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<i>Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood</i> Offers Birdseye View of Female Relationships - 2002-06-08

A popular novel about mothers and daughters and friendships comes to the screen as an often hilarious, often heartbreaking comedy. Alan Silverman has a look at Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Successful New York playwright Sidda Lee Walker has the toughest time getting along with Vivi, her flamboyant mother back home in Louisiana. Determined to bring the warring mother and daughter back together are Vivi's lifelong friends: this quartet of unstoppable Southern women who, since childhood, declared themselves the "Ya Ya Sisterhood."

The screenplay is by Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for her Thelma and Louise script and Khouri makes her directing debut with Divine Secrets of The Ya-Ya Sisterhood; but she knows it will be tough to please the millions of readers who made the 1997 novel by Rebecca Wells a worldwide best seller.

"It's a little bit of a no win situation going into it," she says, "just because this novel was beloved by so many and it was going to need to have some significant changes in terms of the way the story worked. I was nervous about that, but at the same time, my first responsibility is to make an entertaining movie. So I kind of had to throw the cards in the air a little bit and hope for the best," she explains. " I did everything I could to stay true to the spirit of the book, if not the letter. I think that fans of the book will get everything from the movie that the got from the book and maybe more."

The story spans six decades of Vivi's life. Ashley Judd portrays her as a young wife and mother and Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn plays Vivi in her later years. She's cantankerous and crafty, but Burstyn believes Vivi's heart is always in the right place.

"I think in many ways, she was a wonderful mother. It's just that Vivi had one real dark descent;" explains Burstyn. "But I think it's those kinds of episodes in our lives that deepen us and teach us compassion for others."

The other members of the "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" in their senior years include English veteran Maggie Smith as Caro; American stage and screen star Shirley Knight plays Necie; and Teensy, the archetype Southern woman, is played by versatile Irish performer Fionnula Flanagan.

"It's not just the accent," says Flanagan, "it's the whole sensibility because you have to learn a kind of speed of speech and living. The mannerisms and the whole idea of there being a southern politesse that goes on...a politeness in exchange for information: What you do and what you don't say. You learn all of that. That's a whole culture you're trying to learn in a few weeks."

Sandra Bullock plays grown up Sidda. Because it is a story of mothers and daughters, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood might be labeled a "chick flick" a movie primarily for women. Co-star Ashley Judd says that's fine.

"I think it's a human movie because it's about relationships, male and female, she says. "If it's just a 'chick flic' there's no problem with that, although I think that's too narrow and exclusive. That's like saying if guys enjoy it then they shouldn't have."

There are a couple of men in Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood Angus McFadyen plays Sidda's fiancé and James Garner is Vivi's long-suffering spouse Shep.