Ruth (Roseanne Barr) is married to high-flying accountant Bob Patchett (Ed Begley Jr). But when Bob meets best-selling romantic novelist Mary Fisher (Meryl Streep) at a party, his head is turned. So much so that he leaves Ruth and moves in with Mary. Mary swears revenge…
Fay Weldon’s black comedy The Life and Loves of a She-Devil had previously been adapted for BBC television in 1986. Dennis Waterman and Patricia Hodge had done well in the roles later played by Begley and Streep, but Julie T. Wallace was sensational as Ruth, the She-Devil. Weldon’s story was of the revenge of the “ugly” against the beautiful. Wallace, though not ugly, certainly didn’t conform to conventional ideas of attractiveness, for one thing being 6’2” tall. She was perfectly cast and (perhaps for the same reason) not had such a good role since, though she continues to work. You can watch The Life and Loves of a She-Devil on DVD, and I’d recommend you do so: it’s much sharper and wittier and blacker than this misfiring Hollywood remake.
Susan Seidelman had had a big hit with her second film, Desperately Seeking Susan. A lot of that had been due to the casting of an up-and-coming singer called Madonna, though quite a few people (myself included) gave as much credit, if not more, to Rosanna Arquette for carrying that film. Seidelman’s Making Mr. Right had been a respectable follow-up, though nowhere near as commercially successful. So, reputedly, was 1989’s Cookie, which I haven’t seen. But She-Devil was a flop and she has not directed for a major studio since, and has worked mostly in television. You could make a case for Hollywood sexism, where (for example) Michael Cimino continued to direct after Heaven’s Gate but Elaine May didn’t after Ishtar. More recently, Guy Ritchie will certainly survive Swept Away. But someone like Seidelman cannot find work. This is a pity, as while not a great director, at her best she’s a more than capable one, especially with comedies. And far less able male directors continue to be employed. But She-Devil was a misfire back in 1989. Watching it again in 2005 doesn’t change it.
On paper it certainly looked good, but chemistry is notoriously difficult to predict. Meryl Streep was a great dramatic actress, no question, but around this time was dogged by comments that she was little more than one incredibly authentic foreign accent after another. She-Devil gave her a chance to branch out into comedy. Roseanne Barr, meanwhile, was a major TV star looking for a vehicle to break into movies. She-Devil shows why Barr didn’t click with cinema audiences. Her television persona was someone like us. On the big screen, her large personality seems diminished. It also doesn’t help that Hollywood’s idea of female “unattractiveness” isn’t anywhere near as radical as the BBC’s. In Barr’s case it extends to little more than overweight and a large mole on her upper lip. A terrible, avenging demon she is not. Meanwhile, Streep gives one of the worst performances of her entire career. Her Mary Fisher is a shrieking caricature, overacted to the hilt, which fatally unbalances the film by overshadowing Ruth. Streep went on to show some ability in comedy: she’s far more natural in the following year’s Postcards from the Edge. Ed Begley Jr is simply bland in what was a fairly thankless role in the original serial. As this is a woman’s movie, he gets the gratuitous nude scene. For similar reasons, A. Martinez walks around with his shirt undone looking hunky as Mary’s butler. Meanwhile, Sylvia Miles steals her scenes as Mary’s embarrassing mother. But She-Devil is loud, jarring and simply unfunny.
She-Devil is transferred to DVD anamorphically in the original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. It’s an acceptable transfer if a little soft. Oliver Stapleton’s camerawork is dominated by pastel pinks; there is some minor artefacting on wide expanses of it such as the walls of Mary’s house.
The soundtrack is the original Dolby SR mix, rendered here as surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0, in English and four dubbed versions. It’s not the most adventurous of tracks, using the surrounds mainly for Howard Shore’s score. The rest of it is basically mono, with the occasional left-and-right sound effect, for example the flames as the title card comes up at the beginning.
As this is a MGM back-catalogue disc, you can guess the rest. There are five menu language options (the same five as for the soundtrack) even though the menu uses symbols rather than words. Subtitles are available in several languages. There are sixteen chapter stops. Region codes are 2 and 4. There are no extras whatsoever.
She-Devil was a critical and commercial bomb, and at least two careers have never recovered from it. Looked at a decade and a half later, it’s still not a good film. As this is a typical MGM bare-bones disc, I wouldn’t recommend buying it unless it’s really cheap.