Women, The: Diane English's Rermake of George Cukor's 1939 Classic

It all began in 1994, when Diane English, the award-winning creator-writer-producer of the landmark sitcom “Murphy Brown,” read an article in Variety about a potential remake of THE WOMEN, the classic 1939 comedy directed by George Cukor at MGM.

Based on the hit 1936 play by Clare Booth Luce, the film told the story of a wronged society wife and her circle of friends. It boasted an all-female cast of stars, including Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell,
Paulette Goddard and Joan Fontaine.

No Man in Sight

The article piqued her interest and got her thinking. “I remembered the old movie and how exciting it was to see all those great actresses up on the screen together. And how fun it was that there was not a man in sight,” English remarks. “But I also remembered that the movie had very old-fashioned ideas that were in great need of updating.”

The film and play were very much products of their era, when women were expected to pursue marriage first and foremost. More specifically, the original works focused on a particular milieu, Manhattan high society, which Luce first skewered as a writer-editor at the magazine Vanity Fair.

Luce, who married powerful Time magazine publisher Henry Luce in 1935, had a field day with Gothams leisure set with “The Women,” her second play. The films screenplay, by Anita Loos (who wrote the novel “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes”) and Jane Murfin, maintained Luce's acerbic perspective.

Poison Pen

“The original play and film were written as a poison pen letter to shallow society women who would stab each other in the back over a man,” says English. “It was catty and incredibly fast paced and had a real rapier wit. I had to figure out a way to shift the focus. I wanted to celebrate women, but still try to preserve the hallmarks of the original, which included the biting wit.”

Broadening the Circle

English's strategy was to keep the underlying story, about Mary Haines, a happily married woman who discovers her husband is having an affair with a salesgirl named Crystal Allen. But she broadened the spectrum of women who comprise Mary's circle of friends and family, creating characters of different backgrounds, generations, professions, marital status and sexual orientation.

Mary and Edie

Mary herself is a very recognizable contemporary woman. Bright and accomplished but also overextended, with a part-time career in fashion, a prominent role in charity committees, and a strong inclination to try to please everyone.

Edith Potter, a mother of six who pretends to dislike gossip, became Edie Cohen, a nurturing, artistically inclined mother of four.

Sexy Lesbian

The original film's sole bachelorette, the sardonic plain-Jane writer Nancy Blake became Alex Fisher, an acclaimed humor essayist and sexy lesbian playgirl.

Who could play Rosalind Russell

Perhaps most critically, English re-invented the character of Sylvia Fowler, Mary Haines' best friend. As portrayed by Rosalind Russell in the Cukor film, Sylvia was a catty society wife with a penchant for collecting and spreading gossip. English transformed Sylvia into Sylvie Fowler, a happily single top magazine editor who has been Mary's devoted best friend since college. In the original, Sylvia gleefully stirs the pot of Mary's troubles. In English's telling, Sylvie's betrayal of Mary's privacy is part of a Faustian bargain she makes reluctantly and regrets profoundly.

Love Story Between Straight Women

In describing her approach, English explains, “I wanted to turn the film into a love story between two straight women. The original is all about whether Mary Haines will reconcile with
her husband, who betrayed her trust. In my version, I want the audience to care more about whether Mary Haines will reconcile with her best friend Sylvie Fowler, who also betrayed her trust.”

Original Aspects

But there was one original aspect of the film and play that English wouldn't touch: there would not be a single man onscreen. That became a stumbling block as English sought to bring her script to the screen. Says English, “It was difficult to get this film made because it's an all-female cast and today movies don't really serve the female audience. The movie business
caters to young men who have demonstrated their willingness to go to the movies in large numbers, often seeing a film over and over.

Once in a while there's a SEX AND THE CITY and everyone sits up in shock and says, 'Wow, women actually will go to the theatres in large numbers!' And then they forget very quickly and we have to start all over again. So it became a personal mission of mine to try to change that way of thinking. The more people who told me to walk away, the more determined I became.”

That determination finally paid off in 2003, when English hosted an all-girl get-together, a viewing party for the television series “Sex and the City,” as it happens, at her home in Martha's Vineyard. One of the guests was producer Victoria Pearman, who came with a mutual

Pearman was a fan of English's work, and knew that she had written an updated version of THE WOMEN, which had yet to make it into production. “It was such a good project and I couldn't understand why it had stalled,” the producer recalls. At Pearman's request, English gave her a copy of the script.

“I read it and fell in love with it,” reports Pearman. “I asked Diane, 'Is there anything I can do to help' And she said, 'Well, what are your ideas' I told her a couple of ideas about financing, what I would've done. She said, 'Well, would you do it' And I said, 'Sure,' just as a girlfriend. And then she says, 'No, no, I mean, officially. Would you come on board as a producer'”

Mick Jagger Excited

Pearman and Mick Jagger formed Jagged Films several years earlier and made the Rolling Stones-Scorsese film SHINE A LIGHT for Paramount in the same year as THE WOMEN. “Mick was incredibly enthusiastic about THE WOMEN,” says Pearman, “and completely got behind the project.”

With Jagger's blessing, Pearman took the script to financiers and international sales company, Inferno who were equally enthralled and the partners, Bill Johnson and Jim Seibel, came on as producer and executive producer, respectively.

Bob Berney

“That summer,” says Pearman, “I was at my home in Martha's Vineyard, and I shamelessly pitched the project to Bob Berney of Picturehouse who was visiting the island for a mutual friend's birthday party. He loved the idea.” After meeting with Diane English back in Los Angeles, Berney agreed to distribute the film.

“It was very serendipitous,” added Pearman, “as New Line was then the parent company of Picturehouse, so it made perfect sense and we were able to keep the film in the Time Warner family. We had the blessing of Bob Shaye and Michael Lynne, the founders of New Line. Carolyn Blackwood at New Line was instrumental in getting the project up and running with so many complicated elements and multiple partners. We could not have done all this without her and the complete support of Jeff Berg and Hal Sadoff at ICM, who were instrumental in making an unprecedented deal with Dove to be co-financiers of the film, promoting their “Campaign for Real Beauty”.