“Hollywood is the dream factory, and no one dreams about older women. It’s a youth-and-beauty-obsessed place that sells a certain image.” — Amy Heckerling
When was the last time you saw a film, in the theater with an audience, packed with positive feminist messages on ageism, race, class, sexism, single motherhood, and women in the workplace? It doesn’t generally happen, at least all at once, right?
Now, when was the last time you heard of a female writer-director getting a crack at conceiving and then realizing a project like this? Rarely. Especially when they haven’t had a hit film since 1995.
Before you get too excited, you should know that while Amy Heckerling (of Clueless fame) did, miraculously, get the chance to at least make this daringly subtle, satirical critique of the entertainment industry (and what it is like for a woman working within its constraints) called I Could Never Be Your Woman, the film never got a chance to find a mainstream audience.
In fact, it seemed like the project was actually taken out of the Heckerling’s hands by production company Bauer-Martinez Entertainment, as the director, in true sandwich-generation style, cared for her ailing parents: post-production coincided with the illness of both her parents, whom she was nursing through heart ailments and chemotherapy. Entertainment Weekly called the film “a subcultural curio; a bizarre saga in which salaries were slashed, deals disintegrated, and millions in potential revenue were lost.” I Could Never Be Your Woman, despite many close calls, was not released theatrically, but was given a death sentence that sent it directly to video.
When was the last time a film starring Michelle Pfeiffer went straight to DVD? That’s right, never.
I Could Never Be Your Woman, despite its relevant, interesting, and smart dissection of the place of women over 40 in film, pop culture, and the workplace, was given a metaphorical slap in the face in what felt like an outright attack on a decidedly feminist endeavor.
So feminist, in fact, that the first character we meet as the film opens is the disgruntled Mother Nature herself (played by Tracey Ullman). A constant, annoying presence, she explains, directly to the audience in her monologues, that this will be a film about how a “self-centered generation came along – the Baby Boomers.” She is angry that this group upset the balance of nature by challenging the natural order when Vietnam hit.
As she explains, in a most curmudgeonly manor, men were supposed to go to war and women were supposed to have babies. Of course, with the prominence of both anti-war activism and Second Wave Feminism, women of this time period began to nurture careers rather than families, more than ever. Money, Mother Nature reasons, has ruined the Baby Boomers. They’ve become obsessed with possessions and youth.
As her opening tirade winds down to a dull roar, Mother Nature begins to narrate the story of Rosie (Pfeiffer), as an opening credit montage shows the aforementioned Boomers getting Botox injections, facelifts, hair plugs, liposuction, and chemical peels; and loving every second of the self-mutilation. In a culture already focused on eternal youth and unattainable beauty, where Americans spend literally billions of dollars annually on creams, lotions, sprays, and scents, it seems that Mother Nature propagates these unreal standards. “Here’s a pal of mine in her 40s, trying to moisturize her way back to 30,” she snickers. “But unfortunately, her husband found himself a new wife in her 20s.”
Rosie’s ex-husband Nathan, and the father of her young teenage daughter Izzie (13-year-old Irish Oscar nominee Saoirse Ronan), is played by Jon Lovitz (formerly of Saturday Night Live), showing the audience that even a balding, out of shape, wrinkly middle-aged man can hope to be married to someone as intelligent and beautiful as Pfeiffer’s Rosie, who prefers hanging out with her kid to dating.
Mother and daughter play Barbies together, which seems to be more fun for Rosie than for Izzie, who becomes bored when her mother’s dolls become friendly with one another, rather than bitchy. Izzie calls one of the doll outfits “ghetto”, which Rosie immediately tries to diffuse by saying that slang like that mocks the underprivileged. “I didn’t make it up,” retorts her exasperated daughter.
To be fair, Rosie is much guiltier of cultural appropriation, exoticizing, and romanticizing than her daughter is: she is the head writer and producer on You Go Girl! , a wincingly “hip” television show centered on urban teens, and she is constantly searching for new slang and vernacular to pepper her scripts with. She seems to be just one slight step behind in tracking all of the “cool” phrases used by the kids, which makes the dialogue on the show feel a little old, like it was written by a rich, older white woman. Played by “actors” in the 30s, the show’s cast of teens is actually comprised of ne’er do wells, “It Girl” divas prone to temper tantrums, and married men with families – yet, it has become a pop culture trash ratings success, thanks to the hard work of Rosie, who seems to be constantly working, but is always allowed to attend to Izzie.
Luckily, Rosie has the freedom and the funds to make sure she can spend this quality time with Izzie, who is discovering boys, the social hierarchies of adolescent girls in school, and also coming to grips with her own changing body. When Rosie picks her daughter up from school, early in the film, the girl informs her that her first period has finally come. Her eyes brimming with tears of joy, Rosie embraces the young woman at this major turning point in her life. “You’re a woman now,” she says, to which Izzie fires back “let the games begin!”
This is a kind of scene that doesn’t ordinarily happen in film: a frank, candid, and not uncomfortable discussion of a girl’s first menstruation. Until I Could Never Be Your Woman, I had never seen a mature, extended exploration of this topic in a film that involved a mother and daughter going through this important event together with a sense of humor and no sense of shame or weirdness. The understated frankness that the director chooses to employ with this theme (that continues throughout the film), is a brilliant first.
It can be surmised that both Heckerling and Pfeiffer were drawing on their personal experiences with their own real-life teenage daughters, to bring a distinct humanness and empathy to the table—Pfeiffer’s adopted daughter Claudia is 15, while Heckerling’s Mollie is now 21. As Rosie sheepishly offers her daughter the hilariously dated menstruation instruction manual she was given in the sixth grade, Izzie is more keen on knowing “when can I have sex?”, much to her mother’s very comical shock (“when you get your Master’s” is the response, by the way).
Izzie is a whip-smart critic and watcher of pop culture too, just like Rosie, and no doubt she is influenced by her affluent mother’s connection to the entertainment world. She openly mocks Britney Spears for lacking real talent, becomes proficient in video games to gain a boy’s attention, and makes prank phone calls to Henry Winkler (aka “The Fonz” from Happy Days).
Izzie is a character who is in flux. She is a media literate child trying to navigate adult behaviors through very specific lenses of pop culture saturation and privilege with developed, sophisticated skills she uses to “read” the media texts she is inundated by. Adolescent female characters are rarely treated with this kind of attention to detail, and rarely enjoy such dynamic character arcs. For that, the performer and the filmmaker should be commended.
Trying to be a very responsible parent, Rosie is constantly trying to send the “right” feminist messages to her growing daughter. She wants to tell her the truth, but also doesn’t want her to grow up too fast. Her sincere dedication to doing the right thing extends into her career, but not really in a good way. As she grapples with trying to tackle relevant social issues on You Go Girl!, she learns that the show’s ratings have plummeted as a direct result of her liberal, activist attitudes.
“No more issues,” roars her network boss Marty (played with hilarious ineptitude by Fred Willard). “No drugs, no teen pregnancies, no homosexuals, no homo stuff. Except perhaps the occasional lesbian kiss.” If you hadn’t already guessed, this executive is an old, rich white man with a bad toupee. “No eating disorders, no racial strife,” he moans. His primary goal is to make sure the show’s corporate sponsor, a cell phone company, is given plenty of air time. This attention to a superfluous detail can definitely be read as Heckerling, who produced 61 episodes of the television series Clueless, criticizing the priorities of the corporate bosses who run networks, and how out of touch they are with their subjects.
He relies on a consulting firm to gauge and bring the “hottest” new teen trends to the network, and insists to his writers that the next big storyline will be about a nerd getting a makeover, much to Rosie’s consternation. At a casting session, she meets Adam (Paul Rudd), the single promising actor in a laborious day of casting. Rosie’s interests, professional and sexual, are immediately piqued.
“Don’t even think about it,” cracks Mother Nature. In a startling contrast to what is usually seen onscreen (old men acting as overly-critical Svengalis towards young ingénues), Heckerling chooses to show a sequence where Rosie guides Adam through his hair, costume and make-up tests for the show. He is subjected to bad lighting and terrible, inappropriate clothing, in addition to out-and-out scrutiny of his appearance, as they search for the right look for his character. The two are obviously attracted to one another from the get-go, and taciturnly embark on a romantic flirtation. Rosie and Adam both lie about their ages, as well: she chooses a younger 37, while he pretends to be an “older” 31.
“All right, so he’s a little younger,” says Rosie, in response to Mother Nature’s warnings. “It would be fine if I was a man.” Pfeiffer’s next two films will (coincidentally or not?) be about an older woman’s sexual, romantic experiences with a younger man: in a period adaptation of Collette’s Cheri she will play an aging courtesan who teaches a young man about carnal pleasures, while in Personal Effects she is the love interest of Ashton Kutcher. Playing three characters in a row that dispel the myths of ageism in sexual relationships is an unprecedented move for any actress, and in doing these films, Pfeiffer seems to challenge the popular misconceptions about what is expected of women her age (she will be 50 this year) in the movies.
Rosie soon realizes that she might be a bit out of her element when Adam takes her out to a club to see a friend’s band. “Why did that cute guy bring his mom?” says one club-goer in a hysterical, nightmarish sequence in which a paranoid Rosie imagines everyone there making fun of her for being old. “I’m not really 37. I’m 38,” she says, lying again about her age once again when it hits her how disparate their preferred social act ivies might actually be, because of their age differences. When they start to make out in his car, Rosie comically blurts out “I’m 40!” Adam reveals that he is actually 29. “What happened to 30?” Rosie asks. “You’re not even in your thirties?!” To which he responds “Well, neither are you.”
Her confidence buoyed by her new romantic prospects and You Go Girl!’s ratings spike, there is a glow on Rosie face, and her comportment is assured. One network secretary takes notice. “You’ve had something done,” she says. Rosie insists she has not, which the secretary doesn’t buy, whatsoever, rolling her eyes as though it is impossible for a woman of Pfeiffer’s age to look as good as she does. Rosie’s personal assistant, a 20-something, perfect blonde, hates her boss. She cattily tells people calling her office that Rosie is out “getting emergency Botox.” The question of whether or not Pfeiffer has gone under the knife in real life has never been addressed, but has been widely speculated about.
Despite her obvious good looks, her wit, and her charm, Rosie must still fend off girls half her age from Adam (just as Pfeiffer, in real life, must vie for plum roles with actresses half her age). Her jealousies and insecurities all begin to come out. Despite such obstacles as their obvious age difference, the disparity between their social and economic positions, and the huge white elephant in the room – the fact she is his boss (a power dynamic that is not usually seen in typical Hollywood fare such as this), Adam and Rosie’s relationship begins to flower. Mother Nature warns that she better keep on subsisting on the rice cakes she has been living on and remain rail-thin in order to survive in her youth-oriented business and to keep her younger man.
Food and thinness are two other issues that are threaded skillfully into the plot by Heckerling. When Izzie struggles with math throughout the film, and cannot figure out an equation, Rosie uses a food/calorie ratio analogy and the young woman immediately understands. This is an incisive comment on how children can pick up on their parents’ food issues, and shows that young women are definitely plagued by body image issues and how many American girls think of their bodies as their “primary project”.
Izzie is also frustrated by her teacher’s insistence that she do math “the right way”. Her subsequent distaste for math is an astute critique of the interference and prejudice girls are shown in the classroom when it comes to math and science.
Just as girls are discriminated against in the classroom, mature women are discriminated against in the workplace. In Rosie’s business, though, the scrutiny of a woman as she ages can be horrendously brutal. Female pop culture figures are expected to look young and be sexy, no matter what their age is. Often this sort of vile appearance-based mind-fucking extends into the women in roles behind the camera as well, as the film illustrates. Ordinary women are not “allowed” to work in this universe, only super-humanly gorgeous, youthful, genius-level smart women need apply.
In a scene that plays for laughs, Rosie waits to talk to executives about her show’s fate, and overhears two men discussing the female casting of an upcoming project:
“Sharon Stone?” says one.
“Hag!” replies the other.
“Too much plastic surgery”
“Way too much plastic surgery”
“Pointless plastic surgery”
“Insurmountable plastic surgery.”
“You’re not worthy to kiss Cher’s tattooed ass!” screams Rosie. She fights back against these scrutinizing assessments and one can only imagine the innate glee felt by Pfeiffer for being allowed the freedom to criticize men talking about actresses’ cosmetic surgery – a topic that is so taboo that most actresses will not even act in a scene where it is mentioned, let alone directly address something they have been personally dogged by.
She goes on to ask the men how many Oscars they have won, or how many hit singles they have had. Because the opinion of outspoken women in power is rarely taken seriously by men, and is, in fact, most of the time considered dangerous, it isn’t really a huge surprise that Rosie’s show is cancelled and she is fired; she is the sacrificial scapegoat on which all of the negative aspects of You Go Girl!’s production are placed upon. Never mind the bad acting or the bumbling network men, it is the smart, funny, beautiful, engaging producer who is trying to make a difference that is canned. If Michelle Pfeiffer doesn’t stand a chance in this cutthroat world, than none of us mere mortals do, to be sure.
In creating this character, Pfeiffer should be commended for continuing her commitment to portraying a modern, intelligent woman coping with problems that are universal. In a quick scan of the actresses’ filmography, it is clear that she is committed to playing roles in films where women’s issues are at the forefront, and where other women are key players in roles both in front of and behind the camera.
Pfeiffer’s track record of working on films with other women is one of the most admirable in Hollywood. Her most recent projects have all reflected a decided feminist sensibility: 2007’s bombastic musical remake of Hairspray, which I did not personally like (at all), but can’t find fault with because of the positive messages about racial, gender, and size acceptance. In 2002’s White Oleander Pfeiffer played a mother in prison for murder whose daughter is put into foster care, and the film is narrated from an adolescent girl’s perspective with multiple female roles. Both were excellent feminist precursors to her work in Heckerling’s film.
Going back more than 20 years to 1987, one of Pfeiffer’s first major feminism-tinged collaborations was The Witches of Eastwick (which co-starred Susan Sarandon and the above-mentioned Cher, with whom Pfeiffer has had a long-standing personal friendship). In her career she has played: a woman in an interracial relationship in the ‘60s (1992’s Love Field), a bitter breast cancer and incest survivor coming to grips with her past (opposite Jessica Lange in a 1997 adaptation of Jane Smiley’s novel A Thousand Acres, directed by Jocelyn Moorehouse), a former Marine who finds a new life teaching poetry to students in a tough, gang-riddled NYC neighborhood (1995’s Dangerous Minds), a lawyer defending a developmentally-disabled man’s right to raise his daughter (2002’s I am Sam), and a lonely, good-hearted waitress (1991’s Frankie and Johnny). Let’s not forget she was also the iconic, latex-attired, fetishistic Catwoman (1992’s Batman Returns), and was awarded an Oscar nomination in 1989 for slinking across the top of a piano in a red dress in The Fabulous Baker Boys.
The actress challenges the stereotypes of what we expect a woman in her mid-to-late 40s to look and act like in both her personal and professional life, with an important emphasis placed on dispelling the myths that youth and sexuality are the mutually-exclusive norm, and that older women are only sexless and/or maternal. For a star to continually make films promoting successful aging”, and with such good politics is an anomaly. I think Pfeiffer’s is an example less responsible performers and filmmakers (as well as the public) should be paying more attention to. Her dedication to these issues is apparent when delving into her resume.
So, with a track record of striking originality and a bent towards showing such a diverse range of womanhood and women’s experiences onscreen, the fact that Pfeiffer and Heckerling’s film was not properly marketed or released like any other film of its genre or caliber would have been, shows that someone was likely put off by the content, even though I Could Never Be Your Woman is the lone feminist antidote in a sea of venomous, misogynist, adolescent male comedies that people turn out for en masse.
Mother Nature thinks a twilight of settling down and “acting her age” is the ultimate goal Rosie should be concerned with in what’s left of her life. “What’s that supposed to mean?” cries Rosie. “Easy listening and orthopedic shoes? I want to stay passionate, I want to scream at rock concerts, and get angry at the news. And I want to wear mini-skirts.”
It’s hard to tell where Rosie ends and Pfeiffer begins, at this point, but at least it is an exciting opportunity for the performer to defy Mother Nature, the laws of aging, and conventional standards of beauty and preconceptions about women her age in the entertainment business. It will be equally exciting to see what other kinds of women’s stories Pfeiffer will choose as she continues to age. Hopefully, we will all be able to see her upcoming films, as Pfeiffer continues her life’s work of subtly critiquing the patriarchal systems of filmmaking, the male gaze, and pop culture’s insistence on putting women over 40 in a box, on the big screen, in front of a large audience, where they, and Pfeiffer, belong.
Its high time this actress, who has become increasingly reclusive over the last few years, preferring to stay home and raise her family, was given proper credit as one of the film industry’s leading postmodern feminist pioneers. Pfeiffer and Heckerling deserve much more respect than being cast off straight to DVD, especially when I Could Never Be Your Woman functions as a testament to the celebration of contemporary women’s issues and also to female artists’ collaborations that are all but invisible in theaters.