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Private Benjamin

***
1980

‘…a comedy light on laughs, but heavy with insight into the problems of being a woman…’

Flying in the face of the complete indifference of those who read this blog, I’m sticking with the comedy tip with this popular army comedy from 1980. Goldie Hawn stars as Judy Benjamin, a late-20’s Jewish woman who has lived in something of a family bubble until the abrupt death of her second husband causes her to question her ways. This is a comedy drama that won Hawn and co-star Eileen Brennan Oscar-nominations back in the day, but the adult tone and prankster humour have made it a difficult fit for the cult canon.

Of course, ‘Goldie Hawn joins the army’ is a studio-friendly high concept, most effectively seen when Hawn is seen in fatigues and tin helmet, soaked in pouring rain. Benjamin’s progress through the ranks makes up the first half of the film, as she get recruited (a neat one-scene Harry Dean Stanton does the honours), then comes into conflict with her superiors, notably Brennan as Captain Lewis, and Robert Webber as Colonel Thornbush, who makes unwanted advances when she fearfully pulls out of a parachute jump. ‘I’d call it rape,’ Benjamin tells her when he attempts to back-track; for a light comedy, Benjamin doesn’t pull many punches. Indeed, the second half of the film features pretty much no military humour, as Benjamin moves to France and falls under the spell of Henri (Armand Assante), the latest in a long line of arrogant, controlling men she encounters.

So Howard Zeiff’s film, co-written by Nancy Meyers, is less of a knockabout Stripes comedy as a story of feminist awakening, clearly marked out when Benjamin flashes back to all the men she’s unwisely loved during the climactic wedding ceremony. Every man she meets blames her for her own behaviour, even her parents want her committed to a mental hospital, but this film, produced by Hawn herself, makes it clear that it’s not Benjamin who is mad, it’s the men around her that make it hard for a woman to succeed without playing a sexual card in the favour.

A huge hit in 1980, this is a comedy light on laughs, but heavy with insight into the problems of being a woman. It’s decidedly modern in its willingness to call out misogyny, and while the comedic elements fade fast, the sensitivity to Benjamin’s emotional journey makes it way-ahead-of-its–time for 1980.

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  1. There was nothing Goldie couldn’t do that I wouldn’t have watched–and I still keep going to many of her adorable early roles (Butterflies are Free is a fave). This film however, is almost totally overshadowed by the singular “I’m coming” joke that just wasn’t that great a joke. I remember it making my old man laugh heartily, and that was the sign of low-brow for me! :p Love my dad, but his sense of humor is not refined. 🙂

      • Right! But when I think of Hawn, I don’t think of calling out the patriarchy, and she gains in my estimation for parlaying her ditsy image into roles like this. I guess Fonda was in the same journey circa 79 and 80…your old man sounds like a good laugh!

  2. “Flying in the face of the complete indifference of those who read this blog, I’m sticking with the comedy tip…..”…..I say: Good for you! Always blog what you enjoy the most! I love Goldie Hawn by the way. Have you seen her with Mel Gibson in Bird on a wire? I loved that film! (See…there are comedies I like too😂😂). Can’t tell much about this one, since I haven’t seen it 😅😅😅

  3. I thought I’d missed this one, then you mentioned Assante and it did click. I guess I saw this around the time it came out but I’d completely forgotten it. Not as many laughs as Stripes.

    • It’s notably short on laughs, particularly in the second half, but it’s a much smarter movie than I remembered. I guess age does that to you…when I was a teenager I just wanted to see Hawn drive a tank through a wall…

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