Turning Up The Heat: Eight Great (and Not-So-Great) Female Buddy Comedies
The film from director Paul Feig (of Freaks and Geeks and Bridesmaids fame) is about an arrogant New York FBI agent (Sandra Bullock) and a foul-mouthed Boston detective (Melissa McCarthy) who are thrown together in pursuit of a shadowy drug kingpin. Screenwriter Katie Dippold's crackling script and rapid-fire exchanges were inspired by the long history of male-centric action movies wherein two temperamentally mismatched dudes are forced to work together to bring down a baddie, learning to tolerate—and eventually respect—each other in the process. From 48 Hours and Midnight Run to Lethal Weapon and Shanghai Noon, it's a formula with a rich legacy, but one that until recently included few women. (Never mind women older than 40: Bullock is 48 and McCarthy is 42.) The "OMG women-buddy-cop movie!" reviews make it seem like The Heat is the first-ever film about female buddy-cops. But it's not—1988's Feds starred Rebecca De Mornay as an FBI hopeful with more brawn than skill and Saturday Night Live's Mary Gross as a fellow trainee with smarts to spare.
Since The Heat easily bested its opening-weekend buddy-movie competition, the Channing Tatum/Jamie Foxx vehicle White House Down, with a box-office total of $40 million (compared to WHD's $25.7 million), we'll probably be hearing more on the question of why so few female buddy comedies have the, well, heat of their male-driven counterparts. As we well know, both Hollywood and the mainstream media have a chronic memory problem when it comes to successful, female-driven films that aren't also romantic comedies, treating each recent instance as some kind of sui generis miracle. Dave Karger of Fandango was quoted in an AP story on The Heat's opening-weekend success thusly: "Clearly the massive success of Bridesmaids allowed a movie like this to exist." But although Bridesmaids has certainly had an effect in Hollywood, The Heat also owes some credit to a history of other successful female buddy comedies.
The female buddy comedies of the past may not be as numerous as we'd like, but it would also be a shame if they were erased by cultural amnesia. Here's a list of eight of our favorites that fit the bill, with some adjustments here and there. (The bill being roughly this: Two biggish-name, same-sex stars; a premise that throws them together as mismatched partners; minimal focus on romantic partnership or drama. Car chases, slap fights, business schemes, bathroom-window escapes, unauthorized impersonations, and assorted other hijinks are generally expected.)
9 to 5: "Who knew a bunch of ladies could create comedy gold?" was a common refrain when Bridesmaids first came out. The answer? Oh, I don't know, maybe ask the millions of moviegoers who made 9 to 5—the 20th-highest-grossing comedy ever? The 1980 classic has everything that makes a caper comedy awesome: Memorable characters (Lily Tomlin's overworked and underappreciated Violet, Jane Fonda's naive and floundering Judy, and Dolly Parton's undeservedly gossip-plagued Doralee); a villain whose comeuppance anyone can get behind ("sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot" Franklin Hart), and goofy set pieces involving dead-body mixups and marijuana. But the heart of the movie was its core belief in fairness and equality—and while these aren't generally considered the stuff of big yuks, 9 to 5 was a bona fide feminist comedy. The fact that the movie could still be made today with minimal plot revision? Slightly less hilarious, but that's another story.
How to Beat the High Cost of Living: 1980 was also the year that saw the release of How to Beat the High Cost of Living, which starred Jane Curtin, Susan St. James, and Jessica Lange as three Oregon women in similarly dismal fincancial straits—Jane (St. James) is divorced and pregnant by her new boyfriend, Elaine (Curtin) has been left penniless by her philandering husband, and Louise (Lange) is facing the bankruptcy of her business. With bills, kids, and anxious partners looming in their lives, the trio hatch a plan to rob the giant money ball at their local mall. Yes, I'm pushing the buddy formula by including High Cost, which like 9 to 5 features a trio rather than a pair of buddies, but it too makes personal-is-political rhetoric into smart, resonant action.
Outrageous Fortune: This 1987 caper mixed odd-couple dynamics with rom-com competition in the story of Lauren (Shelley Long) and Sandy (Bette Midler), two would-be New York actors who discover they've been dating the same man (Peter Coyote) when he fakes his own death and unwittingly leads the two women on a madcap cross-country journey involving KGB and CIA agents, undercover brothel infiltrations, and an environmentally deadly toxin that's perpetually in danger of falling into the wrong hands. The unlikely partner formula is what drives the plot—and the pitting of of Long's uptight, snooty striver against Midler's loud bull-in-a-china-shop busybody is mirrored in The Heat's character pairing—but the screenplay (the first from screenwriter Leslie Dixon) took the warring characters well beyond female clichés.
Bagdad Cafe: It might be considered a stretch as far as buddy-comedy criteria go, but I'd make the case for this 1987 art-house film to be included in the female buddy-comedy canon. It definitely has all the comic potential that accompanies two mismatched players—in this case, a German tourist named Jasmine (Marianne Sagebrecht), who leaves her husband on a stretch of highway in the Mojave Desert, and Brenda (CCH Pounder), the argumentative proprietor of the café and motel where Jasmine takes refuge—with far less action. The initially silent traveler manages to win over Brenda, as well as charm the café's quirky patrons, and the two soon become something of a power couple (to the extent that a sleepy café-and-motel business needs power) by instituting a nightly magic show. Bagdad Café's unlikely friendship translated less well to a short-lived TV sitcom starring Whoopi Goldberg and Jean Stapleton, but the movie's quiet endurance is testament to the fact that older female characters need neither romantic competition nor shared enemies to be memorable.
Big Business: In a match that seemed long overdue, 1988's Big Business teamed Bette Midler with Lily Tomlin in a mixed-at-birth farce: Both Tomlin and Midler portray one half of two different sets of twins initially thrown together by a hospital mixup. The story is based loosely on Shakespeare's A Comedy of Errors, but when you've got two times the Tomlin and Midler, the plot doesn't really need to make sense.
B.A.P.S.: Roger Ebert called 1997's B.A.P.S. a movie that "will bring [blacks and whites] together in paralyzing boredom," but that doesn't mean it doesn't harness buddy power in the story of titular "Black-American Princesses" Mickey (Natalie Desselle) and Nisi (Halle Berry), whose dream of making it big and marrying rich takes a less conventional turn when Nisi is convinced to pose as the long-lost granddaughter of a dying multimillionaire.
Dick: Few movies have dared to reimagine crucial moments in political history as teen buddy fodder, but 1999's Dick did, and it's kind of amazing. The story of two young Washington, D.C. teens, one rich (Kirsten Dunst) and one less so (Michelle Williams) who become Richard Nixon's dog walkers and, eventually, the White House leakers known to the world as "Deep Throat," Dick considers that everything from presidential adminstrations to award-winning investigative journalists could be a lot pettier (and more hilarious) than we know.
Bandidas: And finally, 2006's Bandidas is the best female outlaw-buddy movie to ever be unfairly kept from U.S. release by movie-studio short-sightedness. Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz star in the 19th-century-set film as Sara and Maria, respectively wealthy and poor daughters of fathers whose livelihoods are both threatened by an American land baron who has taken over their lands and their banks. Though insurmountably disdainful of each other, this lady-pair answer to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid nevertheless decide to pair up and rob banks. They may bicker all the way, but their increasingly brazen capers avenge their fathers and give back to many farmers and families who have lost their homes to the evil land baron.
Have any female buddies to add? Chime in in the comments!
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