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Bimbo Power

First Wives
Andy Schwartz

Terrible Troika: Goldie Hawn, left, Diane Keaton, and Bette Midler screech in 'The First Wives Club.'

Tama Janowitz considers youth and beauty

By David Templeton


Writer David Templeton takes people to interesting movies in an ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he teams up with Tama Janowitz, author of the '80s cult-hit novel Slaves of New York, to check out the slapstick comedy The First Wives Club.

IN TAMA JANOWITZ'S newest novel, By the Shores of Gitchee Gumee, an outspoken single mother instructs her children in the facts of life, quizzing them with the question "How far will beauty get you?"

"From 18 to 40!" is their programmed reply. "Longer with plastic surgery!" Later on she tells them, "You can't judge men by the same standards as women. They have no standards."

I recall these lessons as I meet Janowitz at a theater in downtown Berkeley, where the New York­based author is conducting a series of Gitchee Gumee readings. We have met to see The First Wives Club, starring Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton as 40-something divorcées plotting revenge on the ex-husbands who left them for younger women. It promises to have some of the same juicy, high-spirited male-bashing that Janowitz has made into an art form.

Sadly, cinematic art is nowhere in evidence up on the screen. The film turns out to be loud, shrill, unwise, and unfunny. Following a mid-movie trip to the men's room, I discover Janowitz standing out in the lobby.

"Are you enjoying the film?" she asks sweetly. I am not. Ten minutes later, we are gleefully ordering milkshakes in an ice cream parlor across the street.

"I was hugely disappointed," Janowitz intones. "Because to see a woman's film--a film about women--is very rare, and I was looking forward to it. And normally, I feel such contempt and disgust for these men that do dump their wives and get some 20-year-old replacement--but in this case, I started to actually understand why all the men did it. These women were just so awful."

Janowitz, whose best-selling 1986 novel Slaves of New York earned her an international cultlike following, has sculpted a reputation as a wry, painfully acute observer of urban human absurdities, the love-hate relationship between the genders (and all the various sexual inclinations contained therein). In Gitchee Gumee--a tremendously funny satire that could start a whole new genre of welfare chic--the narrator is Maude Slivenowicz, an amoral, impoverished 17-year old whose view of sexuality is informed by her encyclopedia-like knowledge of the sex lives of insects.

Janowitz writes affectionately, even optimistically, about her characters, male and female, maintaining an aura of believability that is not belied by the occasional extremism of their actions.

Perhaps if The First Wives Club had tried for some of that believability, Janowitz might have hung around for the end credits.

"I kept thinking these women should go out and get some kind of a life," she exclaims, jamming her spoon eagerly into her shake. "They had no sympathy, as people just getting revenge on their husbands. There's no charm in watching people hell-bent on revenge.

"On the other hand, I do really think it's just awful how it happens so much in our society, that women are left alone as they get older and men are considered more desirable.

"You wouldn't believe the men in New York," she continues. "Some of them are millionaires many times over, and they're the most hideous specimens, completely lacking in charm. Nevertheless, they have any woman they want, presumably because the women want the money."

As with the acquisitive ultra-bimbos in First Wives, and certainly with the pragmatic Maude Slivenowicz, youth and beauty, while they are had, are powerfully exploitable assets.

"That's the power that women have in our society," Janowitz agrees. "You're 20 years old, young, nubile--you're feared, you're hated, and you're desired. When you get older, no matter how powerful you are, as a woman, you may have power, but you're not feared anymore, and you're not desired."

BEAUTY as exploitable currency has many forms, Janowitz reports. "I know men who just call up the fancy modeling agency and say, 'Who's new in town?' I'm not suggesting [these models are] prostitutes. I'm not sure that these men are even capable of having sex. But it's the social thing of going out and showing off in public to other men. They're saying, 'Look what I'm capable of possessing!' But it doesn't work the same way with older women and younger men.

"I was talking to a girlfriend," she laughs, "and I said, 'You know, if I died tomorrow, my husband would have so many women comforting him, it wouldn't be believed. They're comforting him now because I'm out of town for a week. But if I was alone in New York for a week . . ."

She drops her spoon into a now-empty cup and smiles, letting the silence speak for itself.


Join David Templeton and Tama Janowitz on the World Wide Web for a discussion of First Wives Club on Saturday, Oct. 5, at 4:30 p.m. through CompuServe's "Native's Guide to New York" forum.

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From the October 3-9, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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