How secure am I in my masculinity? I went to see "The Women" last weekend, and I was the only man in the theater. There weren't even any men on the screen!

What's more, I watched the 1939 black-and-white original the night before. No men in that one either.

Of course, I was prepared. I raised four daughters. I've had female bosses. I once ate quiche.

"The Women" began as a play by the very witty Clare Boothe Luce, and it ran for 666 performances — as proudly touted in the opening credits of the '39 film (screenplay by Anita Loos and Jane Murfin; uncredited assistance from F. Scott Fitzgerald).

True, it's dated. Hey, it's been nearly 70 years! That six-minute Technicolor fashion-show sequence is boooring, and you'll cringe at the final shot as Norma Shearer, with arms outstretched, runs toward the camera to take back her wayward husband.

But when the film is hot — which is most of the time — it's really hot. More than plot, this one is about the characters, with a dozen great actresses playing wonderfully defined, very specific women.

And every one gets to deliver more than her fair share of zippy one-liners. Even such minor, one-scene characters as an exercise trainer and a perfume-counter employee.

Of the primary cast, Shearer is completely winning in the lead; Joan Crawford is wonderfully catty as the other woman; and Rosalind Russell, talking a mile a minute, steals every scene she's in as Shearer's best friend. It's her penchant for gossip that gets the plot rolling when she informs everyone — except Shearer — that Shearer's husband is having an affair.

But Paulette Goddard, Joan Fontaine, Mary Boland and Marjorie Main are also in top form — all playing smart women who verbally duel with delicious repartee.

So I was genuinely curious to see what a 21st century version of "The Women" would be like, especially because it comes from Diane English — most famous for "Murphy Brown."

In a word: disappointing.

Meg Ryan has the lead, Annette Bening is the best friend and Eva Mendes plays the other woman. Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith co-star, though the biggest laughs come from the perfect delivery of one-liner veterans Candice Bergen and Cloris Leachman.

Some of the original dialogue survives — although, as you might expect, there is now greater emphasis on sex and plastic surgery. And though Shearer's relationship with her young daughter was an integral part of the first film, not so much this time around. Also, an important plot point in the first film comes when Russell finds that her own husband has cheated; in the new film, Bening isn't married.

Still, the plot remains pretty much intact, with Ryan kicking out her cheating husband and later being outraged when pal Bening betrays her. But unlike the first film, the husband doesn't marry the other woman, and Ryan and Bening patch things up.

The original also spends a lot of time on the friendships between the various women, as we learn through their interactions who can be trusted and who can't, who's a real friend and who's not.

But in the new film, it's mostly offered in speeches — including what seems to be the film's message: that husbands may come and husbands may go, but girlfriends are forever.

Well, maybe in Hollywood.


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