Film & Television

‘Book Club’: A Reluctant Two-Star Review of a Four-Star Film

It seems I spend an inordinate amount of my moviegoing time bemoaning the dearth of roles for older actresses. So I really wanted to like Book Club; in fact, I wanted to love it. After all, it’s a breezy summer rom-com with not one, not two, not even three, but four of Hollywood’s most celebrated female stars, all of whom are well into their 60s and beyond. Add in a spicy book, copious amounts of wine, and four dashing suitors, and what’s not to love?

Well, the script, to start with. But I’ll address that later.

First, let’s talk about Book Club‘s phenomenal leading ladies, any of whom in a starring role would be reason enough to celebrate.

Jane Fonda, at age 80, is the oldest of our heroines. The daughter of Hollywood royalty (Henry Fonda was her father), Fonda originally studied art but was lured into the family business by Lee Strasberg. “I went to the Actors Studio and Lee told me I had talent. Real talent. It was the first time that anyone, except my father — who had to say so — told me I was good at anything. It was a turning point in my life. I went to bed thinking about acting. I woke up thinking about acting. It was like the roof had come off my life!” After some promising early roles, she became a bona fide star in 1967’s Barefoot in the Park, and a bona fide sex symbol a year later in Barbarella. She won her first Academy Award in 1971, for Klute, and her second in 1979, for Coming Home. She retired, briefly, in the 1990s, but returned to the screen and stage the following decade. Politically active (and often controversial), Fonda is also an author, a fitness guru, and, today, as the costar (with good friend Lily Tomlin) of Grace and Frankie, she personifies an elegant retirement that’s anything but retiring.

In Book Club, Fonda is Vivian, a successful hotelier who has never married but enjoys an active sex life. As she explains, she “never sleeps with men.” She kicks them out after enjoying their company and before she turns in for the night. In push-up bras, over-the-knee boots, and a dramatic red wig, Vivian is the one who introduces the book club to Fifty Shades of Grey.

Diane Keaton is 72. She began her acting career in the original cast of Hair, understudying the role of Sheila and famously refusing to appear nude with the rest of the ensemble. Her breakthrough film role was Kay in The Godfather (she reprised the character in Godfathers II and III), but she is best known for her collaborations with Woody Allen, including 1977’s Annie Hall, which earned her the Best Actress Oscar. She seemed to transition smoothly from ditzy ingénue to romantic lead to mother to her more recent roles as love-struck and lovably awkward retirees, in Something’s Gotta Give and And So It Goes opposite aging Hollywood bad boys Jack Nicholson and Michael Douglas, respectively. In real life, Keaton has been caught up in high-profile romances (Woody, Allen, Warren Beatty, Al Pacino). She never married, noting, “I don’t think that because I’m not married it’s made my life any less. That old maid myth is garbage,” but adopted two children. In addition to her acting, Keaton is a singer, a photographer and an interior designer. She’s a vocal critic of plastic surgery and was selected as “the new face of L’Oréal” ten years ago.

In her current role, Diane is . . . Diane, a fairly recent widow and level-headed mother of two grown — and obnoxiously overbearing — daughters. Positioned as Book Club‘s most grounded heroine (Diane narrates the rather cheesy opening), she’s almost ready to experience life and love again, provided that her children give her a bit of breathing room.

Also 72, Candice Bergen is the movie’s only star without an Oscar (despite a 1980 nomination for Starting Over). She does have five Emmys though. Daughter of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen, she began her film career in 1966 in the screen adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s protofeminist novel The Group. She appeared in a number of movies, including a couple of Westerns with Gene Hackman, before her memorable role as Susan in Mike Nichols’ Carnal Knowledge. In the 80s, Bergen starred in The Wind and the Lion (with Sean Connery), Oliver’s Story(with Ryan O’Neal), Rich and Famous (with Jacqueline Bisset), and Gandhi (with Ben Kingsley), before taking her most iconic role, and one that would land her in hot water with the then administration. As Murphy in Murphy Brown, Bergen tackled such topics as alcoholism, breast cancer, and, most famously, single motherhood. Vice President Quayle used a Murphy Brown plot development in his speech, condemning her for “mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice.” The speech was quickly woven into an episode of the series, but Bergen herself, while admitting that Quayle was taking “an arrogant and uninformed posture,” declared that it was a “speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.” Bergen has continued to work steadily in such projects as the Miss Congeniality movies, and TV’s Boston Legal. Taking its cue from the revival of Roseanne (and presenting a decidedly more liberal view), Murphy Brown will begin airing new episodes this fall.

Bergen plays Sharon in Book Club, a no-nonsense federal judge who is still stinging long after her divorce. As her ex prepares to marry a much younger woman — and urged on by her friends and the racy scenes in  Fifty Shades — Sharon goes online to meet Mr. Right (or maybe just Mr. Right Now).

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  • Giovanna June 1, 2018 at 4:20 pm

    I thought the name of Candice Bergen’s and Jacqueline Bisset’s movie was “Rich and Famous.” Did it also have the title “Almost Famous”?

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