After years of sharing top billing with male costars, Goldie Hawn finally scored a major box-office hit of her own thanks to Private Benjamin, the military-themed comedy that she also helped produce. Hiding a multilayered feminist message beneath a silly farce about a Jewish American Princess becoming a soldier, the picture has just enough substance to make up for the paucity of laugh-out-loud jokes. And while supporting players including Armand Assante and Eileen Brennan excel in juicy roles, Hawn‘s goofy appeal anchors the picture. Private Benjamin is all about the ridiculous spectacle of a tiny blonde with doe eyes running around obstacle courses in fatigues, complaining about damage to her fingernails and the unsatisfactory accommodations in her barracks. If there’s a major flaw in Private Benjamin, it’s that the movie lacks a big mission that tests the title character’s mettle—essentially, the sort of third act that was contrived for the following year’s military-themed comedy, Stripes (1981). However, Private Benjamin is only nominally about the Armed Forces, because soldiering is just a phase the title character passes through on the way to self-actualization.
The movie begins with a lively wedding sequence, during which spoiled Judy Benjamin (Hawn) suffers a surprising loss: Her brand-new husband, Yale (Albert Brooks), dies of a heart attack during wedding-night sex. Devastated and lost, Judy meets a friendly stranger named Jim (Harry Dean Stanton), who offers a new life filled with adventure and luxury. By the time Judy realizes Jim is a military recruiter, she’s fallen for his vision of Army service as an extended vacation. Basic training sets her straight, especially when Judy clashes with stern Captain Lewis (Eileen Brennan), but Judy soon realizes she needs to see this thing through because she’s never accomplished anything. Her journey is complicated when she meets dashing Frenchman Henri (Assante), so a dramatic question takes shape: Will Judy discard her newfound sense of pride by settling back into the narcotizing cycle of domesticity and wealth?
The script for Private Benjamin is shallow, and the writers tend to portray men as one-dimensional ogres. (Cowriter Nancy Meyers, later to become a rom-com titan, received her first credit—and her first Oscar nomination—for Private Benjamin.) Yet Private Benjamin works. The movie presents a steady stream of lighteheated moments, some of which contain a measure of sociopolitical resonance. Oscar-nominated Brennan makes a strong impression as a woman succeeding in a man’s world through pure toughness, while Assante explodes with energy and machismo, playing a special kind of dreamy jerk. Hawn floats through it all, coming across as bubbly even when her character is despondent, and setting the mood with her seemingly effortless comic skill and a touch of solid dramatic acting. She was rewarded with such impressive box-office success that a Private Benjamin TV show soon followed. Running from 1981 to 1983, the show replaced Hawn with Lorna Patterson, although Brennan reprised her supporting role.
Private Benjamin: GROOVY