"The Group" - The Best Chick Flick You've Never Seen
Famed director Sidney Lumet recently died after a long and illustrious career. Almost all of the obituaries concentrated on his tough New York pictures like Dog Day Afternoon and Serpico. Most of Lumet's films were about male characters and their various struggles, and there was almost no mention about the women Lumet directed. Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight (Network) and Ingrid Bergman (Murder on the Orient Express) all won Academy Awards. And in 1962 Katharine Hepburn was Oscar nominated for playing Mary Tyrone in Lumet's great film of Eugene O'Neil's Long Day's Journey Into Night. Many consider this to be Hepburn's finest performance.
Lumet also made one great women's pictures— The Group— in 1966.
Based on Mary McCarthy's best selling 1963 novel, The Group tells the story of eight women from their 1933 graduation at Vassar until the funeral of one in 1940. The films covers everything from politics to lesbianism during this tumultuous period in American history, and it's one of the most fascinating films ever made.
The cast is remarkable. Nineteen-year-old Candice Bergen made her screen debut as Lakey, the gorgeous lesbian who has the smallest part in both the book and film, but whose final scene with a young Larry Hagman (as an abusive husband) is pretty amazing. The other stars include Shirley Knight as the lovely Polly, who is having an affair with Hal Holbrook while trying to support her mentally ill father; Joan Hackett as the Boston Brahmim who discovery of sex (with Richard Mulligan) was the shocking highlight of the book; Joanna Pettett plays the pivotal role of Kay, the one outsider and whose marriage is a disaster from day one; Jessica Walter has the scene-stealing roleas the venomous Libby "whose mouth was like a red gash"; Elizabeth Hartman, fresh from her hit A Patch of Blue plays poor Priss; and Kathleen Widdoes, playing the a-sexual Helena, and Mary Robin Redd as Pokey, round out the cast.
Famed critic Pauline Kael wrote a lengthy study called "The Making of the Group" published in Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang, and an abbreviated version appeared in Life Magazine. While Kael was critical of Lumet and his artistic decisions she did state, "What gives the movie its vitality... and despite its carelessness and sloppy style, it is one of the few interesting American movies of recent years." Kael also fixated on Bergen, saying the talented cast was "upstaged by a goddess. Bergen is a natural goddess and movies dote on goddesses. The camera feasts on natural beauty."
Bergen herself wrote a devastating "What I Did Last Summer" article for Esquire in which she profiled the other girls and talked about the filming. Her writing was shrewd and revelatory. She laughs as being told her role as a lesbian was "a great chance to make a statement" and it was a revelation to see a beautiful, happy, well-adjusted lesbian in American films at this period. Up until then most lesbians had to kill themselves, like Shirley Maclaine in The Children's Hour.
Most of the film's footage is on Shirley Knight, Joan Hackett (British Academy Award nominee), Jessica Walter and Joanna Pettet. Pettet has the most difficult role and is probably the least talented of the eight girls. Critic Pauline Kael wrote that Pettet should have switched parts with two-time Oscar nominee Knight, and she may be correct, but Pettet still succeeds in her performance as the tormented Kay. Walter, meanwhile, is a total delight as the self centered Libby. The men do not have much to do, but it is fun see a young pre-Dallas Larry Hagman as a brutish husband.
The Group is a wonderful 2 1/2 hour guilty pleasure. If you want to see eight wonderful actresses at the beginning of their careers in a fascinating study on American women— long before women's liberation— buy this film. From the opening choral soundtrack as the girls are being introduced, to the great ending with Bergen and Hagman, director Lumet proved that he was just as great directing women as he was with men. Sadly, both Hackett and Hartman are now dead. Hackett died from cancer after her Oscar nominated turn in Only When I Laugh and poor Hartman committed suicide when her career started going down hill.
The Group is right up there with The Women as one of the best studies on females ever filmed. It was never released commercially on DVD but is now available from Amazon.com via their "on demand" series. Here's a great clip with Bergen and Hagman.