Kissing Jessica Stein

Enduring female friendships, in various forms, have been explored in both mainstream and independent cinema over the last decade or so, predominantly through the genres of melodrama and comedy. In the early 1990s, female-focussed dramas including Fried Green Tomatoes (Jon Avnet, 1991) and The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang, 1993) sat alongside more politically complex female friendship films such as Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991). Genre hybrid ‘dramedy’s’ dealing specifically with mature female friendship have also characterised the last decade, including The First Wives Club (Hugh Wilson, 1996) and more recently, The Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood (Callie Khouri, 2001).

Youthful, girlfriend-centred scenarios have included the broadly comic depictions of the eponymous heroines of Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion (David Mirkin, 1997) and Josie and the Pussycats (Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont, 2001). In contrast, female friendship is treated in a satisfyingly jaundiced fashion in Terry Zwigoff’s recent independent film, Ghost World (2002). More lateral takes on the sisterhood theme have included the girl-centred action scenarios of Charlie’s Angels (Joseph McGinty Nicol, 2000) and current release Blue Crush (John Stockwell, 2002) and the delightful, animated variation on girlpower, the Powerpuff Girls (Craig McCracken, 2002).

Two current releases, Kissing Jessica Stein (Charles Herman-Wurmfeld, 2001) and The Banger Sisters (Bob Dolman, 2002) expand on the theme of sisterhood in different ways. The former independent, the latter mainstream, both mine the genre of comedy to examine the complex, ambivalent and often contradictory impulses that govern intense female friendships.

With its full frontal title and back-story steeped in the late 1960s rock and roll scene, the particular activities of the sisterhood in Bob Dolman’s The Banger Sisters leaves little to the imagination. The ‘sisters’ in questions, Suzette (Goldie Hawn) and Vinnie (Susan Sarandon), were dedicated groupies who slept with 1960s rock and roll royalty (and some), and have the polaroid ‘cock shots’ to prove it. But some 30 years on, the two have chosen very separate paths. Where Suzette has continued with the groupie lifestyle, still hanging around the music scene and earning a precarious living as a barmaid, Vinnie, now Lavinia, has buried her infamous past in layers of respectable, middle class Phoenix life. With a successful lawyer husband and two over-indulged teenage daughters, Lavinia is suitably horrified when Suzette turns up on her doorstep looking to relive old times—and borrow a bit of cash.

The Banger Sisters

The friendship between the two women—despite the continual distractions of Lavinia’s family and Suzette’s neurotic travelling partner Harry (Geoffrey Rush)—forms the centrepiece of the narrative. But Dolman’s script explores the theme from an interesting angle, tackling the problem of an earlier, intense alliance that has lapsed over several decades. The conundrum of how, if at all, one renegotiates a longstanding friendship that has perhaps outgrown its relevance is a common life experience, but one that has not received much attention on screen. Unlike the majority of films cited above which deal with the development of new relationships, The Banger Sisters is concerned with how the two women rediscover what it is that brought them together in the first place. It is the gradual rekindling of the ‘sisterhood’ that provides the dramatic, and often comic focus of the film.

Dolman’s sympathetic script allows plenty of time for Suzette and Lavinia to remember both the good times and the bad. Early scenes are amusingly brittle, with the two women circling around each other suspiciously. Lavinia, all coiffed, beige Country Club affluence is wary of the still raunchily, rock chic-clad Suzette’s motives, particularly in relation to revelations about their past to her unsuspecting family. Lavinia’s clumsy attempts to buy off Suzette goad the latter, ensuring she hangs around to extract maximum discomfort from the situation.

Suzette’s continued presence attests to how much of herself Lavinia has suppressed in order to take on the trappings of middle class respectability. Lavinia’s comfortable family life puts Suzette’s precarious financial and emotional situation into stark relief. As the women recall salacious episodes from their past, reinforced by brief, atmospheric flashbacks to ’60s scenarios, Lavinia’s disquiet visibly increases. When her husband and daughters contemptuously refuse to believe in her colourful past, Lavinia finally abandons the family for a night out with Suzette.

Dolman signals the gradual reconciliation between the two friends in different ways. For Lavinia, the transformation is a more overtly physical process. Discarding her understated, matronly wardrobe and carefully groomed appearance, she slips back into the old rock chic glam, emerging from Suzette’s hotel bathroom with shaggy hair and tight pants. Where Lavinia begins to adopt Suzette’s style, the latter makes a more subtle shift towards her ‘sister’. Ingratiating herself into Lavinia’s family, Suzette not only earns the grudging respect of Lavinia’s daughters, but comes to realise that she can be a legitimate part of a conventional family scenario.

The most effective and moving demonstration of the ‘Banger Sisters’ reconciliation takes place in a crowded local bar. Restyled in her rock chic gear, Vinnie’s initial self-consciousness gives way to abandon on the dance floor. In a beautifully measured scene, the two women loose themselves in ecstatic dancing, taking them back to the glory days of the ’60s and decisively reconstituting their friendship. It is the sort of scene ordinarily reserved for younger characters, where dance functions as a temporary release from the constraints of reality, or signals the potential liberation of a character. In The Banger Sisters, it might easily have become a mawkish, self-indulgent moment, but Dolman’s sure hand allows his two leads just the right amount of freedom and screen time to make it work.

Much of the pleasure in The Banger Sisters comes from watching such seasoned performers as Hawn and Sarandon go through their paces. In casting these two actresses, Dolman is clearly aware of his two stars’ formidable on screen legacy and there are numerous nods to the personas of both actors, including sly references to Thelma and Louise and The First Wives Club. Homages to these two films are in fact particularly significant. In different ways, both films attest to the primacy of female friendship. A distaff buddy movie with a forceful, feminist agenda, Ridley Scott’s Thelma and Louise arguably stands as one of the most powerful contemporary representations of the bonds of sisterhood. The tragicomic theme of collective female revenge and reinvigoration in The First Wives Club, taps into similar, if more broadly stated, sisterhood sentiments.

While the friendship between Suzette and Vinnie is the central focus of The Banger Sisters, the theme of sisterhood is also treated in a more literal sense, through the relationship between Vinnie’s two daughters. The two siblings are in many ways a complete contrast. Older, blonde, beautiful Hannah, is a classic over-achiever. A straight A student, Hannah has been chosen to give the high school graduation speech and as far as her parents are concerned, is clearly destined for great things. According to Lavinia, her younger daughter Ginger is the ‘artistic’ one. As played by Sarandon’s real life daughter Eva Amurri, she is all gawky, rebellious teen angst. Clearly trying to distinguish herself from her golden older sibling, Ginger is a revolting amalgam of insecurities, manifested in shrill, attention-seeking behaviour.

In early scenes, the two sisters compete for their mother’s attention and father’s approval, their relationship underpinned by the usual sibling resentments. With Suzette’s appearance and Vinnie’s increasingly unpredictable behaviour, the two sisters’ own doubts and uncertainties are thrown into relief. Hannah experiments with drugs and worries about her graduation speech while Ginger obsesses about her failed driving licence test. The two sisters gradually begin to seek each other out, eventually forming a bemused alliance in the face of Vinnie’s transformation.

The Banger Sisters

The ‘Banger Sisters’ come to terms with their past and learn to appreciate the differences in their respective personalities, differences which ultimately shore up their friendship. It is a valuable lesson that sisters Hannah and Ginger also absorb by the end of the film. The version of sisterhood on display in The Banger Sisters is not always a pretty one. Old hostilities and contradictory impulses hold sway, the dynamics of friendship are alternately fractious and affectionate; emotions are often ambivalent. But ultimately, The Banger Sisters attests to female friendship as a potentially powerful affiliation.

If the model of sisterhood on offer in The Banger Sisters is an entertainingly straightforward one, Kissing Jessica Stein advances the subject in another direction. In this independent, same-sex romantic comedy, female friendship is again the defining theme. An adaptation of an off-Broadway play entitled Lipschtick, the script for both the play and film was written by the two lead actors, Heather Juergensen and Jennifer Westfeld. Jurgensen and Westfeld wanted to explore the:

unique bond and intimacy that exists between women in friendship—that leads most of us to ask at one point or another, ‘How is this relationship different from the one I have with my lover, or boyfriend or spouse?’ (1)

Set in contemporary New York, the story focuses on Jessica Stein (Westfeld) and Helen Cooper (Juergensen). The former is an uptight Jewish copy editor who at 28, has almost despaired of meeting Mr. Right. The latter is a sexually adventurous art gallery manager who is keen for new, specifically lesbian experiences.

With the expert assistance of her lubricous gay friends—they suggest Rilke to indicate profundity—Helen places an ad in the personals. Despite her own misgivings, Jessica responds. The two women meet and subsequently embark on a hesitant romance. Jessica, unsurprisingly, is profoundly anxious about the relationship, stalling the sex, and refusing to acknowledge her feelings for Helen to family or friends. Complicating things is the presence of Jessica’s ex-boyfriend now boss, Josh Meyers (Scott Cohen). Josh still harbours feelings for Jessica, and along with Jessica’s friend and co-worker, the heavily pregnant Joan (Jackie Hoffman), becomes suspicious of Jessica’s increasingly and uncharacteristically sunny outlook.

As Jessica’s family prepares for the wedding of her younger brother Daniel (David Aaron Baker), and Helen gets drawn into various Stein family gatherings, the covert basis of relationship becomes an issue. In one of the most moving moments in the film, Jessica’s mother Judy (Tovah Feldshuh) quietly indicates to her daughter that she is both aware and approving of her daughters’ lesbian relationship. Daniel’s wedding provides the unlikely arena for the two women to finally out themselves, attracting the prurient attention of extended Stein family members.

With its neurotic Jewish heroine, droll, dialogue-driven structure and extended riffs on the pitfalls of contemporary romance, Kissing Jessica Stein has been dismissed in some quarters as transparently derivative of a standard Woody Allen scenario. With its hip, sexually savvy characters, explicit language and emphasis on the importance of female friendship, one could argue that the film is equally, if not more indebted to the American HBO series, Sex and the City.

In that series, four single, professional, 30-something women, live and work in New York. Each character experiences the requisite trials and tribulations of dating, but the premise underpinning the series is the strength of the friendship between the four women. The ‘unique bond and intimacy between women in friendship’ is not only played out in various scenarios, but is frequently referred to by the characters themselves. In Kissing Jessica Stein, the relationship between Helen and Jessica begins and ends on the level of friendship, and it is the enduring strength of that friendship that is seen as the most significant outcome in the film.

Kissing Jessica Stein

Part of the comic appeal of the film rests on the witty way in which the two women’s shared interests and personal obsessions—the standard stuff of female friendship—also underpins their relationship as lovers. When they first meet, Jessica’s unease is rapidly dispelled as the discussion turns to dating hell, the indefinable appeal of ‘sexy ugly’ men and the pleasures of blending lipstick brands. As the relationship develops, the two continue to trade fashion tips, admire each other’s footwear and indulge in bouts of mutual admiration about the other’s personal style.

While that level of casual intimacy provides endless comic opportunities, it is exchanges with other characters that ultimately define the basis of Jessica and Helen’s relationship. In an early scene, Helen challenges two men in a bar to tell her precisely why the idea of two women together is so titillating. The two men fumble for answers but finally hit on the “softness of female skin and bodies” and the fact that they “would know how it all works”. It is an observation that finally galvanises the repressed Jessica in the direction of the bedroom. In a subsequent scene, Jessica’s friend Joan asks Helen what it is like kissing a woman. Interestingly, Helen’s reply reiterates the earlier response in the bar, with the additional proviso that it is “non-threatening but very exciting”.

Perhaps the most telling exchange occurs between Jackie and Jessica, following the latter’s revelation about her lesbianism. She recounts to her friend the many reasons why the relationship works, “she’s funny and smart, she gets me, we just really click”. It is a description that many female viewers will recognise as a concise delineation of the basis of regular female friendship. And it is these sentiments that ultimately define the relationship between the two women. In one of the most beguiling, and satisfying romantic comedy denouements in recent decades, Kissing Jessica Stein ends virtually where it begins.

A series of brisk narrative ellipses have established the eventual demise of Helen and Jessica’s relationship. The final scenes involve crosscutting between Helen in bed with a new girlfriend, and an encounter between Jessica and Josh that hints at the possibility of a rekindled romance. But it is the final meeting between Jessica and Helen shortly thereafter—where they begin to dissect the ramifications of that encounter over coffee, that reaffirms the films’ governing theme—the importance of the enduring female friendship. As Jessica has remarked of Helen in her earlier conversation with Josh, “We’re friends now, and friends are good”.

Some reviewers have been critical of the sexual politics in Kissing Jessica Stein regarding the treatment of the same-sex relationship as either naive, or worse still, disingenuous. This seems like a wilful misinterpretation or misreading of the film. As Westfeld and Juergensen have observed, their script never intended to “issue a grand edict about sexual orientation and what determines it”. (2) What it does do, as with The Banger Sisters, is explore the vagaries and vicissitudes of female friendship. While neither film makes any radically new claims about the basis of such friendships, each in its own way makes an appealing contribution to that compelling, ongoing story of sisterhood on the screen.

Endnotes

  1. Production Notes, Kissing Jessica Stein, 3
  2. Production Notes, Kissing Jessica Stein, 3