Best Movie Ever?: “Private Benjamin”


Now that banks have reopened following the death of Eileen Brennan and I’ve reluctantly reopened my curtains, we can get down to real mourning. Ugggggggh. Our girl Eileen — the superfly Mrs. Peacock of Clue fame, the grizzled Billie from The Sting, the nutty Tess Skeffington of Murder By Death — died at the ripe old age of character actress and now the world is deprived of her unflinching, husky-voiced command. In her lifetime Ms. Brennan only earned a single Oscar nomination, a Best Supporting Actress nod for Private Benjamin, and wouldn’t you know it, captain?: Private Benjamin is a perfect addition to the Best Movie Ever? anthology, a comedy about basic training in self-possession. It’s the rugged flipside to 1980’s other funny feminist jam, 9 to 5.

Private Benjamin is about a spoiled woman named Judy Benjamin (Hawn) who, following the death of her hilariously selfish new husband Yale (Albert Brooks), enlists in the army to get away, cope, try on new clothes, and maybe get in better shape. Naturally she’s in for a rougher ride than she expected, and that’s partially because she’s at the mercy of the nefarious and gurgly Captain Lewis (Brennan). Judy perseveres, defies her rotten parents and stays in the army, then eventually gets caught up in a lame new romance with Armand Assante that we don’t care about. That segment notwithstanding, Private Benjamin is a cheer-worthy comedy that actually makes you laugh, but better yet it gets you psyched for Judy’s progress. Here are my five favorite reasons for revisiting this gem and including in the BME vault.

1. The Pursuit of JAPpiness 


Forgive me, but Private Benjamin is most LOL-worthy right at the start when Albert Brooks perishes and Judy is a hapless wreck. After weeping in bed while still wearing her black funeral dress, Judy wanders over to the array of wedding gifts she’d received, perks up at the new Cuisinart, and bawls to the heavens, “Look what we got!” It is worth several replays and a pitch-perfect impersonation. Get going.

Nancy Meyers penned this script (her first, which netted her an Oscar nom), and looking at the admittedly funny, but not particularly unusual style of stuck-up humor at play, it becomes very apparent how gifted Goldie Hawn is with dialogue. That’s why she such an amazing, profound fit in Everyone Says I Love You. She can handle tight copy or kooky rambling and make it sing.

2. Is Judy Benjamin the original Cher Horowitz?


A Clueless comparison is pretty elementary, but still necessary: Judy Benjamin, in her casual insistence on applying her sheltered version of understanding to everything and her sublime way of making dire situations fabulous, qualifies her as a proto-Cher Horowitz (pictured above, top right). Look at how bad-ass and trendy Judy (above left) looks in her military regalia. Fireeee! Like Edie Sedgwick ditching Warhol for Yves Saint Laurent.

Also: When Judy defends her un-selfishness by saying, “I never show up empty-handed to parties!” Pure Cher Horowitz forecasting.

3. M*A*S*H*’s military humiliation sequences done right


Uh, telegram to 1970: I don’t understand most of your movies. Love Story? AirportM*A*S*H*? They don’t hold up. And if we’re going to dwell on M*A*S*H*’s shortcomings, I personally find the scene where Hot Lips Houlihan earns her nickname — when audio of her tryst is broadcast all over camp — completely unbearable. The one lady in the movie gets shamed for being sexual, and we’re supposed to laugh at it and idolize all the lovable dudes. Boo.

Meanwhile, Private Benjamin provides a much better sexual humiliation sequence: Judy stumbles upon noted ass-kisser Private Wanda Winter (PJ Soles!) as she hooks up with Captain William Woodbridge (Craig T. Nelson!), and Judy uses it as currency to help her Red Team win the war scrimmage against the Blue Team. Judy may be a JAP-py brat, but she’s not a shady recruit. Take that, PJ.

4. This still is better than most art.


Goldie Hawn’s bedraggled hair and wild eyes should be studied by Smithsonian scholars, because there is sincerely something eerie and hilarious about her expression here. Just as she’s about to quit the army because it’s too damn hard, she has a change of heart upon sensing Captain Lewis’ condescension and gains back the fire in her gawky stare. It’s the most famous shot of the movie, it’s what’s on the poster, and it’s what should be on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Bam, those infantile pupils. Bam, those ancient lips. Here’s as close as humanity has gotten to recreating this splendid moment:


And yet, Goldie’s stare is still more reptilian!. Good try, nature.

5. Eileen.


Grim. Pushy. Piercing. Alien. Creepy as hell. Eileen Brennan is many things as the domineering Captain Lewis, but all you can truly say about her cloud of fear and ferocity is that she’s both an inhuman sorcerer and a completely relatable blowhard. Her line-readings effing slay me, down to “If Patton were alive, he would slap your face!” Well, actually, if Patton were alive, I assume he’d be snarking about winning Best Picture in 1970, which I’ve already established as a dumb year for film. But whatever! Maybe Eileen’s right.

Captain Lewis acts as Benjamin’s utter adversary throughout the film, which is a nice fit for this gravelly-voiced dame. But can I tell you a secret? Although Brennan nails the rough-and-touble seriousness of Captain Lewis, her turn as Mrs. Peacock in Clue is definitely more Oscar-worthy! As Mrs. Peacock, she was given the room to flutter from snobbery to delirium and back several times. You could never predict how sane Mrs. Peacock was going to be (or how she’d react to anything), but Captain Lewis coasts on the same unamused weariness throughout this movie. She endures a drunken spell that feels too pathetic to be funny at one juncture, but otherwise she’s very entertaining and sinister, if slightly predictable by movie’s end. I love that she can’t stop smiling whenever Judy starts to flounder. She loves loving it. She’s giving you mad Mrs. Danvers evil here, kids. My favorite kind.

What are your favorite Private Benjamin moments? Is it better than 9 to 5? And what do we make of Barbara Barrie, just in general?