Saturday, September 8, 2012

Movie – Private Benjamin (1980)

Private Benjamin was the first script ever written specifically for Goldie Hawn and it was also the first film she ever executive produced.  She collaborated with Nancy Meyers (who co-wrote the screenplay) and the results were good.  Not only was this film one of the biggest box office hits of 1980, it also received three Oscar nominations – Goldie Hawn for Best Actress, Eileen Brennan for Best Supporting Actress, and Meyers (and others) for Best Original Screenplay.  In 2000 the American Film Institute (AFI) listed this as one of the 100 best American comedies, and in 2006 Premiere magazine listed it as one if the 50 best comedies of all time.

Judy Benjamin (Hawn) has been brought up as the classic “Jewish American Princess” by her folks (Sam Wanamaker and Barbara Barrie).  She is spoiled and naïve, and the absolute pinnacle of her life would be if she could marry a Jewish doctor.  One day at a party she meets Yale Goodman (Albert Brooks).  She’s kind of interested in him, but when he says those three magic words to her – “I’m a doctor” – the movie immediately cuts to Hawn having an orgasm while Yale makes love to her on their wedding night.  Unfortunately, Yale’s orgasm leads to a heart attack and he dies right on top of her.  She goes from single, to a doctor’s wife, to a widow in a matter of hours.

Needless to say, this messes her up.  After being kid of aimless for a while, she ends up talking to a sneaky Army recruiter (Harry Dean Stanton) who makes the Army sound more like a getaway to Club Med.  On an impulse she decides to join up.  When she arrives at boot camp she gets a rude awakening...literally.  She speaks to Capt. Lewis (Eileen Brennan) – “I think they sent me to the wrong place.  See, I did join the Army, but I joined a different Army.  I joined the one with condos and private rooms.  I can’t sleep in a room with 20 strangers.  And I mean look at this place.  The Army couldn’t afford drapes?  I’ll be up at the crack of dawn here.”

Things don’t get much better for her at first.  She has to march in the rain, scrub the bathroom spotless, and perform any number of other punishments.  This is about as far removed from her previous life as you can get.  Her misery is evoked on the poster for the movie (see above), which is also a parody of the poster for the 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front.  

She finally starts to turn things around, realizes she can do things on her own, and she even starts to do quite well in the Army.  She gets sent to work for NATO in Europe and meets a charming Frenchman (Armand Assante).  He also opens her up to a whole new world of possibilities – “Now I know what I’ve been faking all those years.”

You may be thinking, “This sounds like a female version of Bill Murray’s movie Stripes.”  There would only be one thing wrong with that thought – Stripes came out one year after Private Benjamin.  It was actually a “male Private Benjamin”.   Both films even had a female soldier played by P.J. Soles (different characters, though.)  People also remember Stripes for having some future familiar faces among the smaller roles (i.e. John Candy).  Well, Private Benjamin led the way there, too.  In addition to P.J. Soles, look for appearances by Craig T. Nelson (Poltergeist, Coach, Parenthood) and Mary Kay Place (The Big Chill, My So-Called Life, Big Love).

It was really Eileen Brennan that got the most notice after this film came out.  Her tough as nails Captain, who thought she had seen it all until Judy Benjamin showed up, was a great character.  As I mentioned at the top, she got an Oscar nomination for her performance, losing to Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard.  Brennan would go on to reprise her role in the TV series of the same name that ran from 1981 to 1983.

While this movie is primarily a comedy, it did take a more serious line with women’s empowerment.  This was a big issue through the 1970s, so seeing it in a 1980 movie is not surprising.  In addition, Hawn had just divorced her husband Bill Hudson (Kate Hudson’s father) and I’m sure the message of a woman going out on her own and succeeding hit close to home for her.  Nowadays, the presentation of this issue in the film comes across a little heavy handed, but it’s not so bad that it ruins the movie. 

All in all, this film has some good laughs in it.  If this story sounds interesting, and especially if you liked Stripes, then I recommend you give this film a try.

Chip’s Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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  1. I liked this film. It was funny and also you had a character to root for. Especially in the third act when Judy finally starts to become a WOMAN and kick some ass.

    1. "and also you had a character to root for."