It’s easy to forget that RWF continued to work in theater throughout most of his career, especially considering the magnitude of his yearly output in film. (In 1974 alone he directed four stage plays and served as creative director at the Theater am Turm in addition to directing four feature-length films. Doesn’t seem humanly possible, does it?) Women in New York, however, was the last play he directed on the stage (Hamburg, 1976). After watching the filmed version of that production, made for German TV in 1977, I find myself wishing more of his work in theater were available on film. Seeing what he did with a stage confirms something really fundamental about his artistic vision and his methods which, for me at least, are sometimes obscured by the film medium (which encourages identification and collapses distance, if that makes any sense). Like The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, the most “stagey” of his movies, Women in New York is there to remind you what Fassbinder was really up to, what he was about.
Women in New York is Fassbinder’s interpretation of Clare Boothe Luce’s 1936 Broadway hit, The Women, which was made into a Hollywood film by George Cukor in 1939. A sensation at the time, The Women featured an all-female cast (!) and focused exclusively on “women’s issues” (which is to say, on women’s relationships to men), depicted as either comic or sentimental, occasionally tragic, depending on the context. Celebrated as a two-hour catfight, the Cukor movie has remained a camp classic, in regular rotation at the Castro for decades. But for all its witty dialog and unexpectedly frank discussion of marital infidelity (this is post Hayes-code Hollywood, remember, where beds were for sleeping), its message is predictably conservative, not to mention bleak. Luce may poke fun at the lengths to which a girl will go to hold on to her man, but the need to hold on is unquestioned.
I haven’t seen or read the original play, so I don’t know the extent to which the 1939 screenwriters may have altered it to meet the expectations of a movie audience (although I can hazard a few guesses). My sense, in any case, is that RWF remained true to the original play’s script: the only writing credits for Women in New York are Clare Boothe Luce, for The Women, and Nora Gray, for the translation. This is important—and surprising—because the overall tenor, message, and moral of Fassbinder’s rendition is radically different from Cukor’s, despite what I presume to be the relative faithfulness of story and dialog in both. The comparison offers a unique insight into RWF’s vision and craft, with which he utterly subverts the implicit moral of the story using its very own scenario. (IMDB tells me there is also a 2008 movie version of The Women starring Meg Ryan and Eva Mendes, which I’d just as soon pretend didn’t exist—although I’m sure it would make a fascinating exercise to compare all three. Maybe if I ever teach that Women’s Studies seminar . . . )
Women in New York, revolves around five wealthy socialites in New York City: the gossipy but otherwise dull and perennially pregnant Edith Potter (Eva Mattes); Peggy Day, who constantly whines about money, which she has but Mr. Day doesn’t (Anne-Marie Kuster); Nancy, who doesn’t need a last name because she’s an unmarried writer, which is to say a spinster who can’t understand the mysteries the others are privy to (Angela Schmid); Sylvia Fowler, selfish, manipulative, and catty (Margit Carstensen, not quite as departed from RWF’s world as her anecdote about Chinese Roulette would suggest); and Mary Haines (Christa Berndl), selfless and honest and, as the story begins, happily devoted to her husband. In the opening scene Sylvia gleefully tells Edith that her manicurist knows for a fact that Mr. Stephen Haines (Mary’s husband) is having an affair with a certain Crystal Allen (Barbara Sukowa), who works at the perfume counter at Saks. Sylvia persuades Mary first to visit the manicurist (Irm Hermann), whom she knows will tell poor Mary the same story (which she does), then to confront Crystal when the two of them end up in the same department store fitting rooms at the same time. Edith spreads the news about Stephen Haines and Crystal Allen to a gossip columnist and soon the whole town is talking.
Despite her mother’s advice to ignore everything for the sake of her children and her security, Mary decides to get a divorce and heads for Reno where, for various reasons, Sylvia and Peggy also turn up seeking quickie divorces (turns out Sylvia had been cheating on her own husband, who found out about it, while Peggy decided she couldn’t tolerate having more money than her husband). Garrisoned on the same Nevada dude ranch as Mary, the tears and the whiskey flow as the women take turns sniping at one another and lamenting their fate—all except Miriam (Irm Hermann, again!), there to divorce her husband so she can marry none other than Mr. Fowler (Sylvia’s soon-to-be ex), and the aging “Countess,” who has had four divorces already but is a fool for l’amour and will soon marry a fifth husband, Buck Winston, the singing cowboy she meets on the ranch. Before the ink has dried on the divorce papers, Mary, still pining for her husband, learns that Stephen has married Crystal Allen.
Everyone eventually returns to New York where all hell breaks climactically loose at a soirée thrown by the Countess, to which all New York society (i.e., our principal cast) has been invited. Upon learning that Crystal has been cheating on Stephen Haines with Buck (already!), Mary plots her revenge. She tricks Sylvia, now loyal to Crystal, into confirming the rumor and unmasks Crystal herself, ensuring that Stephen will abandon his new wife. Triumphant, Mary Haines leaves Crystal and Sylvia in the ladies room to return to Stephen.
Whereas the Hollywood ending is unequivocally happy—order is restored when Mary Haines realizes the foolishness of her pride and does whatever it takes to get her man back; Sylvia and Crystal are unmasked and punished for putting their own selfish desires ahead of loyalty, whether to husbands or girlfriends—Fassbinder’s staging is relentlessly equivocal. And this is really interesting to me. Speaking the same lines, following the same dramatic arc, RWF’s Mary is no more a victim than Sylvia or Crystal or any of the others. (Nor is she any more of a heroine. She just happens to be a nicer person.) Crystal is no more to blame for trying to get what she can in life through the only means available to her than the Park Avenue wives are for their privilege and entitlement. Even Sylvia, undeniably a nasty piece of work, is only doing what it takes to get and keep what she thinks she deserves against the inevitable odds. Because what Fassbinder shows us, once again, is that the game is rigged, and the actors struggling to play within its boundaries have already lost. It’s the paradigm and the institutions that are rotten, in other words, not just a few bad apples. A system in which women need husbands for both livelihood and happiness is bound to turn them into monsters.
How RWF achieves this seems like a textbook example of Brechtian-style distancing and stagecraft. As with The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, Women in New York was shot on a stage set rather than transposed to a variety of settings, contrary to the practice standard for stage-to-screen adaptations. Whereas the Cukor movie made every effort to “open up” the play to make it look and feel like (cinematic) reality—lots of locations, exteriors, real dogs and horses, etc.—RWF confines the action to a single modular, highly stylized set, emphasizing artifice and theatricality. As in Petra von Kant, the garish, claustrophobic set draped in brightly colored fabric and lit by colored stagelights functions almost literally as a gilded cage—rather like the large aquarium that dominates the opening scene, now that I think of it, in which brightly colored tropical fish swim pointlessly back and forth in the foreground.
The costumes and make-up are as fabulous as you’d expect, while having little to no verisimilitude. Blonde Mary wears a white satin evening gown throughout most of the film, not because that’s what a socialite would wear to a bridge game or the beauty parlor or a divorce court in Reno, but because it is a signifier of what Mary is: an elegant, pampered millionaire’s wife of the noble self-sacrificing variety (as opposed to black-haired Sylvia, the vamp, or fiery Crystal with her wild curly red hair and spaghetti straps). These are types, not people, and RWF wants you to remember that.
More interesting to me is what RWF does with the minor characters. While Cukor presented Mrs. Morehead (Mary’s mother) as down-to-earth with her white hair and sensible shoes, the voice of reason from a saner time when everyone knew the rules, RWF dresses his Mrs Morehead, abrasive and hoarse, in an electric turquoise silk coat and matching turban (Phyllis Diller springs immediately to mind). She’s last generation’s model of socialite, no better than the current crop, just a product of a slightly different context. Cukor’s Nancy, the spinster, is dowdy and plain: the fact that she is a writer makes her interesting, but without a husband she is not a real woman and therefore irrelevant. RWF’s Nancy, on the other hand, is more of the Trinity-from-The-Matrix type. Severe, elegant, self-sufficient, representative of a world that doesn’t yet exist. (She still doesn’t have much of a role, of course, because she doesn’t have a man.)
And then there’s the performances by the actors, at least as important to the overall distancing effect. Not surprisingly, RWF’s actors deliver their lines to emphasize their unnaturalness and play up their artifice. It’s amazing what this simple shift accomplishes. In the 1939 film you identify with Mary and you hate Sylvia and Crystal. You feel sorry for Mary’s daughter and you find Edith and the countess absurd. You think rich socialites and the lengths they go to for their looks are ridiculous, but you secretly enjoy the bizarre fashion sequence (filmed in color!) at the center of the movie. In Women in New York, however, nobody is realistic and nearly everybody is irritating. You listen to what the actors are saying. You don’t like or dislike them, you don’t identify with them, you don’t reject them. You can’t! They’re not people! This changes everything.
Particularly interesting to me is what RWF does with the characters who represent the serving classes. In The Women, the cook and the maid function like a Greek chorus, relaying off-screen narrative developments; Lucy, the woman who runs the dude ranch where the ladies await their divorces, is a cheerful salt-of-the-earth figure who can’t afford the luxury of divorce even though her husband beats her. In the 1939 movie, I think these characters serve another purpose as well: to show winking, eye-rolling solidarity with depression-era audiences: can you believe these crazy rich people? RWF, on the other hand, stylizes these actors’ delivery so that they function almost like music hall or puppet show figures, broad and comedic. And Lucy he depicts as a kind of automaton, endlessly wiping the invisible window that functions like a proscenium arch between audience/camera and stage as she tonelessly describes her situation—the perfect expression of the non-character she actually is in this milieu. (Does the kind and sensitive Mary Haines express any outrage, let alone do anything, about poor Lucy and her intolerable situation? Of course not! Mary’s is the only tragedy Mary is interested in here!)
It’s all pure Brecht, of course, but without the didacticism. The Women was not written to instruct, after all, as Mother Courage or The Good Person of Szechuan were, but only to entertain, by poking fun at a phenomenon everyone at the time could recognize, while reinforcing widely held cultural beliefs about women’s proper role. And I think that’s what makes Women in New York so effective and Fassbinder such a genius. Through pure stagecraft he breaks open this really pretty conventional play and exposes its latent meaning and turns a sneering but complacent portrait of women in a certain place and time into an indictment of the society that produced them.