Ever since SAG-AFTRA joined the WGA in the biggest entertainment industry strike in the United States since the 1960s, many fans of ’90s sitcoms and romantic comedies have found themselves in awe of the sheer power and eloquence of one of their most beloved icons: everyone’s favorite nanny, Fran Drescher. In a speech delivered in the aftermath of the fateful meeting that decided on the strike, Drescher addressed not only her fellow performers but the labor movement as a whole, encouraging workers all across the board to stand up for their rights. This came as a shock to many that knew nothing about Drescher apart from the fact that she took care of a Broadway producer’s kids in a TV show many years ago. However, those that had been really paying attention to Drescher’s work already knew where she stood on labor issues. While The Nanny made it clear for viewers that Fines – and Dreschers – do not cross the picket line, another movie of the 90s had Drescher stepping out of her comfort zone to incite exploited workers into going on strike. We are talking, of course, about 1997’s The Beautician and the Beast.
Written by Todd Graff based on a pitch by Drescher herself and directed by Ken Kwapis, this bizarre romantic comedy stars Timothy Dalton and Drescher as an evil dictator and the foreign beautician that tames his heart and leads his country toward democracy in the process. With a story that features characters such as a power-hungry prime minister and a first daughter in love with a political agitator, the movie has a somewhat confusing notion of how dictatorships work, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack some important messages. More precisely, the film has a thing or two to say concerning strikes. Though the labor movement is not the most essential part of its plot, The Beautician and the Beast goes out of its way to position itself on the side of workers and deliver a very important message: labor rights are good for everyone.
What Is ‘The Beautician and the Beast’ About?
Much like The Nanny, The Beautician and the Beast is loosely inspired by The King & I and The Sound of Music. But instead of an aspiring nun tasked with taking care of the children of a naval officer only to fall in love with her boss, Kwapis’ movie features a struggling beauty school teacher that is accidentally given a job as a tutor to the four children of an Eastern European dictator. Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, the small fictional land of Slovetzia is drawing attention from countries all across the globe as its leader, the ruthless Boris Pochenko (Dalton), faces off against a group of young political activists who wish to change the country’s regime. In order to improve his international image, Pochenko sends one of his ministers after an American tutor that can introduce his children to Western ways.
Said teacher ends up being New York beautician Joy Miller (Drescher), who immediately earns the love of Pochenko’s four children and sets off to change the way things are done in Slovetzia. Her ever-defiant personality puts her on the blacklist of some government heads, such as prime-minister Kleist (Patrick Malahide), but catches the eye of Pochenko, who quickly finds himself smitten by the accidental tutor. Holding the dictator’s heart in her hands, Joy convinces him to listen to the plights of his people and even to hold free elections for his successor in the near future.
It’s a wild ride from start to finish. In many ways, The Beautician and the Beast is an extremely baffling movie for modern viewers. Made shortly after the end of the Cold War, the film is a veritable grab-bag of Eastern European stereotypes. Its dictatorial protagonist runs his country with an iron fist, but it’s hard to understand exactly what kind of ideology he subscribes to. The movie implies that Slovetzia is no longer a communist country, and, yet, when Pochenko walks into the room, it’s the communist international anthem that plays in the background. And, in the end, it’s not political struggle nor international pressure that forces Pochenko to open his doors for democracy, but his love for Joy.
What Does ‘The Beautician and the Beast’ Teach Us About Strikes?
But despite being a product of its time and more than a little politically confused, The Beautician and the Beast has its enjoyable moments. One of the best of them takes place when Pochenko takes Joy to a Slovetzian factory. All the workers have to stop what they are doing to receive their dictator in the appropriate fashion, with pomp and circumstance. While Pochenko revels in the attention, Joy strikes up a conversation with a worker that complains about having to do overtime with no pay due to the unexpected official visit. Utterly shocked, Joy asks to see the workers’ union representative, to which the man she was talking to simply responds “What is union?”
Now, how come the workers of a formerly communist country don’t know what is a union is something that we will not waste our time trying to find out. What’s important in this scene is that, upon learning that the workers have no idea what a union is, Joy sets off to teach them about it. After all, how are they supposed to be paid overtime if they have no one to stand up for their rights? And this is the first important lesson that The Beautician and the Beast teaches its viewers: unions exist to defend the rights of workers. Without them, people are left powerless to fight those that wish to exploit their labor.
Much like Hollywood higher-ups, Pochenko isn’t thrilled about his workers striking. From this alone comes The Beautician and the Beast second lesson about unions and strikes: they are made not to appease the bosses, but to stand up against them. Bob Iger may complain all he wants about the strike being disruptive, but strikes are disruptive by definition. They are meant to be a nuisance to those that refuse to meet essential demands from workers when asked nicely.
And, as Pochenko himself comes to understand, meeting those demands is essential for work as a whole. By the end of the movie, when prime-minister Kleist tries to take away the rights that were given to the laborers, Boris stops him, claiming that the factory has been working better than before after the demands of the workers were met. This is the final and most important message that The Beautician and the Beast has to teach us about strikes and labor: in order for an industry to work properly, the people behind it must feel appreciated and secure in their rights. Otherwise, alienation sets in and workers stop striving for their best. Dictator Pochenko understood this message loud and clear. Now it’s time to see how long it will take for Hollywood CEOs to do the same.
The Big Picture
- Fran Drescher’s 1997 film The Beautician and the Beast may be politically confused, but it sends an important message about labor rights and the power of unions.
- The movie emphasizes the importance of unions in defending workers’ rights and standing up against bosses who refuse to meet essential demands.
- The Beautician and the Beast suggests that industries can only function properly when workers feel appreciated and secure in their rights, highlighting the need for Hollywood CEOs to understand this message.