Revenge of the Hollywood wives

A film about first wives' revenge after being dumped is big box- office in the US. David Usborne reports
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Memo (urgent) to Lady Diana: An absolute must-do in Washington before you go home tonight - go see First Wives Club. It's awfully silly, but it's also a scream. I just know you'll love it (and, my dear, there isn't an ex-wife left in Manhattan who hasn't already seen it). Maybe the First Wife/Lady (!) can arrange for a screening in the White House? Enjoy. A friend.

The Princess of Wales may not actually have gone to this film during her two-day visit to Washington this week, but she cannot possibly have escaped hearing about it. (Although it is doubtful anyone will have dared relate in her presence one of the best jokes in it, which uses the b-word, bulimia.) It is the revenge-comedy that every ex-trophy-wife, from Beverly Hills to Park Avenue, New York, has been waiting for.

Starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, as a trio of marital discardees, the movie has already attained that elusive quality that Hollywood studios usually only dream of - a social "phenomenon" that is attracting serious analysis, even portentous commentaries in the weeklies, as well as mega-takings at the box-office.

The film begins with our hapless, forty-to-fiftysomething gals rediscovering an old school-age friendship while attending the funeral of another old friend who has jumped from a window after the break-up of her marriage.

Instantly, they recognise the new bond that ties them all together. All have given their best years and energies to highly successful and socially visible husbands who now unceremoniously ditch them in favour of younger, more firm-bodied, models. Equally obvious, to cast and audience alike, is where the plot must thereafter take them - to revenge on these ungrateful jerks. So, hold on to your crotches, guys, it's pay-back time, these girls aren't fooling.

The recklessly illogical nature of the various stratagems and the self- righteous gooeyness of the film's culmination (the women, having humiliated their exes, set up a self-help clinic for scorned wives) has ensured that critical reaction has been lukewarm at best. But such is the attractiveness of the stars, the momentum of the movie is hard to resist. Moreover, it is packed with bitter and often hilarious one-liners that any insecure wife might care to write down for possible future use.

It is Midler, playing a Jewish-Italian housewife, who, on sighting the new bimbette acquired by Morty (her electrical-appliance king of an ex- husband), declares: "Well, the bulimia certainly paid off." And she has this priceless exchange: "Where's your little girlfriend Morty?" "She's waiting in the car." "Where - in the glove compartment?"

But what gives the film its credentials with the commentators, at least, is the close-to-the-bone verisimilitude of so much of its content. There is the failed film-actress character played by Ms Hawn who concludes that women like her will be doomed unless they can hold on to their youth and beauty beyond the age of 40. Hence her obsession with the plastic surgeon.

Ms Hawn's character has undergone so many collagen lip injections she has wound up with a mouth that makes Miss Piggy's look positively dainty. "I want Tina Turner," she wails to her implant-meister. "I want Mick Jagger! I want young! Science-fiction young!" The evocation, verbally and literally, of several living stars also helps takes us into the realms of reality. Ivana Trump, first wife of Donald, makes a cameo appearance, declaring: "Don't get even. Get everything!"

And there are lines like this from Midler to Hawn about her collagen prowess: "Thanks to Cher's pioneering efforts, you still haven't hit puberty!"

The observant movie-goer may also enjoy the real-life coincidence of Clint Eastwood having the tables dramatically turned on him by an ex- lover in California this week. Mr Eastwood is the living proof of the observation made in the movie by Ms Hawn that men can get away with being considered sexy until well into their dotage.

"There are only three ages for women in Hollywood," Ms Hawn notes. "Babe, district attorney and Driving Miss Daisy." Comparing that not to Eastwood but to Sean Connery, she adds: "He's 300 years old, and he's still a stud."

Mr Eastwood reportedly agreed on Tuesday to pay millions of dollars out of court to pre-empt a jury verdict in a fraud suit brought against him by Sondra Locke. She claimed that she was tricked out of a palimony settlement from the actor, with whom she had lived for 11 years before being dumped, with promises of a film-directing deal with Warner Brothers. Nothing came of the agreement which, according to Ms Locke, Mr Eastwood had sabotaged.

Offering her own pseudo- serious babble on the film, Margaret Carlson, a columnist for Time magazine, suggests the fiction is important because it represents a reaction to the trophy-spouse ethos of the Eighties when dumping ex-wives not only escaped criticism but was even lauded. "At the very least, it works as an antidote to the Zeitgeist of the 1980s, when middle-aged tycoons and their acolytes could suddenly drop an inconvenient wife without social opprobrium," she writes.

Ms Hawn herself has admitted that the movie, while primarily a comedy, has aroused more heart-felt reactions, not least amongst America's very large community of ditched spouses. "Women grow older, men want someone younger; it's an age-old issue," she said. "We tried to be funny - revenge is fun in a comedy - but I think we have hit a nerve, too."

So far, the audiences at the film have been overwhelmingly female. Men, it appears, are not especially attracted to this blockbuster. And husbands who have themselves at some point traded old wives for sleeker, racier versions, are likely to be particularly reluctant viewers for this entertainment.

The Prince of Wales, who recently has been seen once more in the company of Camilla Parker Bowles, may not precisely fit into this explored category. Even so, perhaps this memo should be forwarded to His Royal Highness: Skip this one.