Jennifer: A Woman’s Story (1979)
Elizabeth Montgomery (of Bewitched) stars as Jennifer Prince, a widow and mother of two, struggling to re-enter the business world after her husband’s death. Though she originally worked alongside hubby, helping him found a successful ship-building company, she became a homemaker after the birth of their kids. This caused her husband to grow bored with her and take a mistress. But when he dies, Jennifer decides to “do something useful” and fill his shoes (or, more precisely, his bedroom slippers, as we’re shown in a particularly literal sequence). To do this, she must win the approval of a half-dozen suits on the company’s board of directors.
James Booth is one of these guys, and an example of a moderately slimy type of fellow that seems to be dying out now—the old-fashioned gentleman with very good manners and a lot of sexist assumptions. He flirts with Jennifer, but she’s strictly business and strikes a deal for mutual support in the boardroom instead. This support proves crucial later on, in the climactic scene where the board members vote openly on whether Jennifer is to become Executive Vice President.
It’s always refreshing to see an older woman star in a film. Elizabeth Montgomery is unmistakably middle-aged here (despite her too-young mane of faux-Farrah waves), and yet the story’s all about her. She’s making it on her own (sort of) and in the end she symbolically affirms herself in a primping scene. Gazing happily into a mirror, she asks her secretary, “Do you like my hat?” The hat seems to symbolize power, as it does for the woman artist in the later and better Unbearable Lightness of Being.
Unfortunately, the characters in Jennifer are paper-thin, the story a patchwork of cliches. Though Montgomery is a good actress, she isn’t quite convincing here and we never fully identify with Jennifer in her struggle—possibly because the script gives us no reason to believe in her ability to run the company after all these years. She keeps insisting “I know I can do it” but good scripts don’t say things, they show them.
Since this film predates the current fad for action heroines, Jennifer does not break down any doors or crawl through any ductwork; she does not hack into any computer systems, kickbox, swear, or pack heat. Nor does she scratch and claw for power behind the scenes, or exploit her feminine charms to wrap men around her little finger (she’s supposed to have a feminist dimension, after all). But the story’s too sketchy and vague to support a lot of clever decision-making on her part. This leaves the character with nothing to do but sort of sit back, like a lady (but spunky!), and let information come to her.
And then, once Jennifer’s elected Executive Vice President of the company, the show suddenly ends. We don’t get to see Jennifer vindicated in action. We don’t get to see her re-learn the business, or balance work and parenting, or deal with her enemies on the board. It’s as if the creators of Jennifer thought, “We can’t get too technical here—after all, this show’s for women. They don’t want to hear about a lot of wheeling and dealing. They like hats. Put a hat in it.”
Admittedly, there’s only so much you can cram into one movie, but this story in its current form is heavily padded with time-wasters. It could use more development. More detail, more specificity, more grit. More real respect for its audience.
And speaking of respect—check out Jennifer’s secretary! This hyper-ingratiating, ever-smiling, coffee-toting, strawberry-serving black woman worked for Jennifer’s husband; now Jennifer “inherits her.” It’s all rather creepy and Stepford-like, and Jennifer doesn't treat the secretary any differently than her husband did, so it's also a case of "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Blame the screenplay by Richard Gregson.