40 Years Ago: Goldie Hawn’s Charm Saves ‘Private Benjamin’
On Oct. 10, 1980, Goldie Hawn entered the prime of her career with the release of Private Benjamin, a film that could have been a complete mess, but was elevated to a minor classic thanks to Hawn's unique talent.
The movie, co-written by Nancy Meyers and her then-husband Charles Shyer, was the first that Hawn produced as well as starred. It signaled a new moment for the actress, one where she would increasingly carry films on her own, rather than playing across from male co-stars.
The talent involved in was formidable. Hawn had already won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar (for 1969's Cactus Flower), and would be nominated for Best Actress for Private Benjamin (the award went to Sissy Spacek for Coal Miner's Daughter). Meyers and Shyer would go on to co-write, produce, and direct Irreconcilable Differences, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Father of the Bride before separating. The film also features Eileen Brennan – who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress – Albert Brooks, Harry Dean Stanton, Mary Kay Place, Armand Assante, and Craig T. Nelson.
Given this talent, it's not surprising that Private Benjamin has moments of real comedic genius. What is surprising is how uneven it is, and it's closer to being a collection of skits than a coherent whole.
Watch the Trailer for 'Private Benjamin'
It starts with Hawn's character, Judy Benjamin, marrying the wonderfully-named Yale Goodman (Brooks). Both are well-off, Jewish and spoiled. For her whole life, Benjamin has dreamed of nothing more than marrying a rich guy, and Goodman continually whines his way into sex whether his new wife is up for it or not. Things change radically when, just hours after the ceremony, Goodman suffers a heart attack and dies during one of their bouts of uninspired love-making.
Completely broken-down and at a loss for what to do with her life, Benjamin calls into a radio show and ends up talking to an unscrupulous Army recruiter (Stanton). He convinces her that a tour in the Army is something like Club Med – everyone gets a nice condo, the jobs you get to do are fun and exciting, and you get to live anywhere in the world you want.
When Benjamin arrives at Fort Biloxi for basic training, she receives a rude shock: soldiers actually have to do things like dress in uniforms, exercise and get yelled at. She immediately clashes with both her Sergeant (Hal Williams) and Captain Doreen Lewis (Brennan, playing a pretty direct homage to Sally Kellerman and Loretta Swit's character "Hot Lips" Houlihan from M*A*S*H.) But when Benjamin's parents come to rescue her from enrollment, she has a change of heart and decides that instead of quitting she's going to become the best soldier she can be. She eventually helps win a war-game exercise and gets recruited by Colonel Thornbush (played by the great character actor Robert Webber) for his elite paratroop force, the Thornbirds.
Watch Goldie Hawn and Eileen Brennan in 'Private Benjamin'
Meanwhile, Benjamin has also manages to meet a dashing Parisian gynecologist named Henri Tremont (Assante). When Thornbush tries to sexually assault her, she threatens to reveal what he's done unless he transfers her to Belgium so she can be close to Henri. There, she discovers that she's once again working under her nemesis Captain Lewis, and eventually ends up quitting the Army - only to realize Henri, to whom she is now engaged, is both sleeping with the maid and hung up on an ex-girlfriend. In the final scene, Benjamin leaves Henri at the altar and strolls off through the French countryside in her wedding dress, presumably to find a better and more independent life than she's ever imagined possible.
If this sounds like a strangely constructed film, that's because it is. The opening feels like a Woody Allen tale of slightly neurotic Jews confronting their lives; the basic training sequence feels like a mash-up of Full Metal Jacket and Spies Like Us; the war-games exercise ventures into Mel Brooks or Police Academy-style absurdism; and the final third, detailing her relationship with Henri, brings to a head feminist elements reminiscent of 9 to 5 or Working Girl.
There's a lot in these various parts that works. The supporting actors shine, uniformly committing fully to their roles and bringing out the best in the bits they're given. And the direction by Howard Zieff constantly manages to help the scenes find a fresh approach to material that at times can feel startlingly reminiscent of other films. But the script is so haphazard that, except for a single element, it threatens to doom the entire enterprise.
That element is Hawn. She delivers, from beginning to end, a sparkling comedic performance. She manages to broadcast enough petulance to convince us of her spoiled upbringing, enough ditziness to make her decision to enroll in the Army almost believable and enough innocence and vulnerability to let us sympathize with her throughout. She can pull off physical comedy – from struggling to do a push-up to throwing herself onto a bed in despair – and has an endless repertoire of facial expressions and line-deliveries that make her character both funny and endearing.
Watch Judy Benjamin Become a Thornbird in 'Private Benjamin'
Maybe most importantly, she bestows Judy Benjamin with an inner strength that we watch her become slowly aware of through the course of the film. It's this gradual character development that unites all the disparate elements of the movie, preventing it from flying apart into the four or five different stories that the screenplay seems to be trying to tell.
In the end, Private Benjamin might not be Hawn's best film, but it might be one of her best performances. With another actress, it's likely it would have been a disaster, instead of one of the biggest box office hits of 1980.