of John Le Carre’s boldest novels. Charlie (Keaton) is an American actress living in London who finds herself passionately taken with the plight of the Palestinians against the Israeli government. When she is recruited by the latter to help trap a Palestinian bomber by pretending to be his dead brother’s girlfriend, she’s immediately hesitant. However, she soon agrees after finding herself falling madly in love with Israeli officer Joseph (Yorgo Voyagis).

Not long after Keaton’s breakout in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, critics quickly dubbed her the next Katharine Hepburn because of the actress’s magnetic on-screen presence and her ability to take on roles which went against most female stereotypes. The Little Drummer Girl is the quintessential Keaton film in this regard. Watching her inhabit Charlie, a woman who has a passion for the creative but is also deeply socially aware, is a reminder of Keaton’s many strengths as an actress. She rides with Charlie through moments of winning charm, tense unease and highly-charged emotional conflict. In Keaton’s hands, Charlie becomes one of the actress’s greatest heroines as she ensures that every move her character makes is understood and felt. It would be easy to see The Little Drummer Girl as simply a vehicle for its lead actress. However George Roy Hill firmly squashes this notion by paying as much care and attention to the political tug-of-war at the story’s center as much as he does the various well-shot close-ups of Keaton. The Little Drummer Girl often gets lost in both the roster of Le Carre movie adaptations and Keaton’s own filmography. Yet it remains a powerful film thanks to it’s involving story and the stunning work of its always-compelling actress.

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the author

Frank Calvillo lives in Austin, TX and has been in love with movies ever since his father showed him some Three Stooges shorts when he was five years old. Today he loves all kinds of film, regardless of era, country, budget or genre. He believes every film has an audience and is at least one person's favorite movie. His ultimate goal is to write a script for his boyhood crush, Michelle Pfeiffer. Twitter: @frankfilmgeek