Retrospective Review: “Private Benjamin” at 40

By Valerie Kalfrin

Giddy society princess Judy Benjamin had modest ambitions. When she was eight, she told her best friend that all she wanted someday was “a nice house … nice clothes, two closets, a live-in maid, and a professional man for a husband.”

So begins 1980’s “Private Benjamin,” which sees Judy (Goldie Hawn) joining the U.S. Army after her husband drops dead on their wedding night, something Judy never imagined could happen. She didn’t think much about the army, either, beyond the chance to get away from it all in the condos that the recruiter promised. She showed up at basic training in a black dress and heels.

It’s a safe bet that the Judy at the start of “Private Benjamin” also never thought about turning 40 someday. Yet here we are.

Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

It’s hard not to picture Judy as a precursor to Elle Woods in 2001’s “Legally Blonde” and a descendant of Billie Dawn in 1950’s “Born Yesterday.” “Private Benjamin” is a mixed bag overall, but it gets enough right that it landed on both the American Film Institute’s and Bravo’s lists of favorite comedies.

Nobody remembers “Private Benjamin” for the third act with the French gynecologist (Armand Assante), who romances Judy but turns out to be a heel. Some scenes, such as an attempted rape, are misplaced in a comedy, especially these days.

“The film sold Hawn as a fish out of water in fatigues, asking, “Is green the only color these come in?” But her character discovers that she has more to offer than just ending up as an accessory.”

But Judy’s likability endures, thanks to Hawn’s effervescent charm, her clashes with the dryly hilarious Eileen Brennan as Capt. Doreen Lewis, and Judy’s transformation from clueless to capable. (Judy’s whine while marching in the rain is all-too-relatable during COVID-19: “I wanna go out to lunch. I wanna be normal again!”)

The film sold Hawn as a fish out of water in fatigues, asking, “Is green the only color these come in?” But her character discovers that she has more to offer than just ending up as an accessory.

Eileen Brennan (left) and Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

Directed by Howard Zieff (“My Girl”), “Private Benjamin” is the screenwriting debut of Hawn’s business partner, Nancy Meyers, who would go on to write and direct films like “Something’s Gotta Give” and “The Intern.” On a budget of $9.2 million, the October release became a smash, grossing more than $69 million domestically.

“Private Benjamin” earned Hawn an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. The film also is her first credit as an executive producer. Hawn also produced 1984’s “Protocol” and 1986’s “Wildcats,” a sort of trio about a chipper, underestimated blonde who’s not as dumb as others think.

“Forty years later, Judy still marches through our minds. She might pale next to the army’s finest, but she was never meant to be the best soldier, just the best version of herself.”

“I didn’t plan on becoming a producer,” Hawn said in the biography Pure Goldie: The Life and Times of Goldie Hawn by Marc Shapiro. “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.”

Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin” / Courtesy of IMDB.com

One of Hawn’s best scenes is when Judy takes control of hers. Judy’s parents (Sam Wanamaker and Barbara Barrie) surprise her at Fort Biloxi in Mississippi to whisk her home. Mom slaps the rain off Judy’s poncho and pats her helmet. Dad says they’ve told their friends she’s gone temporarily insane.

“You were never a smart girl,” he says. “You are obviously incapable of making your own decisions. Starting tomorrow, I do not let you out of my sight.”

Lewis had called the couple to get Judy out of her hair. But Judy surprises all of them — and herself.

“I think I’ll stay,” she says with a salute. And she does.

Forty years later, Judy still marches through our minds. She might pale next to the army’s finest, but she was never meant to be the best soldier, just the best version of herself. Wherever she’d be today, we’ll consider that mission accomplished.

“Private Benjamin” is available to stream on HBO MAX and Amazon Prime.

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