By the time Goldie Hawn took on the titular role of “Private Benjamin” in 1980, she was an Academy Award winner (“Private Benjamin” would earn her a second nod) with enough clout and capital to serve as a producer on the project. She had also just given birth to Kate Hudson, her second child, and was filming the movie on the cusp of a divorce.
Hawn was a 13-year Hollywood veteran when she became Judy Benjamin, an upscale sudden widow with no marketable skills who joins the army in a fit of grief-stricken caprice. Hawn’s years of experience showed. There isn’t a single scene in the film where she doesn’t hold her own, even the ones the great Eileen Brennan all but steals. Frame for frame, Hawn proves that she’s up for the challenge the script’s rich material affords her. Whether losing her husband on her wedding night, jolting at the sound of her army superiors’ barked commands, enduring hazing or fending off an assault, Hawn manages to play each situation with both weight and wit.
Before this week, I had no strong opinion of Australian comic actress Rebel Wilson. But when news broke yesterday that she’d joined a long-rumored “Private Benjamin” remake, I took umbrage. It isn’t personal; I know too little of Wilson to gauge whether or not she’ll play well in the role she’s won. It just doesn’t make sense to contemporize the original film in the way it’s being planned or to title the new one “Private Benjamin,” given this description at The Wrap:
Private Benjamin will follow a redneck (Wilson) and a rich city girl who get more than they bargained for when they enlist in the Marines to escape their present situations.
That project may have comedic potential, but it is no “Private Benjamin.” The new film seems to be taking a buddy-soldier tack: country mouse and city mouse meet heavy artillery training. If this is true, the remake will have missed the point of the original.
For Rebel Wilson, “Private Benjamin” will be a vehicle for stardom, a box office confection banking on nostalgia. For Hawn, it was a way to reframe her long-held stardom to suit the raised stakes in her personal life. It was power play. In the 1998 biography, Pure Goldie, Hawn had this to say about acting in and producing the film:
In the beginning, [the studio executives] would pat me on the head. To them I was still the cute little Goldie. But the minute I stood up and had something to say, I became the bitch. I didn’t plan on becoming a producer….I only wanted to create better roles for myself, and I loved the idea… so much that I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to finally control my own destiny.
Like her character, Hawn was out to prove a few things to herself and her peers — and it paid off to the tune of a $70 million dollar box office take and critical acclaim.
“Private Benjamin” is, at its heart, the story of an underestimated woman. Judy’s blondness and saucer-sized eyes read as naive and unclever to everyone she meets. When the audience meets her, in a wedding gown and preparing to settling into life as a trophy wife, it’s clear that no one has ever told her she can be anything she wants if she puts her mind to it. This has made it that much harder for her to conceive of any life where this would be true. Instead, Judy has been told that she is the type of woman who needs to marry well. In the film’s opening scenes, she feels confident she’s done just that.
It’s obvious to the audience long before it becomes apparent to Judy that no one takes her seriously. She learns it in a masterful scene where her superior, Captain Lewis (Eileen Brennan), has called her parents to collect her after a failed attempt to go AWOL. Hawn sits slumped and silent as Brennan sneers at her while saccharinely insisting that the unit will be sad to see her go. Her face doesn’t betray much, as her father (Sam Wanamaker) berates her as never having been too bright. “Now let’s just stop pretending,” he declares, ready to sign her out of enlistment.
Despite the scorn she’s earned among her peers, along with Captain Lewis’s antagonism, it’s her parents’ unwillingness to believe she can pull off a career in the military that spurs her to stay. Better to win the respect of people who’ve known her just a few weeks than to return to a home where she has never been respected.
There are no throwaway moments in the original “Private Benjamin,” no easy binaries or caricatures (like “redneck” or “rich city girl”). Even Captain Lewis, the film’s obvious villain, is portrayed as a woman whose relationship with power stands in direct contrast with her insecurities about aging and desirability.
Though Louis Virtel over at Hitfix has a fun list of “demands” for the remake and seems to think it’s a viable concept, he also dismisses the entire second half the 1980 film:
… The movie turns into this other thing where Goldie leaves boot camp and dates Armand Assante in Europe, hoping again for an awesome marriage, and the comedy of the movie utterly disintegrates.
But without this turn of events, the film would reverse hard on one of its essential tenets: a chronically underestimated woman will doubt herself, even after discovering her own mettle. Our personal transformation is only as hardy as its ability to withstand that which tempts us most. For Judy Benjamin, temptation was the security of “marrying well.” We needed to watch her succumb to it, for the gains of the film’s first half to be solidified.
Even thirty years after the original, “Private Benjamin”’s themes are worth revisiting. Despite significant strides for the increased number of women in military service, female soldiers face the same routine underestimation, gender-based discrimination, and sexual assault explored in the ‘80s comedy. It doesn’t sound like this film intends to trouble itself with engaging those issues, and it’s hard to imagine it branding around the Hawn classic if it doesn’t. But despite all my reservations, I don’t want to make the mistake of prematurely dismissing it. That would go against everything “Private Benjamin” stands for.