The Story Behind the Iconic Casting of ‘The First Wives Club’

The Story Behind the Iconic Casting of ‘The First Wives Club’
by Mitchell Sunderland
SEP 18 2016 11:50 AM

In honor of the film’s 20th anniversary, casting director Ilene Starger talks about how Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn, and Diane Keaton were chosen for one of the most famous films of their careers.

Older actresses struggle to land well written roles, but Goldie Hawn, Bette Midler, and Diane Keaton beat the odds in 1996, playing some of their most memorable characters in the comedy The First Wives Club. The actresses play divorced women who strike revenge on their ex-husbands; in the film’s finale, they triumphantly dance and sing “You Don’t Own Me” while wearing matching white outfits.

The scene, and other moments, have turned the film into a classic, subject to multiple BuzzFeed listicles. The nostalgia all stems from the powerhouse combination of the three female 1980s A-listers who were performing at the top of their game. Ahead of its upcoming TV reboot and in honor of the film’s 20th anniversary this week, Broadly spoke to one of the women who helped select those three leads–casting director Ilene Starger–about how the stars aligned for the movie, its legacy, and why, despite popular opinion, audiences love watching middle-aged stars.

BROADLY: How did you become involved in First Wives Club?
Ilene Starger: I became involved because Scott Rudin, the producer, asked me to cast the film. He’s got the most amazing work ethic, impeccable taste, and he really cares about the work. I’ll always be grateful for his support and the opportunity to have been involved with some of his wonderful projects.

What was your first thought on the script?
I found some of the script to be laugh-out-loud funny, and some of it to be tear-inducing. It said/says a great deal about fear of aging, loneliness, and doubting one’s self-worth. Both the female and male characters in the film grappled with these issues; it wasn’t just one-sided. As a reminder, Olivia Goldsmith wrote the book upon which the film was based. Sadly, she is deceased.

What was the process for casting the film?
The casting process spanned several months. We did it in a combination of making offers to certain cast members, depending on their stature/experience, and auditioning others. Most of the film was cast here in NY, as it was very much a New York movie, in terms of locations, etc. It was a combination of rigorous work and tremendous fun! The script went through changes. Characters were added and subtracted, and layers were added. I found it all to be a really interesting creative challenge and a fantastic opportunity to meet and work with some exceptionally talented people.

How did the team decide on Hawn, Keaton, and Midler?
They really were the dream team for this project at the top of everyone’s wish list! And they are superb in the film: witty, heartbreaking and ultimately–as their characters–triumphant! Audiences just root for them and are so happy, I believe, to witness their characters’ courage and growth. And Bette, Goldie, and Diane brought so much talent, class, high intelligence to their roles. They worked incredibly hard.

Why did they work so well as a trio?
Diane, Goldie, and Bette are incredibly talented actresses: so smart, so singular, so appealing. The audience relates to them; they may be “movie stars,” but they have tremendous sensitivity, vulnerability, and warmth. Singly and together, they are incredibly charismatic and compelling.

How do casting directors test this kind of chemistry?
There is no way to know in advance, really, if actors will have chemistry when working together. In the case of Goldie, Bette, and Diane, the chemistry was immediately apparent and wonderful.

How often does chemistry like this come about?
It is rare, and when it happens, it’s a gift. It’s why audiences go to films and theatre, and watch TV: to see incredibly talented actors bringing characters to life–characters which show us a great deal about ourselves as human beings.

Why has the film remained so popular?

I believe the film continues to resonate because it is witty, smart, and moving. Women and men can relate to what it’s like to get older, to sometimes lose one’s way in the process, to have heartache, setbacks, and disappointment. Everyone is frightened of something. Perhaps it’s only as we get older that we can acknowledge our flaws, and our fears–but also what a gift life is, despite its challenges. And who doesn’t want to laugh at life, too? A sense of humor gets one through, and the movie is a very skillful weaving of what’s funny, what’s true, what’s ultimately triumphant.

Should there be more films with middle-aged actresses? Why aren’t there?
There are so many brilliant actresses, middle-aged and onwards, who are incredibly successful–too many to name, actually. Goldie, Bette, and Diane, of course; Meryl Streep, Helen Mirren, Viola Davis, Sally Field, Maggie Smith, Susan Sarandon, Cherry Jones, Vanessa Redgrave, Penelope Wilton, Angela Bassett, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sissy Spacek, Barbra Streisand, Patricia Clarkson, Oprah Winfrey, Charlotte Rampling, Juliette Binoche.

I could go on and on! Talent wins out, and audiences are hungry to see believable characters, of any age, on screen. We as a society tend to worship the young, now more than ever, but that is so myopic. Other cultures value age, wisdom, and natural inner/outer beauty more so than we as Americans tend to do.

What’s the biggest misunderstanding about the movie?
I’m not sure there is one, but perhaps it would be that it’s a “chick flick.” I believe the movie, for reasons I’ve stated above, appeals to men, too; I believe that it’s ultimately a film about women becoming more empowered and fulfilled, but also about men who evolve and allow themselves to be vulnerable. We’re all on this planet together. We all need each other in order to survive and thrive!

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