Ok, I'll admit it. I love Goldie Hawn. I always have, she's just so cute in some roles, so evil in others, and so funny always. I don't usually watch her for high drama, mainly comedies for yesteryear, but she's versatile enough to play it straight if she needs to (the mediocre thriller Deceived is a good example). Why all this focus on Hawn? Well, because I discovered one of her best reviewed films on Netflix streaming the other night. It is the story of a self-absorbed woman who has no identity of her own and who goes through a grueling physical experience in order to do some much needed soul searching. It seems like I'm talking about a drama, but in reality its a comedy who's template we have seen before in other things...that film is Private Benjamin.
No doubt you have seen the familiar cover staring at you across the aisle as you look through the comedies in the local video store...(it features Goldie as Judy Benjamin, wearing an army helmet and looking like an angry drowned rat) I know I did. I never picked it up though because, honestly, based on the cover I figured I had the whole movie figured out. A woman who is unfulfilled goes into the army to prove something and comes out as her own independent person...roll credits, the end. However, this Sunday I needed a good laugh and I decided to try it on for size. HouseSitter perked me up two weeks prior, so why shouldn't another cute Goldie comedy? Boy was I surprised. Yes, Benjamin does follow the outline I laid out well...for a time, but it also veers off in completely unexpected ways.
First, Judy (Hawn) is not a single unfulfilled woman or even unhappy...she's actually in the process of getting married to a Jewish man named Yale (Albert Brooks) and is so overjoyed. So what if her only function is picking out furniture, making sure the ottoman is 'mushroom', and that she can't achieve orgasm with Yale? She's happy. Well, that is until Yale drops dead on their wedding night. Suddenly Judy finds herself with no man and no purpose, a situation she's never felt before. In a moment of madness, she sneaks out of her house and spends the night in a dingy hotel just to be away from the world who wants to comfort her. It is here that she goes on talk radio to vent her problems to the world and where Army Recruiter Jim Ballard (Harry Dean Stanton) hears her and invites her to join up. He sells her some stories about private rooms and yachts and she's happy to go. Of course, by now the viewer already knows that she's going to find the army hard and unforgiving and that she will have to change who she is to become the best soldier in the outfit. It is her that the film diverges from the usual path. A lesser writer would have ended the film at Judy's triumphant graduation, but no...they (Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller) go on to show Judy trying to find her identity in the macho 'thornbirds' and finally finding more happiness in a Paris base working in acquisitions. She also meets Henri Tremont (Armand Assante), a suave European who not only is an excellent lover but also rich and itching to marry her. We spend the third act wondering not "will she make it through basic training?" but rather "will she lose herself in a man again and thus, lose her newfound independence?"
This was a great little film that I wish I hadn't skipped for so long, mainly because of the way it diverged from the path so often traveled by other films. It was refreshing to see a film where the question wasn't "will the poor woman survive the army?" or "will she settle down with the right guy?" but rather "will she have the balls to walk away from a guy in order to not compromise her independence?" This was brave in 1980, and we see more of it nowadays...but its still not as prevalent. We like stories where the man and woman find each other and stay together till the credits, because it means that there is hope for all of us out there who are single and alone. We aren't encouraged to think "Am I ok just being me, by myself?" It's much more about pairs. Watching Judy walk off into the distance in her wedding dress, no married, and backed up by the rousing march score is uplifting and doesn't ever make you wonder what it would have been like had she stayed with Henri. Rather, it makes you wish you were that brave...to head off into the sunset alone.