By Kristin Battestella
I couldn’t help myself recently and tuned in for my umpteenth viewing of the 1989 Roseanne Barr comedy She-Devil. My VHS copy is very worn out, for the wit and humor here never get old. In fact, She-Devil has grown better with age.
Chubby and bored housewife Ruth (Barr) reads romance novels and dreams of making herself beautiful. Unfortunately, she is not the thin, talented, blonde, enchanting author Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep). When Ruth and her husband, accountant Bob Patchett (Ed Begley, Jr.), meet Fisher at a dinner party, Ruth’s home life quickly goes from bad to worse. Bob and Mary have an affair; and after a disastrous dinner with Bob’s parents, Ruth takes matters into her own hands. She vows to destroy Bob’s home, family, career, and freedom.
Oscar phenom Meryl Streep (Sophia’s Choice, The Hours, Doubt) is top billed for She-Devil, but her screen time is less than Roseanne’s is. She does, however, make the most of the role and looks to be having a good time with the script. In spite of her dramatic success, Streep is equally talented at comedy- as we would later see in 1992’s Death Becomes Her. Her socialite Mary Fisher is the straight man against Roseanne’s jokes, but as her life falls apart, Streep brings forth Mary’s slapstick degrade. Her delivery also subtly changes. Whether she’s smooth taking marshmallows with her publisher or yelling and cursing out the kids, we know Mary means business. It makes for some great quotes: ‘You may not know this, Bob, but I’m an artist!’ and ‘Computers don’t have Swiss Bank Accounts, Bob!’
Unlike her crude but heartwarming mom on her hit show Roseanne, in She-Devil, Barr plays Ruth as anything but likeable. Though we may not think of her as statuesque, it appears that Roseanne was made up to be very ugly here. She starts out in horrible eighties patterns and muumuus, with bad hair and big moles. As Ruth grows confident in her vengeance and schemes, her style sharpens and proper makeup brings Barr’s charm forth. We’re not supposed to like Ruth in comparison with the divine Mary Fisher, but her sad home life and subsequent revenge is probably the reality of many a housewife. Every time I use the mircrowave, I think of Ruth putting aerosol cans in it to blow up her house. It’s extreme yes, but its understandable rage to a used and abused housewife. We delight in Ruth’s plan as she becomes nurse Vesta Rose, and some of her wit and humor should be loved and laughed at (but not her putting the iron in the washer!) When I began my career in activities at a senior center, my sister said, ‘Do you have the old people play soccer like Roseanne did in She-Devil?’
Ed Begley Jr. (St. Elsewhere, 7th Heaven, Living with Ed) is perfect as the sleezy husband and even sleezier accountant who gets what he deserves. Even though he is the catalyst to both Ruth and Mary’s transformations, Begley’s Bob is secondary to the women onscreen. When he begins a second affair with Vesta Rose cohort Olivia Honey (Maria Pitillo,
A fine cast at the height of its eighties stardom is one thing, but they need a great script from which to work. Thankfully, director Susan Seidelman (Desperately Seeking Susan, Sex and the City) and writers Barry Strugatz and Mark R. Burns (Married to the Mob) provide a witty and multilayered story from Fay Weldon’s The Life and Loves of A She-Devil. The dialogue says more than its words, and the speech is balanced in time with physical comedy and looks from the actors. A lot of the script depends on delivery, but the cast is on form in giving a line-whether it is deadpan or all out. When asked by Bob where she is going, Ruth replies calmly, ‘I don’t know, Bob. Into my future, I guess.’ It’s almost so stupid, it’s funny, but She-Devil is much more intelligent than that.
Of course, a few sparse effects and clothing styles from She-Devil have not stood the test of time. Even when Ruth and Mary are done up, its eighties sheek. Younger folks might be put off by this look, but the funnies win against art and set design. In fact, Mary’s over the top Dynasty style works now more so then it did in 1989. We know this woman is a bit out of touch with the little people-who really wears all pink and has hats and gloves to match everything? In tune audiophiles will notice the quirky score from Lord of the Rings genius
You can find She-Devil on television from time to time, and though now out of print, the DVD can be found for a family fun night. I was however, surprised by the edited version I found On Demand. Four letter words and butt shots, I can understand those being cut; but the shaving of some untaundry sex scenes and not others confused me. Bastard was also replaced with Bum, but since it’s critical to the plot, there was no way to cut out Bob’s photocopies of Olivia’s lacey bosom. Compared to many films today, there’s nothing majorly inappropriate in She-Devil. I watch it with my nieces-sometimes they beg to pop She-Devil in the VCR. The uncut PG -13 is safe enough for family viewing. If you’re prudish enough to be upset by bastard and humorous butt shots, a filtered version of the film won’t change the adulterous and revengeful plot.
She-Devil was a chick flick before there was such a thing. Largely a story for women, I imagine some of things here might make male viewers uncomfortable. ‘Hell hath no fury…’ remember. Nonetheless, there’s humor enough for everyone-male, female, young, and old. Great gags, quotes, and a fine cast trump any naughtiness or eighties vibes. You and yours can enjoy She-Devil again and again.