A Taxonomy of TV and Film’s Many, Many ‘Wives’

·6 min read
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Everett/HBO Max
Photo Illustration by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Everett/HBO Max

It’s a question that’s been asked many times before, but as The Time Traveler’s Wife makes its HBO Max debut, I feel we must ask again: Why is Hollywood so obsessed with wives, anyway?

From The Wife to The Good Wife, from The Stepford Wives to The First Wives’ Club, television and especially film runs rampant with titles that hinge on a capital “W.” But even more amusing is the preponderance of titles that all follow the same basic convention: “The [Insert Husband’s Occupation Here] Wife.”

Beyond The Time Traveler’s Wife, you’ve got your Pilot’s Wife and your Preacher’s Wife, who must not be confused with The Priest’s Wife or The Pastor’s Wife or The Bishop’s Wife. (Otherwise, may God have mercy on your soul.) Possible tweaks to the formula know no bounds; any actress could one day find herself playing a Rich Man’s Wife or a Scoundrel’s Wife—or worse, a Senator’s Wife. (The Senator’s Wife, from disgraced mega-producer Harvey Weinstein, appears to have never made it to screen.)

A quick search for movies with “Husband” in the title yields far fewer results than “Wife” does, and not a single one that follows that specific convention. So, wherefore all the Wives?

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Perhaps it’s the gravitas these titles lend. There is a certain shoulder-shuddering intrigue to saying a title like The Time Traveler’s Wife or The Preacher’s Wife. Then again, The Zookeeper’s Wife doesn’t exactly take one’s breath away—even despite being, thematically, the gravest entry in the bunch. A cynic who’s spent the past week reading depressing SCOTUS news might suggest that these titles are a pretty loud sign of how comfortable we feel defining women by the men they happen to marry rather than by their own terms—and a person in a better mood might gently say that at least the end result is still pretty funny. Here, for your perusal, are some of Hollywood’s most memorable “Wives.”

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009, 2022)

The Wife: Rachel McAdams (2009), Rose Leslie (2022)

The Concept: Author Audrey Niffenegger’s frustrations with her love life inspired the 2003 novel that spawned both a movie adaptation and, now, HBO’s new series. A science fiction romance, the story follows a man with a genetic disorder that catapults him unpredictably through time, leaving his wife, Claire, to figure out what to do while he’s gone. Eric Bana played the time-traveling husband in the movie; in the series, it’s Divergent heartthrob Theo James.

The Bishop’s Wife (1947)

The Wife: Loretta Young, who ironically won her Academy Award not as a “Wife” but as a “Daughter”—The Farmer’s Daughter, specifically

The Concept: Cary Grant plays an angel named Dudley, who visits an Episcopalian bishop so obsessed with building his church that he forgets what’s really important. The bishop, however, grows wary as the angel becomes more involved in his affairs—and attracts the attention of his long-suffering wife. A Variety review at the time credited Young for a “moving performance as the wife whose life is touched by an angel without her knowledge of his heavenly origin.”

My Best Friend’s Wife (2001)

The Wife: There are two wives in this case, played by Meredith Salenger and Tara Westwood

The Concept: John Stamos and Daniel London play husbands in the post-Vietnam War 1970s who, upon deciding they’re in a rut, set out to convince their wives to swap spouses for one single taboo-breaking romp. Have mercy, indeed!

The Rich Man’s Wife (1996)

The Wife: Halle Berry

The Concept: A sultry Berry finds her character trapped in a terrifying thriller due to her husband’s bad behavior. A trailer for the film includes the classic tease, “In a world... where wealth can be seductive, beauty can be dangerous, and secrets can be deadly, no one has more to gain—or lose—than a rich man’s wife.” If you say so!

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The Priest’s Wife (1970)

The Wife: Sophia Loren

The Concept: The Italian actress plays a suicidal singer who falls in love with Father Don Mario, a priest who’s pledged celibacy. The film, produced by Loren’s husband Carlo Ponti, reunites the actress with her frequent screen partner Marcello Mastroianni, whose priest struggles to maintain his righteousness in the face of the gorgeous singer’s overtures.

The Butcher’s Wife (1991)

The Wife: Demi Moore

The Concept: Moore has copped to regretting this rom-com, which co-stars Jeff Daniels, Frances McDormand, and George Dzundza, and tanked with both critics and audiences. But the idea for the Terry Hughes film—in which a clairvoyant marries a butcher under the mistaken belief that he’s her soulmate—is still pretty fun!

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2017)

The Wife: Jessica Chastain

The Concept: In spite of its deceptively cuddly title—and poster image of Chastain holding a white tiger cub—this World War II drama is the darkest in the bunch. The film adapts Diane Ackerman’s nonfiction book about Jan and Antonina Żabińska, who rescued 300 Polish Jews from the Nazis by offering refuge in their zoo in Warsaw before relocating them to safe houses.

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The Scoundrel’s Wife (2002)

The Wife: Tatum O’Neal

The Concept: Another World War II film, this one’s set in a small Louisiana fishing village as the U.S. enters the war. The Scoundrel’s Wife (also released under the title The Home Front in the U.S.) finds Oscar winner O’Neal playing a widow and suspected saboteur who falls in love with a Jewish refugee from Germany who becomes the town doctor.

The Slugger’s Wife (1985)

The Wife: Rebecca De Mornay

The Concept: The Risky Business star plays a singer named Debby Huston who falls in love with Atlanta Braves baseball player Darryl Palmer (Michael O’Keefe). The pair’s relationship goes south, however, when Darryl becomes increasingly smothering and meddlesome in Debby’s professional life.

The Preacher’s Wife (1996)

The Wife: Whitney Houston

The Concept: This one brings things full circle. A remake of The Bishop’s Wife directed by Penny Marshall, The Preacher’s Wife boasts an all-star cast of not only Houston, Denzel Washington, and Courtney B. Vance, but also Jenifer Lewis, Loretta Devine, and Gregory Hines. Washington plays Dudley in this version, while Vance plays a pastor struggling to keep his congregation afloat. Houston, of course, plays his wife—who, as in the original, goes from feeling neglected by her husband to being fascinated by their new visitor.

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