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SUE’S MOVIE REVIEW — Meryl Streep and “The Iron Lady”

Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"

By Sue Podbielski/February 10, 2012

Why, oh why, couldn’t they give us a movie about British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher that was as good as Meryl Streep’s superb portrayal of her in “The Iron Lady?” Instead, we end up watching one of the greatest actors of this era spend too much of this film shuffling around half-tipsy in a housecoat and slippers.

Mrs. Thatcher is seen in the last years of her life having conversations with the ghost of her late husband, Denis. These are scenes that the real Maggie Thatcher would have no doubt deplored. One wonders if a male Prime Minister, historically ranked just below Winston Churchill, would have his story told quite this way?


There are significant lessons about women and power that the life of Margaret Thatcher has to teach us, but unfortunately, the film doesn’t really develop them. It presents Thatcher as a woman who defined herself through the men in her life: her father, her husband, her colleagues in the Conservative Party, and finally her errant son.

It also shows us the formation of her indomitable will, tempered by the British struggle during World War II and her desire to rise in the class-defined society of mid-century England. The audience follows Thatcher’s arduous path to success.

A teenaged Margaret is seen suffering the taunts of wealthier schoolmates as she tends the family store and embraces her proud father as he reads her acceptance to Oxford. (She matriculated in chemistry.) She runs for local office and meets the man who is to be her husband and biggest supporter, Denis Thatcher, a successful business man.

Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"

After that point in the story, Streep takes over the movie and gives a tour de force performance, literally inhabiting Thatcher’s skin. The IRA bombing of her hotel room is a particularly unforgettable scene in which both Thatchers nearly lose their lives in the kind of senseless violence that plagued Britain at that time.

It is at that moment when Streep shows us that even the great Iron Lady herself had doubts. Without a word, Streep’s Thatcher asks, “How can I go on? Will I be allowed to go?” Perhaps despite all of her confident composure, Margaret Thatcher was never quite sure.

Like Ronald Reagan (a man she admired and of whom she was genuinely fond), Margaret Thatcher took control of a country that was in poor shape. Its economy was weak and morale was low. Just as Reagan did, Thatcher stood up to the unions, cut the social spending budget, hanged tough on increasing social programs, and tried to restore national pride in a way that harkened back to earlier, happier times for the nation.

Meryl Streep as Margaret Thatcher in "The Iron Lady"

Some of her plans worked and some of her plans didn’t. At times she was vilified and at others celebrated, as in the aftermath of the British victory in the Falklands where she stood firm. We see Mrs. Thatcher valiantly struggling to get into the “old boys club” of the British Parliament, and it gives us a moment when we’re really rooting for her.

But where the movie breaks down for me and where I lose sympathy for Mrs. Thatcher is that she did not seem to be a female leader who put other strong women in politics on a par with herself. She believed she achieved her extraordinary success because she was an extraordinary person. However, her thinking did not go so far as to embrace the idea that other women might be able to achieve the same thing if they were given a better chance.

Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"--Time Magazine cover of Margaret ThatcherPolitically, she abhorred programs that were handouts, but she also didn’t much care for extending a hand up, boosting an equally qualified person on the ladder rung below. In fact, while she was in office, Margaret Thatcher cut subsidized child care for working women.

That Thatcher identified solely with her father and preferred the company of men over women is made clear, but the consequences of this are never shown.

A female dinner party guest pays homage to the aging Mrs. Thatcher on behalf of all the women of her generation. In reality, neither the women’s movement in this country nor her own gave her the accolades one would think she earned. In fact, feminists are quite divided about Margaret Thatcher because of her conservative policies which some felt hurt women.

Thatcher was the longest serving Prime Minister of Britain and the first woman to hold the position. Some of her observations in the movie, as expressed by Streep, are priceless, such as: “You see, for us (women in the last generation) it was about doing something. Today no one is interesting in doing anything. They want to be something.”

Meryl Streep in "The Iron Lady"As a prime minister appalled at the way cabinet decisions are were made, she states: “When did feeling replace thinking? Today, it’s all about what people feel.” Indeed. As her Conservative Party stalwarts betray her at the end of the film, Mrs. Thatcher laments that it was she who was forced to make the hard decisions alone.

She had grit, determination and precision as she blazed a lonely trail, which could have included many more women by her side if she had reached out and mentored them.

All that said, it is not surprising that the marvelous Meryl Streep has received her 17th Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the Iron Lady. She delivers a powerful performance with technical perfections, and tightly controlled emotion. After all, public displays of emotion were not Margaret Thatcher’s calling card.

It was her fierce will and tenacity in the face of harsh criticism and downright disaster that made her extraordinary, and Streep conveys that perfectly. As they say, she really nails it, even though the overall movie does not.

Meryl Streep from "The Iron Lady"

Photos from “The Iron Lady”: The Weinstein Company


Sue Podbielski is a writer, producer, and community activist.

My Far Away One by Sarah Greenough

Georgia O'Keeffe book "My Faraway One" for Women's Eye Sue's ReviewMy Far Away One by Sarah Greenough (Yale Press, 2011) is a compilation of 650 letters, chosen and annotated by leading photography scholar Sarah Greenough.   She is the photography curator of the National Gallery in Washington and was a friend of O’Keeffe’s. This is the first volume and includes the Stieglitz–O’Keeffe letters from 1915 to 1933.

Read the TWE Review by Sue Podbielski


Book Photo from IStock Photo (Paid For)

By Sue Podbielski/December 3, 2011

If you love to give books as holiday gifts (or just want a tome with which to spend your days off), here’s a year-end round-up of those that made my list for best books of the last six months.

1. George Harrison: Living in the Material World by Olivia Harrison

George Harrison BookFor the Beatle fan on your list, I recommend George Harrison: Living in the Material World, by George’s wife Olivia Harrison (Abrams, $40.00). This is an artfully arranged portrait of a truly enlightened man.

The book draws from Harrison’s own personal photos, letters, and diaries. Reminiscences from his many friends as well as his family (including his son Dhani) are weaved throughout the book.

But it is George’s unique, searching and sensitive voice which infuses every page and leaves you with the feeling of knowing him better.


2. Then Again by Diane Keaton

Further on the celebrity spectrum is a thoroughly delightful memoir by actress Diane Keaton, entitled Then Again (Random House, $26.00). Keaton has always been a complete original and an immensely talented actress. Now 65-years-old, she just keeps getting better even as she embraces the life of motherhood. (She adopted her daughter when she was 50 years old and later adopted a son.) This book is a look back, not only at her career and her relationships with Woody Allen, Warren Beatty, and Al Pacino, but at her extraordinary mother, Dorothy Keaton Hall.

Diane Keaton bookThen Again is really a dialogue with her mother’s diaries which Keaton found after her mother’s death. It’s a poignant look at a mother-daughter relationship that was loving in a completely uncomplicated way.

It is this relationship and her mother’s absolutely unwavering support that Keaton says allowed her to have the success she ultimately attained, perhaps at the expense of her mother’s own aspirations. However, Keaton is a grateful daughter and her tribute to Dorothy in Then Again will make audiences love her even more.

3. Elephant to Hollywood by Michael Caine

The next choice is another kind of Hollywood star memoir. It’s Michael Caine’s new book, Elephant to Hollywood (St. Martin’s Griffin, $15.99) and filled with big names, exotic places, and hit movies . Caine is a darned good storyteller as he showed in his previous reminiscence, What’s It All About?

In Elephant, he tells what happened in his late fifties when the parts Hollywood was offering him were, to put it mildly, a big disappointment. Caine believed that he was washed up as an actor and felt it was time for him to retire. That’s until salvation came through the unlikely person of his old friend Jack Nicholson who showed him how acting in movies could be fun again.

Caine takes us from his humble beginnings in a poverty stricken neighborhood in London to his intoxicating stardom beginning with “Alfie,” and then on to what he believes have been the most fulfilling moments, an Oscar for “The Cider House Rules” and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth. Caine says that had he given up when he wanted to, these things would never have happened. To sum it up, Elephant to Hollywood is a good read about an amazing life.

4. Pilgrimage by Annie Leibovitz

annie Leibovitz bookIf you want to make a meaningful departure from the typical coffee table book, take a look at Annie Leibovitz’s new collection of photos, Pilgrimage (Random House, $50.00) The celebrated photog, who is renowned for her portraits, was granted access to historical sites that few of us ever get a chance to see: Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond, Freud’s last office in London, and Georgia O’Keefe’s adobe house in New Mexico.

She also photographed simple objects that were part of history such as Lincoln’s blood stained gloves, Emily Dickinson’s only surviving dress, and Elvis’ Harley-Davidson motorcycle. This random visual diary of places and things brings together bits and pieces of our collective history, making Pilgrimage a moving book.

5. My Family Table by John Besh

For the dedicated foodie in your life, there’s a beautiful new cookbook based on the concept of eating home-cooked meals surrounded by the folks you love. (Maybe you’ve heard about that before?) You may have seen its handsome author on The Today Show or the Food Network. He is the New Orleans super-cook and restaurateur John Besh and his book is My Family Table: A Passionate Plea for Home Cooking (Andrews McMeel, $35.00).

Besh is a proud native of southern Louisiana with no less than eight restaurants in his empire. His book is testament to his commitment to using fresh, local products to prepare his regional dishes (Check out his recipe for Cochon de Lait, which is suckling pig, marinated and pit-roasted to perfection.)

My Family Table book

It’s as authentic a Louisiana specialty as you can get. In My Family Table, Besh dazzles us with banquet-like breakfasts and tantalizing barbecue. He’s got loads of food ideas that are right for any family occasion or holiday. Besh is a truly American cook. He isn’t shy about using butter and never discards pan drippings when he can use them to make gravy.

Food critics are calling My Family Table the new American classic cookbook. If you do happen to buy it for someone, don’t forget to copy Besh’s recipe for Lemon Ice Box Pie before you give the book away. It’s amazing.

6. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

If you’re searching for a choice to please a biography lover, you cannot do better than the opulent account of the life of Russia’s greatest monarch, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert K. Massie (Random House, $35.00). Massie, who wrote the award-winning Nicholas and Alexandra, paints Catherine as a true child of the Enlightenment, a ruler who hoped to bring reform and progress to Russia.

Robert Massie book on Catharine the GreatBut it was not to be. Mother Russia was unready to accept the ideas of Voltaire and Catherine, his most devoted student. In the end, Catherine does leave her mark on Russia but not before Russia leaves its mark on her.

Catherine is forced to become one tough customer, terribly shrewd, calculating, and vain. In her time, she had a retinue of lovers, usurped the Russian throne from her husband, and planned to expel her son from the line of succession.

Massie’s broad, sweeping prose pulls the reader in. Within no time, one forgets everything but the people, scandals, and historical events that impacted the eighteenth-century Russian court, and you are the better for it.

7. Van Gogh: The Life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith

The other bio is Van Gogh: The Life, a peerlessly researched study of the artist’s life by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (Random House $40.00). While there have been many books on Van Gogh and the tragedy of his life, none has had the psychological acuity of this work which presents a much more sympathetic understanding of the Van Gogh than we have previously been presented.

Naifeh and Smith, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for their biography of the artist Jackson Pollack, draw on Van Gogh’s voluminous letters to portray a man who was among the most creative spirits the world has ever seen, an intelligent and complex character who persevered for his art, even against his own intensity. Van Gogh: The Life has been deemed the definitive biography of the great Dutch post-impressionist, and it just may bring Naifeh and Smith their second Pulitzer Prize.

Andrew Weil book8. Spontaneous Happiness by Dr. Andrew Weil

Everyone wants to give happiness. Here’s your chance. Spontaneous Happiness (Little, Brown, & Company, $27.99) by Dr. Andrew Weil gives us the basics for attaining optimum emotional health with an approach that brings together Eastern and Western psychology. He tackles inner well-being with a variety of techniques including managing stress, changing negative mental habits and adopting a spiritual practice.

Plus, in Spontaneous Happiness, the good doctor outlines an eight-week program which includes nutrition, supplements, exercise, and lifestyle changes to get started on the quest. It has long been noted that Dr. Weill does impressive work in integrating alternative healing with scientific medical practice.

He’s got the East-West dichotomy digested and synthesized, thereby saving his readers the work. He also offers these concepts about healing with caring, clarity, and common sense. In addition, Weill may be the most open-minded doctor on the planet. He extols the virtues of everything from gardening (something he strongly advocates for well-being because he does it himself) to hugs. While Dr. Andrew Weil may not bring you complete and everlasting bliss, Spontaneous Happiness will make you feel better. Isn’t that enough?

Gabby Giffords book9. Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope by Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords

One of this year’s most inspirational books has got to be Gabby: A Story of Courage and Hope, (Scribner, $26.99) by Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords. I cannot imagine anyone failing to be moved by this story which is mostly told by Kelley in the book.

He combines a history of his and Giffords’ lives with details of Gabby’s slow, painful journey back from the near fatal shooting that took the lives of six people.

There is no doubt that while Gabrielle Giffords still has a substantial way to go toward total recovery, she will succeed. Kelly leaves the writing of the last chapter to his remarkable wife who tells the American people, “I will get stronger. I will return.” Perhaps her inevitable triumph will form the basis for another book? Here’s hoping that The Women’s Eye will be able to put it on next year’s list. Go Gabby!

10. Cool, Calm & Contentious by Merrill MarkoeMerrill Markoe's Cool, Calm & ContentiousIn her latest book, Cool, Calm & Contentious (Villard, $24.00), Merrill Markoe proves once again that she is a funny, smart writer who knows her way around the comedy business. She is so astute about things comedic that she has even identified the kind of mother one needs to make it in comedy.Moms who are narcissistic, hypercritical and filled with repressed rage seem to have the winning formula. Markoe’s own mother once read her comedy scripts and remarked, “Well, I don’t care for them, but I hope I’m wrong.”It takes quite a coping mechanism to defend your ego against that kind of onslaught, but apparently this is the stuff that comedic inspiration is made from. Markoe also shares her amusing musings on the challenges of adult relationships and why dogs are her favorite people. She is long past getting her due as a humorist of uncommon talent. Give this book and make somebody laugh!

If you’ve read a book that you really enjoyed and want to recommend to our TWE audience, email us at thewomenseye@gmail.com,and we may include it in a future list of Reader Picks.

Sue Podbielski is a writer, producer, and community activist.

SUE’S REVIEW — The Indomitable Diana Vreeland

Diana Vreeland book

UPDATE 2/21/13: Film debuts at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

UPDATE 9/8/12: The new film, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel,” opens this month.  Here is the trailer…

By Sue Podbielski/October 22, 2011

Facebook: DianaVreelandbookandfilm

Once upon a time there was a queen, who, despite her rather unconventional appearance, ruled the rarified world of women’s magazines with her ideas of fashion and beauty. She was Diana Vreeland, whose singular style catapulted her in the 1930s from socialite to Harper’s Bazaar’s fashion editor, a job she invented and held for almost three decades.

“There is only one thing in life and that’s the continual renewal of inspiration.” Diana Vreeland

Diana Vreeland from Abrams

Photo Courtesy of the Diana Vreeland Estate

She discovered Hollywood legend Lauren Bacall; launched the careers of models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton; advised First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy on clothes; and became a major player during the heyday of women’s magazines. In 1963 Vreeland cemented her reputation by being named the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue where her contributions to the fashion revolution of the mid-sixties were innumerable.

I always found the indomitable Mrs. Vreeland, whom I worshipped from afar, to be a fascinating creature. Her personal panache, her jet black bob, her aquiline nose, and her gift for witticisms won me from the first moment that I read about her.

She once said, “The first thing to do is to arrange to be born in Paris. After that, everything follows quite naturally.” Diana Vreeland was one of the great figures of the New York City fashion and art world until her death in 1989.

Her larger than life persona (she was the inspiration for the character of Maggie Prescott in the Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn film “Funny Face”) may have been her own creation, but it was nevertheless mesmerizing.

When The Grolier Club (a place apparently so unique that had I never even heard about it in my 30 -something years of living in New York) announced a lecture by Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law Lisa Immordino Vreeland, I eagerly paid the thirty dollars for the ticket and joined the crowd of 25 or so D.V. acolytes to hear what she had to say.

Diana Vreeland Bazaar Cover 4/15/67

One of Vreeland’s Harper’s Bazaar covers/March, 1959

Immordino Vreeland, a striking woman with a professional background in fashion, has written a new book, “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” which chronicles Mrs. Vreeland’s life in style. Many have said that Diana (pronounced DEE-ahna) Vreeland gave us the template for the way we view and interact with fashion today, and Immordino Vreeland makes a very strong case for that.

While she never met her grandmother-in-law, she had access to the family’s archives as well as those of Bazaar, Vogue, and the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute, for which Diana Vreeland served as creative consultant after her abrupt dismissal from Vogue at the age of 70.

Immordino Vreeland was a prodigious researcher on this project leaving no stone of D.V.’s life as an editor unturned. While she was researching the book, an impressive coffee-table tome featuring hundreds of photos pulled from the pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, she told herself that she should be working on a documentary. So that’s exactly what she ended up doing.

Her impressive film, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival and will be released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company in March 2012, features interviews with Calvin Klein, Angelica Huston, Ali McGraw, Marisa Berenson, Oscar de La Renta, Hubert de Givenchy, Diane von Furstenberg, Manolo Blahnik, and Vreeland’s most celebrated collaborator, photographer Richard Avedon.

“You’ve got to give people what they can’t get at home. You’ve got to take them somewhere.”

Then, there is Diana Vreeland in her own words, captured on video and audio tapes in interviews she did with Dick Cavett and Diane Sawyer, as well as many hours of conversations recorded with the writer George Plimpton, made while she wrote her memoir, D.V. Vreeland once said, “You’ve got to give people what they can’t get at home. You’ve got to take them somewhere.” Her vehicle for this journey was fashion, but her route was fantasy.

Diana Vreeland Vogue Cover with Twiggy

Twiggy on Vogue cover/April, 1967

Diana Vreeland gave people a sense of something larger than life, although not always factual. According to Immordino Vreeland, she was a believer in “faction,” the synergy between fantasy and fact. “Do we know for certain that Nijinsky danced through her living room?” says Immordino Vreeland. “We don’t. But does it matter? She puts us there. She gives us a sense of history in a totally different way.”

Vreeland had a front row seat to the most important moments of her time, and it made everything she said and did more alive. She danced alongside Josephine Baker in Harlem; she rode with Buffalo Bill; she shopped at Coco Chanel’s atelier; and she witnessed the coronation of King Edward VI.

It was all a magnificent prelude for the woman who would introduce, despite indignant protestations, the bikini and blue jeans to American fashion, calling them “the most beautiful things you’ve ever seen.” Everything she did was extraordinary and extreme. Not surprisingly, she loved the Sixties. “For the first time,” she said, “youth went after life instead of waiting for life to come to them.”

I asked Immordino Vreeland during the recent lecture what Diana Vreeland might have thought of today’s fashion. She answered that she probably would be very pleased with much of what she saw, particularly how accessible fashion has become today. She thought Vreeland would have really loved the internet because she loved learning about new things and tapping into trends and information all over the world. Vreeland once said, “There is only one thing in life and that’s the continual renewal of inspiration.”

She brought creativity, inspiration, and fantasy to an industry which needed her talent.

For those who are interested in Diana Vreeland’s personal life and how she came to be the fascinating woman she ultimately became, Immordino Vreeland offers glimpses but no conclusions.

Diana Vreeland autobiography

Diana Vreeland autobiography

According to interviews with Vreeland herself, she always had a unique appearance which prompted her mother to call her, “my little monster.” Her younger sister, Alexandra, was considered to be beautiful.

What this did to a vulnerable young Diana Vreeland we can only conjecture. One has the vision of a girl growing up in a world of beauty and culture who, although not considered beautiful herself, was determined to turn herself into the ultimate arbiter of fashion and taste.

The wonderful thing is that while she may have created her own persona and played the role to the hilt, she gave so much to life. Whether she was being real or acting a part didn’t seem to matter. Yes, she was bending reality to fit her will, but she was awfully good at it.

Immordino Vreeland paints a vivid portrait of a complex woman whose talents could not be categorized and whose imagination was so vast that she had to invent a place for herself in the world. More than anything Diana Vreeland was about ideas. She brought creativity, inspiration, and fantasy to an industry which needed her talent. And that industry became her all-important vehicle. It was a match made in heaven.

Book Credit: Abrams, Fall 2011. That is Diana Vreeland on the cover, posing in front of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West. The model was sick that day and D.V. just decided to do the shoot herself.


Sue Podbielski is a writer, producer, and community activist.

SUE’S MOVIE REVIEW — Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan poster

By Sue Podbielski

What brings about the tie that binds two women in a life-long friendship? This is the theme of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, the international best-selling novel by Lisa See, recently made into a feature film by director Wayne Wang. He also directed the successful movie version of Amy Tan’s equally successful book, The Joy Luck Club.

I believe that each of us has one particular area in life that is especially blessed. For some, it is devoted parents. For others, it is an extremely supportive marriage, and for still others, it is material success or worldly accomplishment.

Lisa See

Author Lisa See

For me, it has always been, and continues to be, my friends. All of my life I have been blessed with female (and male) friends who have cared for me, taught me, protected me, and given me opportunities that I would have otherwise missed.

Some of these friends are close. Some are not. However when we see each other again, we just pick right up where we left off. Like anyone in this position, I am immensely grateful.

So when the film version of this epic story about the friendship between two women in 19th century China hit the screen last week in New York, I was there. So were hundreds of other women who waited in line to see the movie version of Lily and Snow Flower’s tale, which has resonated with readers around the world. The book has been translated into almost 40 languages.


Keep in mind that Snow Flower is no ordinary example of chick lit; its film version is not an Asian-style chick flick. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan tells the story of two laotongs which literally means “old sames.” The custom of laotong was not practiced throughout China, but was specific to a minority tribe in the Hunan province where the story of Lily and Snow Flower, played by Gianna Jun and Li Bingbing, takes place.

In the laotong tradition two girls would be matched at a young age as laotongs if they were destined to be together. In Snow Flower the young girls are paired by the venerated matchmaker who decides to make them “sisters” because they were born on the same day, Lily to a poor family and Snow Flower to a rich one.

As laotongs, they pledged to be loyal friends forever, and this bond was formalized in a contract that could never be broken.

Snow Flower

Li Bingbing as Lily and Gianna Jun as Snow Flower

As both See’s novel and the film version show, women’s lives in China were difficult and emotionally brutal in those early times. Women were the property of their husbands and his family. From an early age they were taught obedience as their highest quality. They defied neither their husband, his mother, nor their own parents. They did what they were told.

Their marriages were business arrangements made by their families with a matchmaker who tried to get the “best deal.” A women’s worth on the marriage market was derived from her family’s wealth and social status and by her feet. If a girl, even a girl from a poor family, had small, perfectly shaped feet then she had a chance to make a respectable match and “marry up.”

Bound Feet

Feet that were bound/Photo: Northhampton Museum

This instituted the painful custom of foot binding in which a girl of around six years old had the bones in her feet broken. The feet were then wrapped tightly. They were continually unbound and checked, but the broken bones were always folded over again and rebound.

Many female children died from infection as a result. By adulthood, the feet were supposed to be no larger than a child’s. These small delicate feet were called “The Golden Lotus,” and for Chinese men they were a major turn-on. And who customarily broke the bones and bound the feet of a Chinese girl? A woman.

Frequently, a professional foot binder was secured because the mother was often too emotionally weak to perform the excruciating process on her own daughter.

Snow Flower book

Lily’s mother in the book is a skillful foot binder, unmoved by her daughter’s cries and rigorously disciplined in this custom. It is her skill which helps her daughter attain her fortune.

In the movie, when the small child Lily cries out to her mother and begs her to stop, her mother replies, “In pain there is beauty. In suffering, there is peace of mind.” This is a poignant belief which may have comforted her generation of Chinese women throughout their hard lives.

While bound feet might give a woman with a “Lotus gait” thought to be erotic by Chinese men, they also made her unable to walk. For all of their beauty, Lily’s dainty feet can hardly hold her up. She needs the assistance of a servant to walk. Decades later as is shown in the movie, Chinese women look back on foot binding as if they were being shackled in slavery.

If foxholes make men into devoted friends, then it is men who do the same for women. The laotongs stuck together. They devised their own secret language called nu shu, which no one else could understand. It enabled them to send private messages back and forth written on a fan.

Snow FLower and the Secret Fan

Lily and Snowflower overlooking modern Shanghai.

Sometimes Lily and Snow Flower unobtrusively pass the fan to each other when they meet. Sometimes they send it by messenger. Their husbands are completely left out because men are unable to understand what was written in nu shu. A lifetime of messages could be sent on fans.

Like any long, intimate relationship, the one between Lily and Snow Flower has its complications, and inevitably conflict occurs when the two friends are thrust by fate into different kinds of lives. When the two have a falling out, they chillingly inflict their anger on each other with silent, yet deep, cuts to the bone, something only close friends know how to do.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Lily and Snow Flower prepare to flee the rebels.

In the film version, director Wayne Wang juxtaposes the tale of Lily and Snow Flower with a story of two modern Chinese women, Nina and Sophia, who struggle to maintain their own close friendship while meeting the demands of complex lives in today’s Shanghai.

While Wang most likely intended to broaden the appeal of See’s original version, he loses its soul by offering us this contemporary story that was not part of the original book. This is sad because much of the rich detail in See’s historical saga is missing in his confusing rendition. If only Wang had the courage of the fictitious Lily and Snow Flower and dared to make this a full historical drama by staying faithful to See’s novel.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Lily reunites with Snow Flower and her family.

No doubt he felt it to be too old-fashioned to do so. However, the gifted performances of the young actresses Gianna Jun and Ni Bingbing playing dual roles somehow rescue the movie.

Their faces are luminous in their expressions. They manage to convey the agony and tenderness at the center of Lily’s and Snow Flower’s relationship and the intensity and playfulness at the core of Sophia’s and Nina’s.

Snow Flower actresses and director

Gianna Jun, Li Bingbing and Wayne Wang

I would not tell anyone to ignore the movie version of Snow Flower. It is gorgeous to behold (although I do not know anyone who sees a film for the sake of the art direction). If you truly would like to get the most from this story, make sure to read the book as well.

Women’s loyalty to one another is seldom openly discussed. I have seen all types of surveys on women’s fidelity in marriage. I have read all sorts of studies about women undermining each other in the workplace and the failure of the female gender to bond or to create an “old girls’ network.”

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

Lily reads message from Snow Flower written in their secret language on a fan.

However, there is far less attention, scholarly or otherwise, given to the subject of women and friendship. I believe the popularity of See’s original Snow Flower illustrates an underlying truth in the lives of women. Loyalty toward other women in close friendships is as essential to most women as are all the other aspects of their lives.

The bottom line on Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is to read the novel if you have not already. See the movie if you want a little more. But in either case or neither case, remember to call your best friend.


Do you have a story about a life-long friendship? Is so, would you like to share it? Please send your friendship story by email to spodbielski@aol.com. All names will be held confidential.

Sue Podbielski is a writer, producer, and community activist.


Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, directed by Wayne Wang; written by Angela Workman, Ron Bass and Michael K. Ray, based on the book by Lisa See; director of photography, Richard Wong; edited by Deirdre Slevin; music by Rachel Portman; production design and costumes by Man Lim Chung; produced by Wendi Murdoch and Florence Sloan; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

Cast: Gianna Jun (Snow Flower/Sophia), Li Bingbing (Lily/Nina), Vivian Wu (Aunt), Jiang Wu (Butcher), Russell Wong (Bank C.E.O.), Archie Kao (Sebastian) and Hugh Jackman (Arthur).