US Release Date: 10-10-1980
Directed by: Howard Zieff
- Goldie Hawn, as
- Judy Benjamin
- Eileen Brennan, as
- Capt. Doreen Lewis
- Armand Assante, as
- Henri Alan Tremont
- Robert Webber, as
- Col. Clay Thornbush
- Sam Wanamaker, as
- Teddy Benjamin
- Barbara Barrie, as
- Harriet Benjamin
- Mary Kay Place, as
- Pvt. Mary Lou Glass
- Hal Williams, as
- Sgt. L.C. Ross
- Harry Dean Stanton, as
- 1st Sgt. Jim Ballard
- Albert Brooks, as
- Yale Goodman
- Alan Oppenheimer, as
- Robert Hanley, as
- P.J. Soles, as
- Pvt. Wanda Winter
- Craig T. Nelson, as
- Capt. William Woodbridge
- Alice Hirson, as
- Mrs. Thornbush
- Sally Kirkland as
Eileen Brennan, Hal Williams and Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin.
I remembered Private Benjamin as a silly, slapstick army comedy with Goldie Hawn doing her best fish-out-of-water routine going through basic training while driving Eileen Brennan crazy as her commanding officer – leading up to Private Benjamin's unlikely success during war games. Boy was I wrong. But then I guess that's bound to happen when you try to remember a movie you saw only once 35 years ago. In reality those scenes take up only about half the movie.
First there is a fairly lengthy opening scene where Goldie marries Albert Brooks. It's her second marriage and it lasts only 6 hours. Then, after the war games scene, the movie still has an entire last act involving Judy Benjamin's romance with a French doctor played by the dashing Armand Assante. He turns out to be a communist however, and Judy must choose between love and her military career. From here the the plot winds its way to its conclusion.
Private Benjamin was the first role tailor made for Goldie Hawn and it was her first movie as executive producer. It was a huge hit in 1980. It inspired a television series and received three Oscar nominations including Best Actress for Hawn, Supporting Actress for Brennan, and Best Original Screenplay. It also propelled Goldie Hawn to the top of the distaff box office heap (knocking off Barbra Streisand who had reigned throughout the 1970s (ironically Howard Zieff had just directed Streisand in 1979's The Main Event before directing Hawn in Private Benjamin)).
Despite the lightweight and meandering plot, Private Benjamin still provides laughs thanks mostly to Goldie Hawn who has never been more adorably ditzy than she is here. Eileen Brennan is likewise hilarious. Every expression on her face being funnier than the last one. And she gets the movie's funniest line when she tells Private Benjamin, “If Patton were alive, he would slap your face!”
In addition to Brennan, Brooks and Assante, the impressive supporting cast also includes Robert Webber, Barbara Barrie, Harry Dean Stanton, Mary Kay Place, Hal Williams and Craig T. Nelson. But it's Goldie Hawn in the titular role that makes Private Benjamin a classic (if flawed) comedy for the ages.
Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin.
Apparently I have stronger memories of this movie than Patrick. I remember it as one of the movies HBO had in heavy rotation during the early 1980s. So I wasn't surprised during this watching that only the middle portion of the film takes place during Benjamin's basic training. However, it's easy to see why that section would be the best remembered, as that is the film's funniest section with its fish out of water setup. The short lived television series was based entirely upon this portion of the plot. As Patrick said, the plot is a meandering one, especially in the third act.
Although it's easy to compare this movie with Bill Murray's Stripes, which would be released a year later, they are different in tone. Stripes is a straight up comedy, but this movie has a feminist message to it. Private Benjamin goes from a woman completely dependent upon the men in her life to being an independent person able to make her own way in the world. Unfortunately, as with many movies that share similar message, this means that nearly every male character in the film is flawed. Judy's father is domineering, and ignores her wishes, her fiancee cheats on her, and her commanding officer attempts to rape her.
The character and situation involving Col. Thornbush (played by Robert Webber) feels like a particular waste. First because it makes light of what is essentially attempted rape, which is odd in a movie with such a feminist message. And second because apart from this, the army is shown to be good for Judy and apart from this incident and her antagonistic relationship with Captain Lewis, is a positive experience for her. It would have been nice if after she failed to jump out of the airplane, Col. Thornbush had behaved more supportively and suggested that she would be better at a desk job and sent her to Europe, instead of being blackmailed into sending her there.
As always, the word adorable is the perfect adjective to describe Goldie Hawn, but I disagree that she has never been more adorably ditzy. That epitaph applies to her performance in Foul Play. She also, despite retaining her youthful good looks, looks a bit older than her supposed 28 years. In fact, Hawn was 35 when the movie was released. Not old by any means, but noticeably older than she's playing.
Brennan is a hilarious scene stealer as Captain Lewis. She reprised her performance in the television version and won an Emmy for her work there. The rest of the supporting cast is fine, but this is Hawn's movie.
At an hour fifty, there's definitely room for tightening, especially in the third act. Judy falls too easily back into the submissive role of fiancee and takes too long to snap out of it. It's an enjoyable movie as it is, but a bit more editing could have improved it.
Armand Assante and Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin
I cannot remember how many times I watched Private Benjamin. It was often but it has been decades since the last time. Whereas I once simply enjoyed it for the humor, I now see it for the feminist message. It is so obvious and in your face, in fact, that it almost became too much this time around.
Scott wrote that nearly every male character is flawed and that's putting it mildly. Judy's father does not just ignore her wishes, he ignores her at every opportunity. Look at the scene where she is trying to have a moment with him alone in his den during her wedding reception. He puts on a ball game and asks her to get him something, oblivious to the fact that she is attempting to talk to him. He only pays her attention through financial assistance. Her husband treats her like a prostitute bought for him by her father. During that same reception, he takes her out to a car and has her perform oral sex on him even though she clearly would rather not. There is no mention of him reciprocating. That night he does her on the bathroom floor, again, despite her objections.
Henri is the first man to give her an orgasm and as such she falls in love with him and we are intended to see him as the one she is meant to be with. He is a French doctor that comes from old money and lives in his family's country manor home just outside of Paris. I think he falls completely into the category of, "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is." Not only does she find out that he cheats on her but he is still hopelessly in love with his previous girlfriend.
As for the attempted rape scene, that should have been played more as a joke or as a means for the Colonel to intimidate Benjamin into jumping or scare her off. I mean, really? Did he actually intend to rape her there on the plane with all of that equipment on and pilots a few feet away?
The rape scene makes little sense but then this entire film plays fast and loose with military life, regulations and for that matter, reality. Benjamin is by no means qualified to be in any sort of special forces unit. She and the other girls seem to get away with any little infraction or scheme they like. Although she is portrayed as the heavy, of sorts, Captain Lewis goes very easy on Benjamin and these other girls. She does not call Benjamin on showing up for review dressed sloppy, with her hair hanging down. She tells one girl that her bra is not regulation apparel but she never stops her from wearing it. That same girl seems to be constantly chewing gum no matter what the dress code.
The one and only time during basic training that we see Lewis punish Benjamin alone is when she has her clean the latrine with her toothbrush after commenting how filthy it was. I think it a very fitting response. It is called teaching responsibility. If you want it clean then go clean it. Benjamin, on the other hand, puts ink in Lewis's shower simply to be vindictive.
Speaking of Captain Lewis, I cannot agree more that Eileen Brennan is hilarious, stealing every one of her scenes. Patrick mentioned the, "Patton" line and the way she says it, with such conviction, made me laugh out loud even though I had heard that line many times before. My other favorite line has always been when the recruits are being given their uniforms and the clueless Benjamin asks, "Does this come in any color besides green?"
There is nothing wrong with a feminist message but it spends too much time on showing the men in her life as assholes and barely any time on her understanding that she allowed them to treat her that way. By the end of the film she has supposedly learned that she needs to find happiness without the dictations of a man. A better ending would have been for her to stand up to Henri and have him change in some way for her. As it is, her only real lesson is to avoid men. What is there to indicate that she will be any wiser with the next guy who makes her cum?
An even better ending would have been to have a final scene between Benjamin and Captain Lewis, where Lewis acknowledges that Benjamin has grown into a sharp, independent woman. It would have been a more pro-female ending than just blaming men. Also, any excuse to give Brennan more screen time would have been a plus.
Photos © Copyright Warner Bros. (1980)