Five months into her pregnancy, writes Marc Shapiro in Pure Goldie: The Life and Times of Goldie Hawn, "she was approached by a former script editor, Nancy Meyers, with a story idea. It was for something called Private Benjamin (1980). After reading the story outline, Hawn was hooked. 'You write the damned thing, 'she said,' and I'll produce it.'"
But that decision proved to be the easy part. The film, about a pampered rich girl who joins the Army, believing it will be a low-cost Club Med escape from her overbearing family in the wake of her husband's wedding-night death, should have been an easy sell with the bankable Hawn attached. But getting a studio interested was a tough sell for a woman with strong ideas of how she wanted the film done and - she'd only star if she could executive produce it: "In the beginning, they [the studio executives] would pat me on the head. To them I was still the cute little Goldie. But the minute I stood up and had something to say, I became the bitch," Hawn says in the Shapiro biography. "I didn't plan on becoming a producer....I only wanted to create better roles for myself, and I loved the idea of Private Benjamin so much that I felt it would be the perfect opportunity to finally control my own destiny." A deal was finally struck during a fateful June '79 Warner Bros. meeting where she had to constantly excuse herself for bouts of morning sickness. Days later Hawn gave birth to another labor of love, her daughter Kate.
Private Benjamin was close to Hawn's heart on a number of levels. As her relationship with husband Mark Hudson grew increasingly strained (his career was at a standstill), Hawn couldn't help but contemplate the struggles between independence and partnership faced by many women: "Private Benjamin points up some very tough, hard-edged realities," she explained. "My character is an Everywoman. She's been taught to be protected, spoiled, and taken care of. She's missed the revolution. She's the real unmarried woman, not the woman who walks away happy and in love. She walks alone but strong," she says in Pure Goldie.
Hawn showed an uncanny talent for the business end of things in her first gig as a producer. Word of mouth about her studio savvy quickly lured top-drawer talent such as Harry Dean Stanton, Eileen Brennan and Armand Assante to the movie. Having endured the agony of casting sessions herself over the years, Hawn was particularly sensitive to the selection process and handpicked actors for even the most minor roles. She also shouldered the task of wearing two hats for the film, showing up on set hours before the crew arrived and staying long after daily filming wrapped to view dailies and attend advertising/promotion meetings.
When the time came for Hawn to step in front of the camera, she wanted Judy Benjamin to be as believable as possible. So, with the cooperation of the U.S. Army, Hawn went through six weeks of basic training at Fort MacArthur, Calif., face to face with a real-life, screaming drill sergeant. "After going through basic training," Hawn said in Pure Goldie, "I would not resist the draft. Provided, of course, I could have a stunt double at all times." Her director, Howard Zieff (House Calls, 1978, The Main Event, 1979) appreciated Hawn the actress, for her game professionalism. "You don't have to work hard with people like Goldie around", he explained in Pure Goldie. "When I would talk about the concept of a scene, she would already be ahead of me."
Released in the fall of 1980 Private Benjamin proved to be a major hit with audiences and critics alike. It quickly recouped its $10 million cost and was well on its way to grossing $50 million by Christmas. Hawn scored an Oscar® nomination as Best Actress for her role and Eileen Brennan also received recognition in the Best Supporting Actress category. The film even spawned a series (1981-'83), in which Brennan reprised her role as Capt. Doreen Lewis. Judy Benjamin was played by Lorna Patterson, who already had a number of short-lived series under her belt (Working Stiffs, 1979, Goodtime Girls, 1980) and is best remembered for her role as the guitar-playing stewardess in Airplane (1980).
By the time Private Benjamin was in national distribution, Hawn was dealing with her final divorce from Hudson. But she had managed to pull off one of her most successful films ever, without seemingly missing a beat. Of his work with Hawn on Private Benjamin, Armand Assante told Marc Shapiro, "I never had the sense that what we were doing was work. It always seem like play. What she may have been going through internally is another thing. But she managed to keep a real positive bubble in the atmosphere."
Producer: Goldie Hawn, Nancy Meyers, Harvey Miller, Charles Shyer
Director: Howard Zieff
Screenplay: Nancy Meyers, Harvey Miller, Charles Shyer
Cinematography: David M. Walsh
Film Editing: Sheldon Kahn
Art Direction: Robert F. Boyle, Jeffrey Howard
Music: Bill Conti
Cast: Goldie Hawn (Pvt. Judy Benjamin), Eileen Brennan (Capt. Doreen Lewis), Armand Assante (Henri Alan Tremont), Robert Webber (Col. Clay Thornbush), Sam Wanamaker (Teddy Benjamin), Barbara Barrie (Harriet Benjamin).
C-110m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Emily Soares