By Alan Hurst
When I see a trailer or read about a movie featuring a number of female stars from my formative years as a movie goer, I get a little excited and I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe it’s the idea that these ladies are still working well into their seventies and eighties, or maybe it’s a bit of nostalgia for a time when I would go and see their films when they were in their heyday. It’s probably a bit of both.
It happened a few years ago with Book Club (2018) which starred Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Candice Bergen and Mary Steenburgen, although for me Steenburgen isn’t in the same league as the other three. The trailer made things look entertaining and funny, each character’s real estate looked enticing, and everyone seemed to be on their game. After seeing it we walked away feeling a little let down. All of the actresses had their moments in what ultimately turned out to be a mildly amusing, illogical yet predictable look at late life romance. We probably shouldn’t have expected more. The best thing about the film was the sardonic, dryly witty performance from Bergen.
Poms (2019) was another one, again featuring Diane Keaton this time alongside Jackie Weaver, Pam Grier, Celia Weston and Rhea Perlman. A movie about aging and dying and set in a retirement community, it was pretty dreadful with Keaton particularly annoying trotting out her Annie Hall schtick yet again. In her defence I guess the script really didn’t giver her anything to work with.
Earlier this spring the trailer for Queen Bees came out featuring Ellen Burstyn, Ann-Margret, Jane Curtin and Loretta Devine. Both Ellen Burstyn and Ann-Margret were major and acclaimed movie actresses in the seventies and eighties, Jane Curtin had two hit series with Saturday Night Live in the seventies and Kate and Allie in the eighties, and Loretta Devine (the youngest of the group) had hit big in 1981 in the Broadway musical Dreamgirls as well as in a number of featured film and TV appearances. The trailer indicated that this was going to be Mean Girls meets The Golden Girls – and that’s exactly what it is, although not with the same edgy wit that were the hallmark of those productions. There are some laughs, each of the four actresses deliver the goods, particularly Burstyn and Ann-Margret, and there are some solid points to be made about aging, family and friendship, but this is ultimately lightweight, inconsequential fare.
The central character here is Helen, played by Ellen Burstyn, who is widowed but still lives on her own. The problem is she’s isolated and she also keeps locking herself out of the house. A kitchen fire one evening while she’s locked out necessitates a move to a retirement centre, which she makes clear to her daughter and grandson is only temporary.
At first put off by the antiseptic cheeriness of the place, Burstyn also runs afoul of the facility’s Queen Bees – the cool ladies who rule the roost. Led by Janet (Jane Curtin), there’s also Sally (Loretta Devine), Margot (Ann-Margret) and a fourth character who quickly dies, leaving room for a fourth to play Bridge. Sally and Margot soon warm up to Helen, and you see they’re not really as nasty as the pretend, but Janet is another story.
James Caan, another icon from the seventies, shows up to woo Burstyn’s character with his awkward charm.
There’s no prize for figuring out how this one wends its way to a relatively happy resolution for everyone. The treat here is watching the terrific cast do their thing. Burstyn, still beautiful and charismatic at 88, makes Helen a believable character. She shows that this woman is still capable but struggling and just trying to find purpose after the passing of her husband. Her tentative courtship dance with Caan is very sweet.
Ann-Margret doesn’t work too often anymore, with the exception of an occasional TV guest shot or a small role in a feature film. At 80 she’s a delight as the still frisky, fun loving, much married sexpot of the group. She also has some nice, compassionate scenes with Christopher Lloyd as the latest object of her attention, who is in the early stages of dementia.
Loretta Devine has some great lines and the relationship she forges with Burstyn’s Helen – after a night of smoking pot – is fun to watch. Jane Curtin is all pinched meanness and loves to order everyone around, but she gets to soften and redeems herself by the end of the film.
The four actresses work really well together (this is a third pairing for Ann-Margret and Ellen Burstyn) and it’s too bad the writing didn’t have more bite and less sugar. A thought: since they seem to be rebooting everything these days, if a reboot of The Golden Girls ever gets a greenlight then these four actresses could deliver in spades.
Hooked from a first viewing of Mary Poppins at four and after school reruns of I Love Lucy, Alan has been a movie and TV enthusiast ever since. A particular aficionado of films from the late thirties through the seventies, he enjoys helping others discover the joys of those films, directors and stars. His career has careened from journalism to public relations to marketing, always with one foot in the arts and with a unique ability to relate all work and life experiences back to a movie. Alan’s top five desert island films are Bonnie and Clyde, Sunset Boulevard, Cabaret, Mildred Pierce and, with no apologies, Mary Poppins. Alan’s focus will be on films from Hollywood’s first golden era (and a little beyond) as well as TV.