The film became a surprise box-office hit following its North American release, eventually grossing $181,490,000 worldwide, mostly from its domestic run, despite receiving mixed reviews. It developed a cult following particularly among middle-aged women, and the actresses' highest-grossing project of the decade helped revitalize their careers in film and television. Composer Marc Shaiman was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Music Score, while Hawn was awarded a Blockbuster Entertainment Award and both Midler and Parker received Satellite Award nominations for their portrayals.
At Middlebury College in 1969, four young friends, Annie MacDuggan, Elise Elliot, Brenda Morelli, and Cynthia Swann, are graduating. As graduation gifts, valedictorian Cynthia presents the girls with matching Bulgari pearl necklaces. As the graduates take a commemorative picture of the four of them (presumably for the last time), Cynthia makes Annie, Brenda and Elise promise that they will always be there for each other throughout the remainder of their lives.
In the present time, the four friends eventually lose touch with one another, as evident when Cynthia (Stockard Channing) is tearfully gazing at the picture of the four of them on that graduation day. Now wealthy and living in a luxurious penthouse, she gives her maid her own Bulgari pearl necklace (matching the three she gave to her friends on graduation day), and has the maid mail letters to them. She later walks outside of the balcony of her penthouse in a floor length fur coat, a cigarette and a drink, and then commits suicide by jumping to her death after learning through the tabloids that her ex-husband Gil (whom Cynthia made wealthy through her connections, according to narrator Annie) married his much younger mistress the day before.
Her former friends aren't doing much better: Annie (Diane Keaton), meanwhile, is separated, suffering extreme self-esteem issues, and going through therapy with her husband. Brenda (Bette Midler) is divorced, left for a younger woman, depressed, and struggling financially. Elise (Goldie Hawn), whose husband also left her for a younger woman, is now an aging alcoholic movie actress who has become a plastic-surgery addict to keep her career afloat. Shortly after Cynthia's funeral, at which the three remaining friends are reunited for the first time since college, Annie's husband, Aaron (Stephen Collins), leaves her for her younger therapist (Marcia Gay Harden) and asks her for a divorce after spending a night together (and leading Annie to believe it would reconcile them); Brenda has a rather unpleasant encounter at a clothing store with her ex, Morty (Dan Hedaya) and his younger and rather hateful mistress Shelly (Sarah Jessica Parker), and Elise finds out that her soon-to be ex-husband, Bill (Victor Garber), is requesting alimony and half of their marital assets claiming that Elise owes her fame to him. Also, during a meeting with a director for a possible leading lady movie role, she discovers that she is only to play the lead female's mother; she later learns the lead female is Bill's current girlfriend. Shortly thereafter, the three friends receive the letters that Cynthia mailed to them before her suicide. After each one reads her letter from Cynthia, and feeling that they have been taken for granted by their husbands, the women decide to create the First Wives Club, aiming to get revenge on their exes. Annie's lesbian daughter Chris (Jennifer Dundas) also gets in on the plan by asking for a job at her father's advertising agency so she can supply her mother with inside information, as payback for Aaron's unfairness toward Annie.
Brenda finds out through her uncle Carmine (Philip Bosco) who has Mafia connections that Morty is guilty of income tax fraud, while Annie makes a plan to revive her advertising career and buy out Aaron's partners. However, as their plan moves through, things start to fall apart when they find out that Bill has no checkered past and nothing for them to use against him. Elise, feeling sorry for herself, gets drunk which only results in her and Brenda hurling vicious insults at each other, and the women drift apart. When Annie starts thinking about closing down the First Wives Club, her friends come back, saying that they want to see this to the end and Bill hasn't done anything blatantly wrong, but only as far as he knows. As a result, the wives manage to uncover information revealing that Bill's mistress (Elizabeth Berkley) is actually a minor.
Deciding that revenge would make them no better than their husbands, they instead use these situations to push their men into funding the establishment of a nonprofit organization dedicated to aiding abused women, in memory of their college friend Cynthia. The film ends with a celebration at the new Cynthia Swann Griffin Crisis Center for Women. Annie narrates that Elise started a relationship with a cast member in her new, successful play, that Brenda and Morty reconciled their differences and got back together, and that when Aaron tried to get back together with her, Annie told him to "drop dead". While outside the center Bill meets Shelly and the two start to flirt. The film concludes with the three women joyfully singing Lesley Gore's hit "You Don't Own Me". This sequence was choreographed by Patricia Birch and her assistant choreographer was Jonathan Cerullo.Diane Keaton as Annie MacDuggan-Paradis, the vehicle for the film's sporadic voice-over; an anxious and slightly neurotic housewife, saddled with self-esteem problems, attempting to save her marriage with estranged husband Aaron – much to her daughter's dismay. After Aaron sleeps with her and then leaves her for her young therapist, she decides to band together with Brenda and Elise to form the First Wives Club. Annie learns the Aaron is having problems with his advertising firm partners through the help of her daughter, and buys them out at the end of the film; making her the larger owner of Aaron's firm.
Adria Tennor as Young Annie
Bette Midler as Brenda Morelli-Cushman, a wise-cracking Sicilian-Jewish single mother who helped set her husband Morty on his feet financially, before he left her for his younger employee Shelly, cheating her out of an equitable settlement.
Michele Brilliant as Young Brenda
Goldie Hawn as Elise Eliot-Atchison, a former one-time Oscar-winning actress, now an alcoholic and heavy smoker relegated to B movies due to her 'unprofitable' age. Her husband, Bill, who left her for another woman, is suing for alimony and insisting that all of their joint assets be sold and the profits divided between them. She liquidates their assets, and gives the money to Annie so she can buy out her husband's partners.
Dina Spybey as Young Elise
Stockard Channing as Cynthia Swann-Griffin, a college friend of the three main protagonists, who commits suicide after her husband, Gil, leaves her and marries his young mistress three days after their divorce is finalized.
Juliehera Destefano as Young Cynthia
Stephen Collins as Aaron Paradis, Annie's conflicted husband and CEO of an advertising agency, who leaves his wife for their therapist, Leslie Rosen.
Victor Garber as Bill Atchison, a successful film producer, who rose to fame through Elise's connections and eventually left her in favor of a young starlet.
Marcia Gay Harden as Dr. Leslie Rosen, Aaron's short-time affair, who is the therapist for both Annie and Aaron. Leslie has been "helping" Annie with her self-esteem problems.
Eileen Heckart as Catherine MacDuggan, Annie's 'controlling' mother. By the end of the film, she tells Annie that she is proud of her and that she doesn't need anyone to make her happy.
Dan Hedaya as Morton 'Morty' Cushman, Brenda's ex-husband, an electronics tycoon, who takes advantage of his former wife's having signed an out-of-court settlement - just to finance his girlfriend Shelly's extravagant taste. He's later blackmailed into giving Brenda a substantial amount of his money when she and her Uncle Carmine obtain proof of Morty's criminal activity. This later causes him to apologize to Brenda when he realizes Shelly only loved him because of his money.
Sarah Jessica Parker as Shelly Stewart, Morty's dim-witted but manipulative fiancée. It's indicated throughout the film that Shelly believes a position in high society can be obtained through money. This is Parker's second film with Midler as her co-star, the first being the 1993 Disney film Hocus Pocus.
Elizabeth Berkley as Phoebe LaVelle, an up-and-coming actress, living with Bill. She presumably tells him that she is twenty-one, but Elise investigates and reveals to Bill that she is sixteen years old and a high school dropout.
Bronson Pinchot as Duarto Felice, Brenda's boss and (according to Annie) "one of the ten worst interior decorators in New York." He poses as a famous interior designer to help the First Wive's Club sneak into Morty and Shelly's apartment.
Maggie Smith as Gunilla Garson Goldberg, a wealthy New York City society leader who helps the First Wives Club along with their schemes because she was once a first wife, as well as a "second, third and fourth wife", according to Annie.
Jennifer Dundas as Christine "Chris" Paradis, Annie's lesbian and feminist daughter, who resents her father for what he is putting her mother through. She gets a job working at her father's advertising firm to spy on him for Annie. This is the second film in which Dundas plays Keaton's daughter, having previously done so in Mrs. Soffel.
Ari Greenberg as Jason Cushman, Brenda's son, who is caught in an emotional battle between his parents.
Philip Bosco as Uncle Carmine Morelli, Brenda's paternal uncle and part of her family's Sicilian Mafia connections. He is the one who informs Brenda that Morty committed had his stores stocked with stolen electronics.
Timothy Olyphant as Brett Artounian, a movie director who is interested in casting Elise as the main character's aging mother in his new movie.
Ivana Trump as herself (special guest appearance).
Kathie Lee Gifford as herself (special guest appearance).
Ed Koch and Gloria Steinem as party guests (special guest appearances).
James Naughton as Gil Griffin, Cynthia's ex-husband (special guest appearance).
Heather Locklear as Gil's new wife (special guest appearance).
Edward Hibbert as Maurice, a barman serving Elise as she drowns her sorrows
J. K. Simmons as Federal Marshal
Rob Reiner as Dr. Morris Packman
Gregg Edelman as Mark Loest
Debra Monk as Jilted Lover
Kate Burton as Woman in Bed
Walter Bobbie as Man in Bed
The film project originally belonged to Sherry Lansing, who bought the unpublished manuscript of the novel in 1991, after many publishers had rejected it, and handed it over to producer Scott Rudin when she became CEO of Paramount Pictures in 1992. "It was one of the single best ideas for a movie I've ever heard," she said in a 1996 interview with The New York Times. "The situation of a woman getting left for a younger version of herself was far too common. But we didn't want a movie about women as victims. We wanted a movie about empowerment." Rudin consulted Robert Harling to write the screenplay, whose script was reworked by Paul Rudnick when Harling left to direct 1996's The Evening Star, the sequel to the 1983 drama Terms of Endearment. Rudnick, however, felt the final script was "incomprehensible": "To figure out the structure of that movie would require an undiscovered Rosetta Stone," he told The New York Times.
Diane Keaton was the first actress reported to have landed one of the starring roles, having previously worked with Rudin on the film Mrs. Soffel (only to later work with him again in Marvin's Room), followed by Bette Midler who had originally auditioned for the "more glamorous role" of Elise. Although Rudin originally intended to cast Jessica Lange in the latter role, the team decided to rewrite the character of the book in favour of a "glitzier" version which eventually went to eleventh-hour addition Goldie Hawn. Actor Mandy Patinkin dropped out shortly before shooting started and was replaced by Stephen Collins when he decided to leave the project in favour of his musical ambitions, while Dan Hedaya won the role of Morty over Hector Elizondo. Elizabeth Berkley only took her part to "work with the best actresses around," and Timothy Olyphant, who had impressed with local stage work, made his screen debut as director Brett Artounian in the film.
Cameos of note include Ivana Trump (who famously stated in the film, "Don't get mad, get everything."), Gloria Steinem, and Kathie Lee Gifford as themselves, as well as author Olivia Goldsmith, director Hugh Wilson as a commercial director, and Heather Locklear as the younger lover of James Naughton's character Gil. Additionally, Jon Stewart was hired to play the lover of Goldie Hawn's character Elise; however, he never actually made it to the film. "I played her boyfriend and apparently they felt that that was not inherently part of the storyline and so she broke up with me before the movie started," he joked on Larry King Live in 2006.
Principal photography took place over three months at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York City between December 4, 1995, and March 19, 1996. Among the 60 sites showcased on screen are Christie's auction house, the Bowery Bar, a suite at The Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, Café des Artistes, the King Cole Bar at the St. Regis Hotel, Frank E. Campbell's funeral home, and Barneys. Other familiar sites include the Chrysler Building, the NoHo neighborhood, both 5th and 7th Avenues, Riverside Drive, and Central Park.
Production designer Peter Larkin took much inspiration from Hollywood's romantic comedies of the 1930s, incorporating a post-Great Depression view on style and luxury, widely popularized through these films. "Those sets looked better than real New York penthouses and nightclubs ever could," he said upon creation. "In this film I wanted settings that had that kind of striking nature."
The film has received mixed reviews by critics. The review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes reported that 39% of critics gave the film a positive rating, based on 33 reviews, with an average score of 5.4/10. On Metacritic, which uses a normalized rating system, the film holds a 58/100 rating, indicating "mixed or average reviews" based on 21 critics.
Edward Guthmann of the San Francisco Chronicle called that the film a "terrific comedy" and "a glamorous revenge romp, a 9 to 5 mixed with Auntie Mame", giving "each star the opportunity to do her best work in a long, long time." He added that "what's surprising isn't that each of them is so delightfully good but that they work together so well." In his review for Variety, Leonard Klady found that director "Hugh Wilson wisely gets out of the way of his performers, providing a simple glossy look enhanced by cameraman Donald Thorin, designer Peter Larkin and the costumes of Theoni V. Aldredge". He noted that "with its combination of comic zingers and star turns, [the] pic shapes up as one of the more commercial fall  entries", that "at its core, is a celebration of its star trio as consummate performers. In that respect, First Wives Club is a highly enjoyable movie romp."
Janet Maslin from The New York Times remarked that the film "freely overhauls the amusing beach book by Olivia Goldsmith, eliminating the sex, adding more slapstick and tailoring the leading roles to suit three divas in starring roles." While she felt that "Bette Midler, Diane Keaton and Goldie Hawn make a spirited, surprisingly harmonious trio," reeling off "one-liners with accomplished flair, even when the film turns silly and begins to, pardon the expression, sag", she found that the film fared "better with sight gags and quick retorts than with plot development". Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times gave The First Wives Club two out of four stars. He declared the film "heavy on incident but light on plot", filled with "heartfelt talks with slapstick and sitcom situations." Owen Gleiberman, writer for Entertainment Weekly, wrote that "paced like a Chris Farley movie and photographed like a denture-cream commercial, The First Wives Club is the sort of overbright plastic-package comedy that tends to live or die by its jokes, its farcical audacity — anything but its 'conviction'." He gave the film a C+ rating.
The film's Total Lifetime Grosses for the Worldwide box office are $181,489,203. At the Domestic North American box office, the film has a Total Lifetime Gross of $105,489,203. The film has a Foreign Total Lifetime Gross of $76,000,000.
At the Domestic North American box office, the film reached the Rank of Number 1, making $18.9 million in its opening weekend over September 20-22, 1996, and the film remained at the Number 1 position for three consecutive weeks.
In the Yearly Chart for Domestic North American Box Office 1996, The First Wives Club is ranked at Number 11, and in the Yearly PG Rated 1996 Chart, the film is ranked at Number 1. On the Worldwide Yearly Chart 1996, the film is ranked at Number 11.
For years there have been rumors of a sequel to the film. Although columnists Stacy Jenel Smith and Marilyn Beck reported in a 2002 article that producer Scott Rudin would refuse to work on a sequel, the actresses have made various statements to the contrary. In a Chicago Sun-Times interview in 2003, Keaton expressed her readiness to appear in a second film. A year later, writer Paul Rudnick reportedly started writing a draft, entitled Avon Ladies of the Amazon, and in 2005, Midler confirmed to USA Today that there was indeed a manuscript but that "the strike kept it from happening." However, as Hawn declared in a 2006 interview with the New York Daily News, Paramount Pictures declined the trio's services due to their demand for an increase in fees: "I got a call from the head of the studio, who said, 'Let's try to make it work. But I think we should all do it for the same amount of money.' Now, if there were three men that came back to do a sequel, they would have paid them three times their salary at least." On February 25, 2011, Goldie Hawn posted a picture on Twitter of the three at a lunch confirming that they had all signed on for a sequel, and the next day re-tweeted a message from Bravo TV confirming this again. In 2016, Hawn confirmed that Netflix was working on a sequel, though she also admitted that "the script isn’t working.”
A musical stage version of the film opened at The Old Globe Theater in San Diego, California on July 17, 2009, in previews, through August 23, 2009, prior to a projected Broadway engagement. The book was by Rupert Holmes, with a score by the "one-time only reunited" Holland-Dozier-Holland songwriting team from 1960s Motown soul music fame. Francesca Zambello directed the San Diego production. The creators and Zambello were engaged for the project in 2006. An industry reading of the musical was held in February 2009, with principals Ana Gasteyer, Carolee Carmello and Adriane Lenox.
The principal cast in the San Diego production originally included Karen Ziemba as Annie, Adriane Lenox as Elise, Barbara Walsh as Brenda, John Dossett as Aaron, Kevyn Morrow as Bill, Brad Oscar as Morty, Sara Chase as Trophy Wife, and Sam Harris as Duane. Lisa Stevens choreographed, with scenic design by Peter J. Davison and costumes by Paul Tazewell. On June 16, 2009, Lenox dropped out of the production due to health concerns and was replaced by Sheryl Lee Ralph. The production's tryout received mixed to negative reviews, but the production sold approximately 29,000 tickets in its 5-week run. The ticket demand was so strong early on that the show's run was extended an extra week prior to its opening night.
Producers announced November 11, 2009, that Francesca Zambello withdrew as director, and they would secure a new director prior to any Broadway run.
The originating producers, Jonas Neilson and Paul Lambert, teamed with Elizabeth Williams and John Frost, and have since brought on Simon Phillips to direct.
A newly adapted version of First Wives Club The Musical began previews at Chicago's Oriental Theatre on February 17, 2015, with the opening on March 11 and running through March 29. The production aimed for Broadway in the 2015-2016 season. The new production is directed by Simon Phillips, choreographed by David W. Connolly, and has a new book written by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason. The newly adapted version features new songs by the composers Holland-Dozier-Holland, the trio that wrote lots of Motown hits during the 60s. The show also contains a few of their classic hits, such as "Reach Out...I'll Be There," "Stop! In the Name of Love" and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)." Faith Prince, Christine Sherrill, and Carmen Cusack lead the cast as Brenda, Elise, and Annie respectively. Complete casting was announced in January 2015.
TV Land announced in March 2016 that it had ordered a pilot for a television adaptation of the film, to be written by Rebecca Addelman and executive produced by Jenny Bicks and Karen Rosenfelt. The series will be a co-production between TV Land and Paramount Television, and will reportedly update the setting to present day San Francisco, following the story of three former 1990s classmates who reconnect following the death of their close friend in a freak accident. On June 3, 2016, it was announced that Alyson Hannigan and Megan Hilty had been cast as Maggie and Kim, respectively. On June 30, Vanessa Lachey was cast as the third lead, Sasha.Wins
National Board of Review Awards: Best Acting by an Ensemble
Blockbuster Entertainment Awards: Favorite Actress − Comedy (Goldie Hawn)
ASCAP Film and Television Music Awards: Top Box Office Films (Marc Shaiman)
Academy Awards: Best Original Score (Marc Shaiman)
Artios Awards: Best Casting for Feature Film, Comedy (Ilene Starger)
Satellite Awards: Best Actress − Musical or Comedy (Bette Midler), Best Supporting Actress − Musical or Comedy (Sarah Jessica Parker)
American Film Institute recognition:AFI's 100 Years...100 Laughs − Nominated
The official soundtrack of music featured in the film was released on September 17, 1996, shortly before the film's premiere.
- "Wives and Lovers" by Dionne Warwick − 2:55
- "A Beautiful Morning" by The Rascals − 2:33
- "Over and Over" by Puff Johnson − 4:43
- "Piece of My Heart" by Diana King − 3:41
- "In the Game of Love" by Brownstone − 4:45
- "Love Is On the Way" by Billy Porter − 4:22
- "Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves" by Eurythmics and Aretha Franklin − 5:53
- "Think" by Aretha Franklin − 2:17
- "Heartbreak Road" by Dionne Farris − 3:51
- "I Will Survive" by Chantay Savage − 6:13
- "Moving on Up" by M People − 3:56
- "I'm Still Standing" by Martha Wash − 4:02
- "You Don't Own Me" by Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton − 2:31
The film's original score, composed by Marc Shaiman, was also released on November 26, 1996.
- "Cynthia" − 2:14
- "Annie" − 0:46
- "Elise" − 0:47
- "Brenda" − 0:45
- "Bad News" − 0:51
- "Wham, Bam, Divorce Me Ma'am" − 1:23
- "Letter to Three Wives" − 1:56
- "The First Wives Club" − 1:48
- "Gathering Information" − 1:55
- "Setting Up Shop" − 1:11
- "Tea Time with Gunilla" − 2:53
- "Duarto Makes His Entrance" − 0:41
- "The Big Break In" − 5:17
- "Phone Tag" − 0:59
- "The Auction" − 1:58
- "Operation Hell Hath No Fury" − 4:45
- "The Unveiling" − 0:56