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'First Wives': A Film of Their Own

Movies: Middle-aged women suddenly appear to have muscle in Hollywood, as a female cast powers a picture that breaks box-office records.

September 24, 1996|CLAUDIA PUIG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Could it be that being middle-aged and female has become a Hollywood box-office asset?

Judging from the runaway success of Paramount's "The First Wives Club"--which shattered box-office doldrums this weekend by taking in a record-breaking $18.9 million--things may be turning around for a demographic that has been noticeably absent from the screen.

"The First Wives Club," which stars Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton, enjoyed the biggest opening weekend ever for a movie driven by a female cast, according to John Krier, president of Exhibitor Relations Co. It topped the record $14.1 million brought in by "Waiting to Exhale" on its opening weekend in December 1995.

The revenge comedy, which opened Friday and also features cameo appearances by Gloria Steinem, Ivana Trump and Ed Koch, also had the biggest September opening weekend ever, topping last year's "Seven," which starred Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman as a pair of police detectives hunting down a serial killer and took in $13.9 million.

It provided a boost to the sagging box office, arriving with the highest opening take since "A Time to Kill's" $19.6 million in late July.

"This shows that there's a big market out there for pictures about women and that the moviegoing demographic has shifted," said Barry London, vice chairman of Paramount's motion picture group.

Women made up 59% of "The First Wives Club's" audience last weekend, according to studio research and exit polls, with most of the audience being over 25, London said. The common wisdom among studio executives had been that women don't rush out to see a movie that interests them on opening weekend, a notion that the strong turnout for "The First Wives Club" dispels.

The film, which received mixed reviews, is a comedy about a trio of 45-ish women who plot revenge after being dumped by their husbands for younger versions of themselves. In the process, the film sends up male vanity and the cross-gender obsession with youth as it celebrates the healing power of friendship, said Scott Rudin, the film's producer.

"It's a combination of a good time and tapping into a sociological phenomenon," he said. "The idea and the subject are extremely powerful to a lot of people."

The filmmakers say the "The First Wives Club" draws upon strong feelings about divorce, relationships and aging.

"If you look at the number of marriages that end in divorce, if you make a movie about divorce, the audience is there," Rudin said. "But it's not about male-bashing. It's about vanity and dealing with our age. What it really is about is female friendship and empowerment. It shows that you can have a whole life ahead of you at 45."

But perhaps just as powerful a draw is the lure of seeing in one movie three of the most popular comedic actresses currently working.

"You cannot underestimate the appeal of these three women together," Rudin said. "It's like having three Lucys in a movie together."

The producer said this movie is "broader, sillier and more satirical" than "Waiting to Exhale," which likewise struck a chord with female moviegoers, particularly with African American women.

"It doesn't really have the teeth of 'Waiting to Exhale,' " Rudin added.

Playing to packed houses, "The First Wives Club" drew 36% of the weekend's moviegoing audience, translating to nearly $10,000 in business per theater screen. Paramount plans to add 350 to 400 prints to the existing 1,922 screens nationwide.

"I was not in any way expecting this kind of response," Rudin said. "I asked a lot of my married friends, 'What the hell are they doing to their wives to make them feel like this?' "

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