The Women ★★★★½

Exhibit A for not reading anything about movies before you see them: A Technicolor dream fashion montage that comes out of nowhere! (Something I’ve only otherwise noted in Hawks’s Fig Leaves, though surely there must be other examples?) The central conceit might seem gimmicky, but Cukor immediately takes handle on the core of his picture and how to visually articulate it. It’s essentially a picture based on gossip—on things told to one another instead of seen on screen—but like Buñuel (who the recent retrospective on Cukor was named for), he uses this gimmick never as a crutch but a place of exploration, highlighting reactions and most importantly the way people perform in both public and private space. Additionally Cukor’s turns this from a stage play to a fully formed drama complete with really dynamic sense of spacing. His main operating mode is a certain static shot that might be taken as flat, except he’s working toward something like portraiture. He knows when to frame a woman alone or to surround her with a community, or do a sense of both (the long tracking shot after Norma Scheaer first sees Joan Crawford left me quite breathless).

Cukor understands the highs and lows of melodrama and is not afraid to use them to his advantage, like the phone call in Reno which seems so clearly like the end of the picture, only to turn it on its head (if the film has a fault, it has something like 10 almost endings). Crawford, Russell, Goddard, and Fontaine are all aces, and part of the success of the picture is that each registers a distinct personality (though never a caricature), but makes them all fit within the same universe instead of highlighting a tension between them. Plus huge shout out to the young Virginia Weilder, one of the better young child actors I’ve seen from the 1930s, who nails her small moment right after she learns of her parents’ divorce. Not sure if this is the queer masterpiece claimed in Doty’s canonical book, but it is certainly one of the most perfect examples of Hollywood system doing exactly what it was meant to do.