In the opening of Private Benjamin (1980), she’s getting exactly what she’s always wanted. She has just wed Yale Goodman (Albert Brooks), a self-made businessman who hardly remembers what it’s like to be stricken with an empty pocket. He’s young and he shares her desire for domesticity — he’s the perfect man. (Or, at least, a man perfectly able to encapsulate her shallow intentions.)
But then tragedy strikes. Within the first few hours of the twosome’s honeymoon, Goodman dies. Not because of some dramatic development, but because he has a heart attack while in the sack with his new wife. Whether that’s the result of his ongoing stresses reaching a breaking point or because Benjamin is so damn good in bed isn’t explained — nor should it be. However much of a bummer his demise is, it sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Which is silly, but just smart enough to get away with fervent farcicality.
Benjamin, understandably, is distraught. No woman should have to sit through a funeral, let alone their husband’s, a few days after her wedding. But she’s especially scared because she doesn’t exactly know what she’s going to do with the rest of her life. This is her second marriage. She’s 28, has no special skills, and knows she’s not emotionally ready to sit through another long period of wining and dining.
So an angel — or so she thinks — comes in the form of Sergeant Jim Ballard (Harry Dean Stanton), an army recruiter who meets her at the right place at the right time. Able to sense what kind of girl Benjamin is, he paints a romanticized picture of the armed forces, promising that in store is a glamorous work life with great hours and a nice condo to come home to after every long day. Benjamin, so out of touch, believes him. Through his rendering does she figure that the army is an easygoing place that might give her the occupational experience she needs to make it in the real world.
Of course, the army base in which she’s placed is nothing like what the recruiter described. It looks like an army base. Benjamin is dumbfounded, immediately driven to back out. “See, I did join the army,” she explains to a no-nonsense private. “But I joined a different army. I joined the one with the condos and the private rooms.”
Benjamin wants out. But, to her horror, she discovers that she, in fact, cannot simply leave. She signed a contract. So, giving up, she goes through the motions of basic training and hates every minute of it. One day goes particularly badly, prompting her to finally get the out she’s been praying for. But the moment her parents arrive to pick her up, something changes. She realizes that living as a dependent is no longer her forte, and that quitting would merely make her a failure. She does the unthinkable, and, to everyone’s surprise — especially Doreen Lewis (Eileen Brennan), the captain who’s been rooting against her this entire time — she chooses to stay.
And thus Benjamin begins to metamorphose into an independent woman much more apt than she’d ever think she could be. Romantic prospects do eventually step into the spotlight in the shape of Henri Alan Tremont (Armand Assante), a French doctor. But what Private Benjamin is really about is a woman’s finding of herself and her discovery that she’s worth a lot more than she ever thought. Sitcom-lite as that is, it works here: the screenplay, written by Nancy Meyers, Charles Shyer, and Harvey Miller, is intelligent enough to see that clichés be edged in self-awareness.
But Private Benjamin’s prosperity is wholly dependent on the star power of Goldie Hawn. One of film’s great comedic actresses, we can imagine no other performer in this role: Hawn is so good we hardly notice how difficult it must be to take on a character like this one. Benjamin is a humorous figure but not exactly exaggeratedly so — she says and does laughable things but isn’t much aware of how she’s coming across. Hawn plays it straight and in effect is masterful. In retort to the cartoonish trappings that might overtake a character as potentially detestably insipid as Judy Benjamin, Hawn makes her multi-faceted. We come to love this character because she comes to love herself, too.
The film’s best moments exist in its first and middle acts, when Benjamin is in the process of transforming from princess to professional. It drags when the focus suddenly moves in the direction of her and Tremont’s courtship, which is mundanely drawn and comprehensively predictable (it doesn’t work out). But most of Private Benjamin shimmers — it’s painlessly likable, and Hawn is at her very best. B
Harry Dean Stanton
Mary Kay Place
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
June 8, 2017
udy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) has about as many ideas about the so-called real-world as Lucille Bluth, the cackling Arrested Development matriarch so rich she genuinely thinks a single banana must cost 10 dollars. The only child of a superiorly wealthy home, Benjamin’s only dream, since she was a little girl, has been to marry wealthy. She’s a stereotypical rich girl, unaware of what it’s like to not get exactly what she wants. She has no professional aspirations. She just wants to live comfortably and lavishly, to be someone’s wife and trophy.