The Double Feature: Bridesmaids and Stage Door
This month’s double feature is all about celebrating two female-driven films that examine the subtle complexities of female friendships and rivalries while offering up killer dialogue. We will be pairing Bridesmaids with a lesser-known classic from 1937, Stage Door, a film about a group of aspiring actresses who live together in a New York City boarding house. Together these two films make for a Bechdel Test-busting double bill that will make you laugh, cry (especially Stage Door) and curse Hollywood for not giving us more ensemble films overflowing with talented actresses.
When it was released in 2011, Bridesmaids ushered in months of discussions about the state of women in comedy. Prior to the movie, the traditional thinking in Hollywood was there was no market for films about funny women. A year later and not much has changed (on the big screen anyway, the small screen has seen a female-centric comedy explosion) despite Bridesmaids‘s overwhelming success. Even though the film hasn’t ushered in a new wave of successful comedies starring women just yet, it stands as a shining example of just how good the comedy genre (regardless of the protagonist’s gender) can be.
Watching Annie (Kristen Wiig) so spectacularly fall apart as she attempts to fulfill her maid of honor duties is funny and at times painful. Annie’s life is stuck in neutral, partly because she is a victim of circumstances beyond her control (stupid economy) and partly because she holds herself back out of fear and a general lack of confidence. Her downward spiral is triggered by the idea that she’s not only losing her best friend, Lillian, to a husband, but to another woman in the form of the type-A, successful Helen. Annie and Helen’s rivalry for the title of Lillian’s BFF is the cause of most of Annie’s angst, and it directly leads to the now infamous wedding dress shop scene–a moment that makes you cringe and laugh all at once.
Bridesmaids is a movie that I can’t seem to get enough of. I can only speak for myself here, but I for one was craving a story about a woman like Annie, someone who is kind of a mess, who is petty and silly, but also a great friend when she rises above her own baggage. But what sets Bridesmaids apart from other comedies the most is the sheer amount of quirky, funny and wonderful women that surround Annie, from Lillian, played by the always wonderful Maya Rudolph, to the sublime Melissa McCarthy, who was finally given a shot at the fame she has always deserved.
Like Bridesmaids, Stage Door features a talented ensemble of actresses, but where Bridesmaids is a go for broke comedy, Stage Door is a dramatic film with strong comedic beats. The humor that cuts through the film’s dramatic core can be attributed to the great Ginger Rogers and Lucille Ball, as well as to the countless other actresses that appear in the film’s rambunctious boarding house common room. The rapid fire dialogue in those scenes is Stage Door‘s greatest asset, you could watch the movie a dozen times and still not catch all of the lines and visuals (keep an eye out for Eva Arden walking around balancing a cat on her shoulders). The truly remarkable thing is the majority of the dialogue in those scenes was improvised, which only makes the witty back and forths more impressive.
The film isn’t all laughs though. The arrival of Katharine Hepburn’s rich girl with acting aspirations, Terry, is what upsets the delicate balance of the boarding house and sparks a rivalry between Terry and Ginger Rogers’s Jean. Jean and the other residents of the house carry themselves with a cynical, world-weariness that Terry, who comes from a life of privilege, can’t understand. Her attitude immediately brands her as an outcast among the other women, but it doesn’t stop her from snatching up a job no one believes she deserves. The job comes at the expensive of Kay, the house’s sweetest and most beloved resident, played with a quiet gracefulness by Andrea Leeds.
Stage Door possesses a quality of timelessness that never seems to fade–people are always striking out in hopes of living their dreams, and the struggle is infinitely watchable. The film expertly toes the line between being a straight screwball comedy and a melancholy drama, and it’s that mixing of tones that lends it a sense of reality. It’s a bittersweet story and the actresses–particularly Rogers and Ball–shine throughout.
Together, Bridesmaids and Stage Door create a weird sense of symmetry. For all of its humor, Bridesmaids contains more than its fair share of pathos. Annie’s struggle to find a path is not so different from the exhausted actresses who can’t seem to find work. Likewise, the rivalries that drive both films are far more layered than your typical rivalries between women in films usually are, where the source of conflict would traditionally be a man, in both films it is an issue of privilege. Annie and Jean are tough, sharp-tongued women defending their turf from a wealthy interloper, but they also both eventually find some common ground with the woman they perceive to be causing them so much trouble.
Let’s set the plot aside for a moment though. The best argument I can offer for viewing these two films together is so you can witness the breakout roles of Lucille Ball and Melissa McCarthy side-by-side. These films weren’t either woman’s first Hollywood gig, but they are the films that made audiences take notice of their immense comedic talents. Ball and McCarthy are both true scene stealers, and while Ball’s role isn’t as flashy as McCarthy’s, it is clear she was Stage Door‘s answer to Megan. Quippy and confident, she commands the screen even when Hepburn is around.
Rent them both and then invite some friends over so you can illustrate just how ridiculous all of those “hey, look women can be funny too!” articles that appeared after Bridesmaids‘s release were. Clearly, women have been being funny since at least 1937.
I hope you enjoyed this month’s Double Feature, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on both films. Are you tempted to watch them together now? What other movies do you think Bridesmaids or Stage Door would pair well with? Share your ideas in the comment section!
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