REVIEW: The Group–Friends and Rivals

Farhana Gani

As the daring adaptation of Mary McCarthy’s controversial bestseller comes to DVD for the first time, Farhana Gani examines whether it stands the test of time.

Legendary director Sidney Lumet (Twelve Angry Men) brings together an ensemble cast of well-known stars in this social satire about eight female friends who graduate together from an elite all-women’s university in the East Coast of America. It’s set in the 1930’s during the Depression, and that alone makes for an interesting backdrop as the women search for meaning during the tumultuous years before World War II. For its time, the movie was audacious, covering cultural issues and film taboos from political radicalism to lesbianism.

Scandalously voyeuristic

The novel caused such a scandal it was banned in Australia. Many decades later, when an editor suggested to Candace Bushnell that she write a “modern-day version of The Group”, she penned a tantalising newspaper column that gave rise to the popular Sex and the City TV series and film. Bushnell remarked: "The Group reminds us that not much has really changed," Except that today, most of these topics are no longer scandalous.

The cast includes eight celebrated actresses: Candice Bergen, Joan Hackett, Elizabeth Hartman, Shirley Knight, Jessica Walter, Kathleen Widdoes, Mary-Robin Redd and Joanna Pettet. The film also features Hal Holbrook, James Broderick (Matthew’s father), Larry Hagman, and Richard Mulligan.

Confronting cultural taboos

After college, the group of friends separate to find their place in the world. Lakey (Candice Bergen), leaves for Europe to study art. Priss (Elizabeth Hartman) marries a paediatrician but suffers two miscarriages. Kay (Joanna Pettet), artistically motivated and politically aware, sacrifices her ambitions to support a playwright who cheats on her. Dottie (Joan Hackett) yearns for a liberating and flamboyant lifestyle but settles down with a businessman in Arizona. Pokey (Mary-Robin Redd), the wealthiest in the group, raises two sets of twins on a farm. Polly (Shirley Knight) has a secret affair with a married man, while trying to look after her mentally unstable father. Libby (Jessica Walter) boldly takes on the man’s world of 1930s book publishing and becomes a successful literary agent, but remains sexually frigid and venomously callous. Helena (Kathleen Widdoes) travels the world at her parents’ insistence but remains unfulfilled and directionless. She does, however, keep the group connected.

These women are affluent, highly educated and raring to make their mark on society. But is society ready for them? If Mad Men showed us that the 1960s weren’t exactly a time of equality, when women played second fiddle at work and were only just beginning to have control of their own finances, 1930s America was even more traditional, a place where a woman’s role was still largely restricted to marriage, homemaking and childbirth. The group find themselves trapped in lives they were expected to lead instead of the lives they might carve out for themselves.

We watch their lives unfold through their enduring friendships. When we first meet the girls they’ve just graduated and one of them is getting married. The film ends with a funeral. In between many years pass and we see the characters grapple with sex before marriage, contraception, gender politics, childbirth, alcoholism, infidelity, disappointment, motherhood, domestic abuse and mental illness. We see women not only enjoying sex on screen but actively seeking it out. We see a happy, well-adjusted lesbian alongside her unhappy college friends who opted for conventional constraints. Until now screen lesbians had terrible fates. Audiences were shocked but it didn’t stop them from flocking to the cinema and making The Group a box office blockbuster.

The original chick flick


Image source: Vanity Fair

Like Sex in the City, these women’s lives revolve around men. But unlike Sex in the City, these women are politically engaged and hungry to find where they stand in the world and make their mark on it. And whilst the concepts of friendship, loyalty and looking out for each other (and retail therapy) are the glue that binds Carrie Bradshaw and her brash cohorts, The Group adopts a more honest approach. Carrie might have popularised the word frenemy, but we see it fully on display in The Group. Libby takes acidic delight in the misfortunes of her friends. Polly doesn’t hold back from having an affair with a man Libby longs for. Helena keeps the knowledge of Kay’s philandering husband to herself. Self-contained Lakey is as enigmatic and aloof as her sexuality. It is only when she returns from a Europe on the brink of war with a woman that the rest of the group realise she’s a lesbian. These are complicated friendships from a worldview far wider than hook-ups, Manolo Blahniks and cosmopolitans.

The film is thrilling and stylish, and the acting is first class. Larry Hagman as the husband of one of the girls has depth and misery as he compares his achievements as a playwright with his wife’s sacrifice of her own ambitions. Candice Bergen magnetically tops and tails the film and doesn’t make an appearance in between, and yet she’s a presence throughout. She’s mesmerisingly beautiful and inscrutable but exudes a purposeful assurance. Straitlaced Dottie, shortly after graduating, has a one-night stand with a Greenwich Village poet she believes herself to be in love with, and Joan Hackett plays her naivety, heartbreak and later bitterness to perfection.

The film squeezes a big story and expansive characters into a tight two-and-a-half hours. Fifty years on, this fascinating tapestry of the social history and sexual mores of WASP America long before the women’s lib movement continues to dazzle.

Buy the DVD
Profile: Sidney Lumet – director and social commentator
More films by Sidney Lumet
You might also enjoy our collection of films on female friendship
Read more articles by Farhana Gani here 

Listen to the Reader's Digest editorial team discuss The Group