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Awesome: 19.05%
Worth A Look: 14.29%
Average: 19.05%
Pretty Bad47.62%
Total Crap: 0%

1 review, 15 user ratings

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Private Benjamin
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by David Abrams

"Private Benjamin, ten-HUT! You need to shape up or ship out!"
2 stars

In honor of National Blonde Day on July 9 (Mission: “To stop the widespread belief that blondes are dumb and incapable” Motto: “Be true to your roots” Sponsor: Vidal Sassoon), I’ve been exploring the art of blonde in the cinema. First, LEGALLY BLONDE with Reese Witherspoon; and now, stepping into the way-back machine, PRIVATE BENJAMIN starring Goldie Hawn. Despite the two decades separating them, both movies share similarities: fair-haired leading ladies who are “true to their roots” when confronted by piggish male sexism. Both stalwart women must fight the system to prove that there is indeed a place for hair-color diversity in this world. Both star actresses who are (or, were) at their peak.

Losing Private Benjamin...

Perhaps it’s because time hasn’t been kind to Private Benjamin, but I sure laughed a lot more when watching Legally Blonde. Goldie Hawn’s moment of blonde glory from 1980 is now starting to show its split ends. It’s a sincere film, but it’s hard to see it as much more than an interesting artifact of women’s lib cinema. Most likely, I’ll feel the same way about Legally Blonde in 20 years.

Somehow, I missed Private Benjamin when it was in theaters…which is puzzling, since that was when I was at the peak of my obsession with movies (you think I watch a lot of films now? You shoulda seen me then). Even after it was nominated for three Oscars—Hawn, co-star Eileen Brennan, and screenwriters Charles Shyer, Nancy Meyers and Harvey Miller—I still didn’t see it. Even after joining the Army in 1988 and watching a platoon of other boot camp movies (Stripes, Full Metal Jacket, and, God forgive me, Pauly Shore’s You’re in the Army Now), even then Private Benjamin went unwatched. I guess it took National Blonde Day to push me over the edge.

When Judy Benjamin’s husband (Albert Brooks) has a heart attack in the middle of sex on their wedding night, she’s cut adrift in a world that’s not just anti-blonde, it’s practically anti-women. Or so it seems to this sheltered Jewish girl who has spent the majority of her life playing the role of servant to her father (Sam Wanamaker), her first (unseen) husband and, for six brutish hours, her second husband. As she sobs to a radio call-in host, “I’ve never not belonged to someone.” Judy has no sense of who Judy is, but thanks to the slick salesmanship of an Army recruiter (Harry Dean Stanton) she’s told she can be all she can be.

“Oooh, look at that,” she says when the recruiter shows her a brochure of a California Army base, “are those condos? And those boats in the harbor—those are yachts?” To his credit, the recruiter doesn’t say “yes,” but then he doesn’t exactly say “no,” either. Instead, he promises Judy that everyone gets his (or her) own private room—a lie that’s sure to make every American who’s gone through boot camp burst into gales of laughter.

And so, snookered by yet another man, Judy Benjamin shows up at the fictional Fort Biloxi in the middle of the Mississippi swamp. Her welcoming committee includes Drill Sergeant L.C. Ross (Hal Williams), Captain Doreen Lewis (Brennan) and a platoon of movie stereotypes (the troublemaker, the fat girl, the prissy know-it-all, etc. ad nauseum). Pay close attention because this is where the funniest lines in the movie reside as Private Benjamin confronts the harsh reality of military life (“I think they sent me to the wrong place…See, I did join the Army, but I joined a different Army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms.”). After the fish-out-of-water segment dries out, the movie settles into a dull, plodding pace as Judy gets empowered, wins the war-game exercise and eventually experiences her first orgasm (courtesy of a new lover—a French gynecologist, no less!—played by Armand Assante).

I would have expected better writing—dialogue that sparkled—from the Meyers-Shyer team (which also brought us the Father of the Bride remakes and Baby Boom—decently funny movies). Instead, we get ham-handed lines like the one Judy’s father delivers: “You are obviously incapable of making your own decisions.” The only natural response to that would be, “I’ll show you!” And that’s what the entire movie seems to be dedicated to—showing us that women have come a long way, baby.

Again, I realize I have to put Private Benjamin in the context of its time. Fully integrating women into the military was still a touchy subject in the Carter-administration ranks (much less so nowadays, though there are still plenty of rough edges) and the script takes plenty of stabs at equality. Despite the fact that Judy is assigned to an elite, all-male airborne unit, she still has to put up with a commanding officer who gropes her at 1,300 feet. In 1980, the sermon Private Benjamin preached was probably very topical and struck more than a couple of chords in the military establishment; but today, it feels like preaching to the choir.

All we’re left with is Private Benjamin as entertainment. Which isn’t much. If I want to laugh at memories of my Army experience, I’ll plug Bill Murray’s Stripes into the home theater system. And that’s a fact, Jack! (Note: I must admit I bear a prejudicial affection for Stripes since it was filmed at Fort Knox, Kentucky about eight years before I went through basic training there)

We’re also left with a good-but-not-great pair of performances from Hawn and Brennan. Hawn (who also produced Private Benjamin) is less giggly and more sympathetic than in most of her roles from that era. With her slight frame and straggly hair, she’s good at showing how Judy is a scrappy little fighter; but the character eventually pales into a bland symbol of feminism. Ironically, Judy makes reference to a much more interesting character in another movie from the early 1980s: An Unmarried Woman. Hawn’s co-star Brennan plays the Lou Gossett wannabe drill sergeant with a bizarre style that mainly consists of moving her lower jaw around and speaking in an alcoholic slur. I couldn’t decide whether she was trying to have fun with the role or make fun of women in the Army. Strange, strange performance. Though I never saw the TV series spin-off from this movie, Brennan did earn an Emmy and a Golden Globe for her role there.

After watching Private Benjamin for the first time after all these years, I’m even more mystified why both women were nominated for Oscars. Taking a look at the winners for that year, I can see why. While I would never want to take away the Best Actress statuette from Sissy Spacek (for Coal Miner’s Daughter) or the Best Supporting Actress Oscar from Mary Steenburgen (for Melvin and Howard), those performances aren’t the best I’ve ever seen; they were just the best that Hollywood had to offer that year, according to the Academy. [Grumble: I still think Mary Tyler Moore wuz robbed of a Best Actress Academy Award for Ordinary People] It’s interesting to note that both Spacek and Steenburgen also played women bucking the male-dominated system (I’ll never forget that scene in Melvin and Howard where Steenburgen, fed up with her boss, walks off the job, stripping off her clothes as she goes, as if to say, “I’m finally unencumbered by all this male crap!).

Judy Benjamin herself summed it up pretty nicely for me when she whined, “Has anyone ever died from basic training?” No, but I came pretty close while watching this off-key anthem to feminism. Surely, blondes can have more fun than to spend their time watching PRIVATE BENJAMIN.

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originally posted: 07/09/01 07:05:43
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User Comments

3/07/08 art VERY AMUSING 4 stars
1/19/08 Pamela White goldie makes the movie 3 stars
9/15/07 Phil M. Aficionado Really liked it "back then" but it's just so-so nonsense now in 2007. Sorry Goldie. 3 stars
10/28/05 TPS Was this film funny? Not often. A journey with a beginning but no end. 2 stars
9/02/05 ES Way too drawn out, dull parts over take the good parts, Goldie is an unlikeable shrew 2 stars
7/16/05 Dan This movie is disappointing, slowmoving, and dreary. Last half of movie is boring. 2 stars
12/07/02 Kyle I think it's a hoot! 5 stars
10/14/02 Charles Tatum Goldie Hawn is the Meg Ryan of twenty years ago 3 stars
2/20/02 Xaver Eileen Brennan is great. Now a bit dated, but still funny. 4 stars
11/24/01 Andrew Carden Pretty Unfunny and Stupid Movie With Mis-Fire Gags That Don't Work. 2 stars
10/21/01 Christine A favorite Goldie movie for me. 4 stars
10/16/01 RehabBoy Great Movie!! Army Fun at it's best 5 stars
9/23/01 Larry Smith I watch Goldie Hawn when ever this movie is shown! 5 stars
9/06/01 bianca I loved it. I love goldie hawn!! 5 stars
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  10-Oct-1980 (R)
  DVD: 29-Oct-1997



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