Private Benjamin

Like many people, I was raised on 80’s comedies which are largely male-driven. One of my go-to’s is Stripes, the classic military comedy starring Bill Murray and Harold Ramis (also written by Ramis and Dan Goldberg), and Murray has such cult status that most millennials are aware of the film. A year before Stripes was released, Goldie Hawn produced and starred in Private Benjamin, a film about a spoiled woman who only ever wanted to be rich and married, and finds herself widowed on her wedding night. Vulnerable and confused about what she’s getting herself into, she joins the military and learns to rely on herself.

The film has been on many “greatest comedy film” lists, but oddly, it doesn’t have the same cult status among younger generations that other films of the era received. The 80’s comedy film world is filled with story after story of women who are perfectly accomplished, going against type to wind up with lazy man-children, slobs, and fairly sexist individuals.

One female-driven comedy that has stood the test of time is Working Girl, which came out in the late 80’s and starred Melanie Griffith, Harrison Ford, and Sigourney Weaver. Griffith famously said the line “I have a mind for business and a body for sin” in the film, which is a very different energy and kind of feminism than what you find in Private Benjamin. But first, let’s look at how the film is structured to see what happened and what sets it apart from similar military comedies and female-driven films.

The Breakdown

Protagonist: Judy Benjamin
Want: “Yacht Military Life”
Need: Learn to adapt and stand up for herself

Antagonist: Captain Lewis

Pre-Existing Life: Judy marries Yale in a lavish, Jewish ceremony. During the reception, Yale talks her into giving him a blow job she doesn’t want to do, Judy’s father dismisses her as she waits on him, and Judy argues with a furniture maker to get the ottoman she wants for her husband.

Inciting Incident: On the wedding night, Yale talks Judy into having sex in the bathroom (though she again doesn’t want to) and he has a heart attack and dies on top of her. She disappears for a week after the funeral, calling into a radio show for advice. She meets up with a listener who sells her on the idea of joining the military, assuring her that if she works hard she could end up in a beautiful house in Europe or on the water (“yacht military life”). She joins up but quickly is out of her depth as she struggles to adjust to military life. When she points out to Lewis the place isn’t clean, Judy is forced to scrub the bathroom with her toothbrush.

First Act Decision: Judy is determined to leave, so after a fight with another private, Judy sneaks out and gets caught in barbed wire fence. As punishment, Judy and the rest of her platoon are forced to march in the rain, where the other privates berate Judy for not even trying or participating in what she signed up for. Lewis takes Judy to a waiting area where Judy’s parents are, ready to take her home. Lewis is going to let Judy leave. Before she can sign the papers, Judy’s father lectures her on her “crazy actions” in joining the military. She doesn’t want to go home, she wants to finish what she started and get that dream life.

Reversal: There is a second training montage, this one Judy works hard and improves. There is a “War Games” challenge for platoons. Judy and her friends are told to “watch the swamp” while others get better tasks from Lewis. They get lost and end up finding and taking captive almost the entire opposing team, with Judy leading the way. Lewis assumes she’s under attack and calls in surrender, only to realize Judy has won the game for them and Lewis is embarrassed. Additionally, Judy has found Lewis’s boyfriend, Woodbridge, fooling around with Lewis’s favorite private, Winters, embarrassing Lewis further. Judy meets Post Commander Thornbush (of the Thornbirds) who praises Judy, and then tells a story mocking his wife, who sounds an awful lot like Judy in her former life. After the games, Lewis gets drunk and berates all the privates because she has been moved to another post.

Midpoint: After graduation, the girls have the night off. They go to a local jazz club where Judy meets Henri, a French, Jewish, doctor. They go home together and Judy has her first (and second) orgasm of her life. Judy really likes Henri and they tell each other to reach out if they’re ever in each other’s areas.

Reversal #2: Judy has finished basic training and everyone receives their first assignment. Judy has been assigned to join Thornbush’s Thornbirds, the first woman to do so. There is a training montage for skydiving and Judy is really struggling. The day of the jump arrives and Judy panics. Thornbush tells her she doesn’t have to jump and tries to force himself on her. A terrified Judy is not going to be talked into it and jumps out of the plane.

False Climax / Low Point: Thornbush apologizes to Judy for his actions, but he has to reassign her so he doesn’t get in trouble and tries to send her to Iceland. Judy refuses, blackmailing Thornbush and negotiating herself a transfer to Paris. Once in Paris, she’s given a good amount of power in the purchasing department and she likes her job. She even seeks out Henri and the two fall in love. Lewis is also in Paris and is still pissed at Judy. She does a background check and tells Judy she’s dating a communist. If Judy wants to stay in the military, she has to break up with Henri. Judy leaves the military.

Third Act Decision: Judy appears to be loving her life with Henri as she slips back into her old life. Getting engaged, planning the wedding, arguing with maids, and living the life she wanted as a little girl. She struggles with jealousy as Henri can’t move on from his ex-girlfriend, and Judy thinks he may be sleeping with the maid. They fight, but Judy is determined to marry Henri.

Climax: Henri is late to his wedding because he is with his ex. Judy does not want to walk down the aisle, but he talks her into it. When it’s time for Judy to say “I do”, she finally sees all the similarities between Henri, her dead husband, and her father… and how the control her life. Judy gives it all up and walks out.

Conclusion

This is a very FULL movie. There are several montages every time Judy is in a new situation. You could also argue that there isn’t really much of a third act. Judy’s goal is to stay in the military, and we know that she wants a life that was sold to her by a recruiter, so Paris makes for the clearest “false climax”, however Judy doesn’t blink at the choice between the army and Henri. There was a review of the film that said (I’m paraphrasing, of course) the film loses it’s way and forgets it’s a comedy once in Europe. The laughs do not stop, but there is a tonal shift. It makes sense as Judy slips back into her act one self, but this is a common trait of third acts. Just think about Goldie Hawn in Overboard. She gets back to the yacht life but it’s not the same. Goldie Hawn as Judy is a more complex character, who made a choice to join the army, but that didn’t mean she gave up the dream of being a rich wife. That dream is gone after she calls off the wedding.

The film is co-written by Nancy Meyers, who also wrote Something’s Gotta Give, The Intern, and It’s Complicated, and I would argue that the latter two of those movies also struggle with their goals and sticking their third acts (not Something’s Gotta Give though, that movie is a treasure). But back to what we were talking about at the start…

It’s interesting to me that both Stripes and Working Girl stuck, when Private Benjamin received so many accolades at the time, in addition to be a huge hit and a turning point in Goldie Hawn’s career. The movie was ahead of its time in showing a woman almost being raped, playing it for laughs still, and making sure not to give the male role an empathetic “out” in the situation. The movie came out in 1980. Just a year before, Bill Murray starred in Meatballs, where he also comes onto a female co-worker (who calls for help, loudly) and you’re on his side the whole time. The audience should not have been. And once Private Benjamin came out, we never should have seen another scene like it, but when Stripes came out in 1981, there was naked mud wrestling, Bill Murray again hitting on coworker against her (initial) wishes, and John Larroquette spying on naked female privates.

By 1988, Working Girl came out with its brand of making sure you new if a woman was in charge she was still sexual and soft spoken. Stripes and Working Girl are both great movies, but when you think about how far Private Benjamin brought things forward, it’s unfortunate that storytelling shifted for male viewers to feel empowered, or that women were empowered in a way that was unthreatening to men. And those two movies also lead to a series of movies that tonally and thematically match, whereas Private Benjamin‘s successors feel fewer. Now with the demand for the female protagonists to be more varied and complex again on the big screen, Judy Benjamin feels like a great source of inspiration.

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