Review: Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

By JESSIE THORPE  |  June 11, 2002 at 2:55 PM
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WASHINGTON, June 11 (UPI) -- There is a pivotal scene in "Gone With the Wind" when Scarlett O'Hara, desperate for money and weary from overwork, yanks her mother's curtains from their fixture and drapes her tired body in green velvet, defying her maid, who stomps around the parlor lamenting the desecration of "Miss Ellen's portieres."

Scarlett flaunts her new dress in Atlanta, scrounges the needed tax money, flees the plantation drudgery and gets back into the game.

Great scene ... now try to imagine the movie without it.

In Rebecca Wells' novel, "Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," in which the main character Vivi Walker is sent to a convent school by her deranged mother who has gone mad with perverted piety, Vivi submits to the hatred of a cruel Mother Superior.

Her very breath is nearly extinguished by forces she does not understand until Teensy -- one of her Ya-Ya sisters -- and Teensy's mother Genevieve arrive to spring her from this adolescent concentration camp.

As they blast away in a Packard huge enough to rocket to the moon, Genevieve tells the girls: "Life is short, but it is wide. This, too, shall pass."

Here is wisdom enough for daughters who will listen and a scene dense with the complexity of powerful motherhood, of redemption through the strength of love. Every woman who read the novel drank in that scene.

The scene is not in the movie.

What could screenwriter and director Callie Khouri have been thinking? While not absolutely disastrous, the omission of Vivi's rescue makes it hard to connect the dots leading to her future collapse. If that episode was in fact filmed and is presently residing in a vault somewhere, I seriously suggest that Khouri restore it to the video version.

Now, for the good part.

Vivi, Teensy, Caro and Necie (played, respectively, by Ellen Burstyn, Fionnula Flanagan, Shirley Knight and Maggie Smith) mingle their blood to create the silly yet enduring rituals of Ya-Ya sisterhood. We see them sharing laughter, music, growing pains and large beds, indulging in endless sleepovers as they stagger toward confusing adulthood and motherhood.

Then the cycle begins again with their own children -- specifically with Vivi's elder daughter, Siddalee, played by Sandra Bullock. Siddalee, a successful playwright, commits a daughter's greatest betrayal -- she talks honestly to a reporter about her childhood and the relationship with her mother.

As a result, war breaks out. The Ya-Ya sisters kidnap Sidda to reveal the secrets that ultimately bring about reconciliation between mother and daughter. But in order to achieve this resolution, each woman must revisit a great deal of past grief, alcoholism, child abuse and mental illness.

There are men in this movie, but they mostly drink beer and keep out of the way. I am not sure what was on James Garner's mind when he accepted the role of Vivi's long-suffering husband Shep, but it was nice to see him trying to bring a semblance of order and sanity to Burstyn's overwrought tirades. (On "The Tonight Show," Jay Leno joked that the movie netted 16.4 million dollars --- the .4, he said, came from the men who watched it.)

Smith, naturally, steals every scene in her sly and sublime manner.

This sort of film follows a tried-and-true formula: Women must struggle and suffer, hurt others and be hurt in return, laugh and cry and celebrate themselves and in this way, we all learn how to get on in the world and attain the requisite forgiveness.

One goes to these films not necessarily to learn about the characters, but to learn about one's own life. Women's films are meant to serve as catalysts. In this sense, "Divine Secrets" delivers the goods.

If I wanted to quibble -- and like Vivi, Sidda and the others, I sometimes do -- I'd say the Ya-Ya mothers are about a decade too old for the story. Also, the movie fails to solve the puzzle of why these bright spunky Southern girls who grew up to marry husbands who buy them Bentleys and live in huge white houses with pillars and porches and servants bringing them Bloody Marys must inevitably become alcoholic nutcases.

Forget the small stuff. Just go. Go with a friend -- or, better yet, with 10 friends. Afterward, share some food and wine and talk about your lives. Just be prepared to exchange puzzled queries, as my friends and I did at a recent screening.

Where was the convent scene?

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