Girls, Meet Gotham
Women Making Their Way in the City: It's A Date With Destiny That Hollywood Loves to Set Up

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 1, 2008

The scene: Manhattan, where in a corner cafe a group of chic young women finish a lunch spent talking about their lives: their choices, their men, their dissatisfactions. The tone is jaunty, frank, but it plays out in a minor key, shot through with an undercurrent of longing and nagging self-doubt. As they compare their disparate paths, an unmistakable subtext emerges: No matter where life takes them, no matter how they choose to define themselves in this city of endless possibility, their friendship -- a source of consolation and solidarity despite different temperaments and lifestyles -- will survive.

It's not what you think. That sequence appears in "Three on a Match," an urban melodrama starring Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak that, when it opened in 1932, was just the latest iteration of one of Hollywood's most successful genres: the three-girls-in-the-city movie. The theme, a cinematic staple since the 1920s, has been an unusually enduring and lucrative one, exploiting each succeeding era's anxieties surrounding women's changing roles and helping define those eras' new ideas of modern life. In them, audiences can watch women negotiate and sometimes subvert the forces that limn and limit their choices. And each offers its mostly female audience the delectable cake-and-eat-it proposition of a morality tale served with plenty of vicarious vice -- and extravagant dollops of yummy fashion.

Most often, it came down to the same questions: To give in to lust or wait for love? To cash in on one's sexuality or remain pure? To marry or to pursue a career? (By Hollywood's rules, they're almost always mutually exclusive.)

The three-girls picture has gone in and out of fashion over the years. But with "Sex and the City," which opened Friday, it makes a splashy, spunky comeback, one that will test whether the genre still has legs -- even when teetering on Jimmy Choo heels. No one will accuse "Sex and the City" of revolutionizing the three-girls picture. But it still resuscitates a genre that, at its best, articulates something essential about womanhood, its unspoken contradictions and ambivalences, its double standards and hypocrisies, and the joys and sometimes life-or-death necessity of friendship among women.

An efficient way for the studios to package their up-and-coming ingenues, the three-girls formula began as early as 1925 with the silent picture "Sally, Irene and Mary." That film was remade in 1930 as "Our Blushing Brides," starring Joan Crawford. And on they came, three by three: "Ladies in Love." "Three Blind Mice." "Moon Over Miami." "A Letter to Three Wives." "Three Coins in a Fountain."

Where the Girls Are

The canon reserves a special place for the three-girls movie in that most enticing and treacherous of cities, New York. In Manhattan, with its vertiginous skyline, its liberating streets, its steady supply of cads and clothes, its lures and snares of self-invention, what it meant to be a woman could be worked out -- in relationships with men, with work, and even with architecture, but mostly with friends. After "Three on a Match" came "Girls About Town." "How to Marry a Millionaire." "Woman's World." "The Best of Everything." "Valley of the Dolls."

It took television, with its tradition of female ensembles, to bring women back to New York. When "Sex and the City" made its debut on HBO in 1998, it seemed that, overnight, packs of young women were roaming the streets from Manhattan to Medicine Hat in shoes they couldn't afford, looking for the next cosmopolitan and shrieking "I'm so Carrie!"

They so weren't -- if only because Carrie Bradshaw, "Sex and the City's" smart, funny, shallow, self-absorbed heroine, isn't so Carrie herself. She's an amalgam of her three best friends, each of whom personifies an archetype of the three-girls vehicle: Miranda, the practical, self-sufficient career woman; Charlotte, the virginal innocent; Samantha, the older, sexually uninhibited temptress.

Once, each of these women would have represented a cherished, ultimately male-identified standard in Hollywood. Miranda would have been the independent, feisty good sport who would die unmarried and alone. Charlotte would be the virtuous girl who would marry for love and receive unexpected riches in return (okay, that story line hasn't changed). And incorrigible Samantha would be the girl who would plunge off a fire escape or penthouse balcony in punishment for her sexually wanton ways.

Mr. Goodbar? Just Candy

In "Three on a Match," Mervyn LeRoy's startlingly dark classic of the genre, the usual rites and rewards come served with a twist. Bette Davis's character, Ruth Wescott, stays true to form: a hardworking stenographer from modest circumstances, she's the Miranda of the threesome, offering sober support and sage advice to her friends but remaining romantically unentangled (and unrewarded). But the hard-partying good-time girl Mary Keaton (Joan Blondell) turns out to be the virtuous one in the end, while upper-crusty Vivian Revere (Ann Dvorak) leaves her family and becomes an alcoholic and cocaine addict, finally jumping out a window to save her child. It's as if Charlotte developed a crack habit and Samantha wound up marrying Harry.

As film historian Jeanine Basinger wrote in "A Woman's View," "In the end each girl gets her wish, but not without suffering."

Made before Hollywood succumbed to the morally censorious Production Code, "Three on a Match" today looks surprisingly racy, proving that long before Carrie and the girls were scandalizing TV viewers with frank talk about men and sex, women's films were occasionally able to tell truths of their own. More often, they lied: In 1953 Jean Negulesco made "How to Marry a Millionaire," starring Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable and a sublimely funny Marilyn Monroe as gold diggers who sublet a Sutton Place penthouse in order to attract Mr. Moneybags. As Bacall explains over cold cuts and champagne: "Where would you be more likely to meet rich man -- in a walk-up on Amsterdam Avenue or in a joint like this?" Unlike westerns or war pictures, where groups of men could be seen doing things like forming a posse or taking an enemy stronghold, the three-girls movie as epitomized by "How to Marry" featured groups of women simply being, existing in a passive state of attractive readiness to embark on her real career: meeting a man and getting married.

Which fit in perfectly with the postwar imperative of getting women out of the wartime workplace and back into the domestic sphere. A year after making "How to Marry," Negulesco made "Woman's World," in which Bacall, June Allyson and Arlene Dahl starred as wives visiting New York with their husbands, each up for a top corporate job. With its portrait of female ambition safely sublimated in behalf of more socially permissible male drives, "Woman's World" admittedly features one fascinating story line, that of a male executive (Fred MacMurray) struggling with how to balance work and family.

In both "How to Marry" and "Woman's World," the women have relatively little to do with one another, focused as they are on bagging or promoting their men. But in 1959 Negulesco would make perhaps the greatest of three-girls-in-New York movies: "The Best of Everything," starring Hope Lange, Suzy Parker and Diane Baker, epitomizes the genre with big-screen sweep, glamour and flashes of startling honesty. By now, the terrace inhabited by the "How to Marry" gold diggers has been replaced by the sheer, forbidding facade of the just-built Seagram Building; inside that temple of modernism, Lange's character, recent Radcliffe graduate Caroline Bender, learns how to climb the corporate ladder first as a secretary, then as a reader for a demanding editor played by Joan Crawford. (All of Negulesco's pictures were filmed in widescreen CinemaScope, the perfect medium for giving three pretty stars equal screen time.)

If the cardinal question of "How to Marry" was "Is he rich?" the question in "The Best of Everything" was "Will she put out?" Or, more to the three-girls point, which one? As for Caroline Bender, as a boyfriend observes, she's watching friends get married on one side and contemplating a promising career on the other, while dreamily asking, "What will become of me?" (As Carrie Bradshaw might put it, "I can't help but wonder . . . ")

Don't Go There, Girlfriend

Even within the confines of 1950s circumspection, "The Best of Everything" anticipated a revolution. In 1961 Joan Didion would write in Mademoiselle magazine: "Girls who come to New York are, above all, uncommitted. They seem to be girls who want to prolong the period when they can experiment, mess around, make mistakes. . . . New York is full of people on this kind of leave of absence, of people with a feeling for the tangential adventure, the risk adventure, the interlude that's not likely to end in any double-ring ceremony." (Now that's"so Carrie.")

The following year Helen Gurley Brown published "Sex and the Single Girl," the bestseller that urged women to earn their own living, resist the rush to marry and engage in extramarital sex without guilt. Thirty years later, "Sex and the City" author Candace Bushnell would acknowledge that she took Gurley Brown's primer as an inspiration for her sex column in the New York Observer. But she might well have pointed to "The Best of Everything," in which Caroline Bender, like another C.B. 40 years later, dealt with work, sex, men and the meaning of it all while dressed in fabulous clothes against the backdrop of a city in perpetual motion. Rona Jaffe wrote the novel on which "The Best of Everything" was based. The movie "was really about change," the author says on the DVD commentary. "It was about how young women became too sophisticated for the boys back home."

By 1967, when "Valley of the Dolls" was released, "three girls in New York" had been reduced to a rote formula, given over to melodrama and campy excess; it proved the death knell for a genre that, through the next few decades at least, the movie industry would largely ignore. There would be more three-girls movies to come, of course ("9 to 5," "The Witches of Eastwick"), but women in New York were not just single, but emphatically alone.

The break-up of New York women's onscreen friendships was foreshadowed even in the early 1960s, when such spirited (if round-heeled) heroines as Shirley MacLaine's Fran Kubelik in "The Apartment" and Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" embarked on ill-advised affairs unsupported by a female network. From Elizabeth Taylor's tragic Gloria Wandrous in "Butterfield 8" to Jane Fonda and Diane Keaton in "Klute" and "Looking for Mr. Goodbar," respectively, New York came to promise not the best of everything but the worst. (The theme would continue to play out in "Fatal Attraction" and beyond.) In an era when a new wave of feminism was revolutionizing the workplace, the bedroom and the culture, Hollywood responded by warning women not to stray too far; New York became a place not of empowerment and self-invention but of loneliness, danger and the dark side of sexual liberation.

Cheerful exceptions would pop up: When Melanie Griffith made her triumphant passage from Staten Island to the executive suite in 1988's "Working Girl," she was carrying on a grand tradition, one most often identified with the peppery romantic comedies of Doris Day in the 1950s. But, despite the quirky best friend here or tart-tongued housekeeper there, these women were primarily single agents, bereft of the unique bonds of female friendship. The prospect of groups of women changing America off screen was threatening enough without recapitulating their collective strength on screen. (It didn't help that the studio system had long since crumbled, with name actresses now negotiating their own single-star vehicles.)

"Where, oh where, is the camaraderie, the much-vaunted mutual support among women?" lamented film historian Molly Haskell in her book "From Reverence to Rape." Not in "Annie Hall." Not in "When Harry Met Sally" (despite one indelible scene featuring Carrie Fisher and Lisa Jane Persky). Not amid the elegantly sharpened knives of "The Devil Wears Prada." There was a glimmer of it in "The First Wives Club," but the joys of friendship in that 1996 revenge caper were mired in rage at men and hatred of other (younger) women.

Manolos and Glass Slippers

But that camaraderie can again be found in "Sex and the City," which indulges in the frothiest traditions of the three-girls format even while managing to gently nudge it forward. True to the genre, the filmmakers haven't stinted on the eye candy, staging a whopping three montages of mouth-watering fashions. And like its forebears, "Sex and the City" firmly believes that love is a woman's primary career -- in the movie we rarely see Carrie, Miranda and Samantha at work (Charlotte? A working mother? Perish the thought!). Love is literally everywhere, from the poster in Carrie's apartment to the keychain she uses later in the film to the only word she's able to type on her computer screen. Indeed, compared to the clear-eyed Caroline assessing her future in "The Best of Everything," Carrie's constant mooning over the word seems positively childlike.

But if romance -- finding it, losing it, getting it back -- is "Sex and the City's" major preoccupation, the movie also honors women who prefer independence to compulsive couple-dom. It's hard to imagine a woman in "The Best of Everything" or "Three on a Match" telling a man, "I love you, but I love me more." (Well, maybe Joan Crawford.) And it takes the three-girls genre to a new place if only because it's not really about girls: It's about women in their 40s who might have been raised on happily-ever-afters but who have long since stopped believing in fairy tales. ("Another one bites the dust," Carrie mutters when Charlotte's little girl asks her to read "Cinderella" again.)

These are, after all, the women who were once told their chances of getting married were worse than getting killed by a terrorist. They survived that punitive prediction, and 9/11, too. The three-girls heroines of the past were punished for their indiscretions with shame, calumny and heartbreak; the "Sex and the City" women endure their share of heartbreak, but they embrace their mistakes as emblems of a life well-lived.

If one or two of them happen to know how to marry a millionaire, they've also been around even the best block enough to know the importance of financial independence. Most important, the operative question is no longer the passive "What will become of me?" but its dynamic corollary: "Who am I choosing to become?"

In "Sex and the City," regrettably, the likely answer is someone who can be maddeningly superficial, materialistic and self-obsessed. Still, there's no denying the vicarious triumph of watching Samantha celebrate her 50th birthday -- that erstwhile shibboleth of regret and foreclosed possibilities -- with her girlfriends, and with unforced relish. It's still a cake-and-eat-it world in "Sex and the City," but the recipe has undeniably changed.

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