Coming-of-age comes later for some.
Spoiled Jewish American princess Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) loses her husband Yale (Albert Brooks) on their wedding night and has trouble dealing with it. Her dream of a perfect life as the wife of a successful man hasn’t worked out because her first husband was a loser, this one dies, and she doesn’t know what to do, but she gets some advice from a radio call-in show from United States Army recruiter Sergeant Jim Ballard (Harry Dean Stanton). So he talks her into joining the Army, a move that doesn’t really fit her too well….
The Army is a rough place for a spoiled princess. Company commander Captain Doreen Lewis (Eileen Brennan) takes special pleasure in making Benjamin’s life miserable, probably because she resents Benjamin’s poor performance and her bad attitude, but very likely also out of some jealousy. Juxtaposed with Benjamin is the perfect recruit Pvt. Wanda Winter (P. J. Soles) who does everything right and makes everyone else look bad in comparison; Captain Lewis likes her immediately. The other recruits dislike her because she’s irritating and because she gets them in trouble with her irritating antics. Eventually though, things change and she and sweet Southerner Pvt. Glass (Mary Kay Place), former car thief Pvt. Gianelli (Toni Kalem), tough but kind Pvt. Moe (Damita Jo Freeman), and shy Pvt. Soyer (Alston Ahern) bond over a campfire with the aid of some marijuana but no lesbianism.
From here, Benjamin is recruited into the Thornbirds – an “elite airborne corps” – ostensibly because she’s awesome, but really because Col. Thornbush (Robert Webber) wants to get into her pants to the point that he tries to rape her. She uses this attempted rape as leverage to get herself a good posting in Belgium. Benjamin comes into conflict with Captain Lewis again, who’s been transferred to Belgium – as punishment? Benjamin calls it the best assignment ever – over security clearance. The cause of the conflict with Lewis – who is in security – is Benjamin’s relationship with Henri Alan Tremont (Armand Assante), a registered member of the Communist Party, to the point that she decides to marry him and leave the Army. Eventually, she realizes that Henri isn’t really what she wants and walks off into the sunset, alone.
This film is really about the much-delayed coming-of-age of Judy Benjamin. Her well-meaning parents, Teddy (Sam Wanamaker) and Harriet (Barbara Barrie), smothered and controlled her throughout her life, doing their best to make her life happy and easy. Unfortunately, that lack of adversity also stunted her growth from adolescence to adulthood, leaving her as little more than a petulant teenager in the body of a woman. This much is made clear during the wedding scene when she complains that a gift offered to her is the wrong color and not quite up to her standards, a move that’s so unapologetically rude that it’s almost embarrassing to watch. In addition to being spoiled, she has no mind of her own, she’s used to being told what to do by her parents, husbands, the Army, etc. Her character arc is that she begins to think for herself, first by rebelling against her parents when they try to take her home, then against the Army when they try to control her love life, then against Henri when she discovers that she doesn’t need him. When she walks away at the end of the film, we know that she’s learned how to be a grown up.
It was a star vehicle for Goldie Hawn – who also served as executive producer – and something that she really wanted to do to get herself taken seriously as an actress. Paralleling Judy Benjamin, Hawn sought to use this film as, “the perfect opportunity to finally control [her] own destiny.” (Quote from Pure Goldie: The Life and Times of Goldie Hawn by Marc Shapiro via IMDb and shamelessly stolen by me.) Unfortunately for Hawn, this role did not mark the beginning of a new career, but was the start of a series of mediocre fish-out-of-water films for her as a ditz. How sad.
While a lot of this film seems like it approaches the Army in a very negative fashion, it doesn’t really. Army recruiter Sergeant Jim Ballard lies his ass off to get her into the Army – apparently this is shamefully common as these folks have a quota to fill – by telling her that it’s the right thing for her by emphasizing all the stuff that he thinks she wants, but he’s actually accidentally truthful in that it was a good idea for her. While Captain Lewis comes across as a bitch, she’s actually screwed over for something that’s not her fault – her surrender to an apparently superior force – and has good reason to dislike Benjamin’s attitude; I could have done without the lesbian joke in there though. Some of the men, like Col. Thornbush and the other company commander Captain William Woodbridge (Craig T. Nelson) come across as stupid horndogs, they have no excuse and are scum, but Drill Sergeant Ross (Hal Williams) does his job properly and professionally, pushing everyone, including Benjamin, to achieve high standards and Brig. Gen. Foley (Richard Herd) treats Benjamin with the same respect with which he treats everyone else.
The question then becomes: “how much did I like the film?” Well, it was okay. Part of the problem is that the comedy is pretty broad and yet shallow, based on the kind of stuff that one would find in a sitcom of the era rather than a film; this film did spawn a sitcom, so maybe others noticed this at the time, or else they noticed the Oscar nominations for Goldie Hawn – she lost to Sissy Spacek in Coal Miner’s Daughter – Eileen Brennan – who lost to Mary Steenburgen in Melvin and Howard – and the writers – who lost to the writer of Melvin and Howard – and the fact that this sucker did pretty good business. Yes, this film got three Academy Award nominations! Despite that and the silly nature of the film, it’s still not bad at all and could easily have been a hell of a lot worse.
The easiest way to discuss how good this film is compared to the usual tripe for women is to mention the atrocious Private Valentine: Blonde & Dangerous starring the woefully untalented Jessica Simpson. Now, despite claims to the contrary, this is a blatant ripoff of Private Benjamin – April Blair is credited with the “story” which she no doubt thought of, coincidentally, while watching Private Benjamin – as a spoiled woman who’s had a problem joins the Army because of a dishonest recruiter and runs afoul of a mean woman officer and is hated by her peers until her agent tries to get her out but she decides to stay and wins the approval of her peers and the war games after going through a swamp. Seriously, Warner Brothers should sue, except that the film made a dollar. Anyway, that film ends with her finding the man of her dreams and becoming a bit more independent but still getting to be the rich princess movie star with a perfect hunk prince. It’s a sickeningly bad film and shows what this one could have been. It also was the centerpiece in the restraining order demanding that Jessica Simpson remain at least a mile away from film equipment.
Since Private Benjamin is, at its heart, a chick flick, the men are all underwritten and most of the women are simply there to support the lead. Part of this goes beyond the chick flick mentality into the star vehicle style as this was always a way for Hawn to get a good role. Well, Hawn‘s Judy was hateful at the beginning of the film – but that was intentional – and seemed to have learned some important stuff by the end, so she was okay. Brennan played the nasty officer quite well and with just the right lack of subtlety to make the role memorable and fun, but I have never seen a film with Eileen Brennan where I’ve thought her performance was lacking.
I will give it this, unlike the typical chick flick that ends with a fairytale ending as the princess gets her prince, this one ends with the princess getting her self-respect. To me, that elevates it above most films aimed at women as it promotes the idea that a woman can make it on her own … if she has upper-middle-class parents to support her as she’s left the Army and has no skills to use to support herself. I’m probably overthinking the film anyway.
Or am I? Despite a lot of the mediocrity, this one – seriously this time – wins a couple of points for daring to show, in a chick flick, a woman’s growth and development as a person and an ending where she doesn’t get the guy. If more of them were like that, perhaps I would find them a bit more tolerable. Jesus, sometimes I want to reach into the screen and tell the man “Run! She’s nuts!” and hope someday that Hollywood makes a romantic comedy that ends with the man saying “Wait, you mean all this time you were acting like this because of a simple misunderstanding that could have been sorted out if you just spoke to me? You’re a nutjob and I don’t want to have anything to do with you. Goodbye forever!”
Just thinking about such a film makes my penis engorge with joy.
Speaking of engorged penises – as I do most of the time when I can – does it count as necrophilia if someone dies while you’re having sex with them? Madonna‘s character in Body of Evidence – the finest film of that title ever made – is charged with killing a man by sexing him to death. Now, those of you who’ve spent much time on the internet have probably seen this sort of thing, but back in 1993 this was new and controversial – like Madonna‘s Sex book – so it would have been even more controversial back in 1980 when this was made. Why was Judy Benjamin not charged with the crime of killing a nice Jewish man? Makes you think, doesn’t it?
Trailer on YouTube.