How to pay tribute to a cinematic trailblazer, or as the Washington Post put it in their long and loving obituary, a rare female “tripartite”– writer, producer, director–responsible for some of the sharpest, funniest, most beloved films of my lifetime? Literally, her professional life spans my actual one, minus one year: 1973-2012.
In March, 2011, while in New York, I saw Ephron on Charlie Rose. A recurrent guest on Rose’s show which I love but rarely see, she was promoting her book, I Remember Nothing: And Other Reflections (2010), many excerpts of which I have enjoyed heartily though I haven’t read the book in its entirety. She told Rose the new book represented a sequel of sorts to her uproarious 2005 I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Reflections on Being a Woman, if a bit more serious in its reflections on mortality and the last chapter of life.
I have seen most of her movies except her popular and most recent–Julie and Julia–surely a terrible oversight given both my worship of Meryl Streep and what some might consider the disproportionate percentage of my life and consciousness occupied by food and restaurants. In the 2011 interview, she spoke spoke about all her most famous films including Julie and Julia, but what I remember best was her extraordinary energy, joy and comfort with herself, her life, her work and her place in the world. Some people never achieve that level of clarity and contentment, but Ephron seems to have been this self-possessed even as a young woman in a male-dominated field who did not find her ideal husband, the brilliant Nicolas Pileggi, until her third attempt at the age of 46.
I also remember a nice dig at the Kardashians, who quite repulse me on all levels and represent all that is wrong with American pop culture as their fame and net worth (100 million by some accounts) derives from precisely nothing: neither physical beauty, talent, education, charitable work, sophistication nor anything remotely resembling accomplishment of any kind beyond the hiring of skilled PR people. This is like saying that a woman’s only notable accomplishment is the selection of a good plastic surgeon. It’s better than the alternative but hardly worth 100 million dollars (and the bombardment of an innocent public with constant news about 72 day weddings and the like).
Ephron said she didn’t understand the fuss over the Kardashians, and moreover: “Why are there three of them and why am I supposed to know their names?” Reiterating what my father’s oldest friend and colleague used to say about aging–that at a certain point, your mind is crammed so full that the inclusion of each new piece of information requires the pushing out of another to make room–she added that her mind simply couldn’t accommodate the Kardashians. With her impeccable comedic timing, she took a beat and added something like: “Then again, their minds probably cannot accommodate me.”
Ephron’s oft-quoted line about her philandering second husband, Carl Bernstein, one half of the famous Washington Post duo which exposed Watergate, exemplifies her sharp yet never mean-spirited wit: “He was capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.” Even at her most sarcastic, Ephron was never unkind, no matter what challenges life dealt her. Her films are full of people who “kvetch,” the Yiddish word for complain, bitch, or as my father, a world-class kvetcher would say, “piss and moan.” Yet Ephron herself was resolute, determined and never self-pitying, even when Bernstein cheated on her with one small child at home and another on the way, in the most humiliating and hurtful manner possible. Her kvetching was always light-hearted, coming from a place of strength rather than weakness, anger, or bitterness.
Ephron’s account of her second marriage to talented and well-known philanderer, the 1986 Heartburn, was my first Ephron movie. Based on the book Crazy Salad, which I read some years later, the movie was not considered her best, particularly by those who had read the book first and lived through the Watergate days. But I loved it and it made a deep impression on me in the summer after 8th grade. I think the critics were too harsh and I’ve seen the film, which I once owned on a homemade VHS cassette, some two dozen times.
It was, during my high school and college years, the film equivalent of comfort food, for the same reasons thirtysomething was my favorite drama of the late 1980s: it gave people not in New York (or even the North Atlantic corridor) a glimpse into the lives of literate, upper middle class, professional, and largely Jewish East Coasters, where everyone is smart, witty, and interesting. Life among comparably situated, educated people in LA didn’t look or act like that it was the life life I intended to live when I was an adult.
Not only did Streep, Nicholson, Richard Masur, Jeff Daniels, Stockard Channing and Maureen Stapleton, Steven Hill, and Joanna Gleason form a perfect ensemble cast, the score and Carly Simon theme song created a bittersweet tone which remained consistent throughout. Gleason plays the self-absorbed “Diana” in Rachel Samstat’s New York therapy group, which is responsible for some of the film’s funniest scenes and much mocked by Nicholson’s character, Mark, especially when the group is robbed by a thief played by Kevin Spacey in his first and small but noteworthy film performance.
At the police station, Streep apologizes to the therapist, played brilliantly by Maureen Stapleton, since it was her wedding ring which attracted the thief on her subway ride to group. Stapleton says, in appropriately reassuring and emphatic fashion (particularly for that kind of therapist), “This is not your fault.” “This is my fault,” Streep insists, to which Stapleton concedes, “You’re right.”
It may be that Nicholson portrayed Bernstein in too sympathetic a light: after all, if you’re married to Jack, you can forgive a great deal, simply on the basis of sheer coolness. Bernstein was no Nicholson but apparently he too possessed great charisma and verbal talent and simply could not reform his wandering ways. And when a writer as gifted as Ephron writes a book upon which a movie is based, perhaps the movie never lives up to the story told in another medium. But the film more than withstands the test of time. Given what so many actors, including Streep, observe about the relative disappearance of serious or even remotely intelligent drama and romantic comedy in recent decades–at least by big studios–and the proliferation of shoot-’em-ups, lowbrow comedies and science fiction, the film looks today perhaps better than it did then.
I have blogged before about the film’s influence on my own views of relationship, which while not precisely Dan Savage, are more in accord with his views than not. After the movie, I had a heated discussion with one of my then best friends, Amanda, with whom I saw the film in Westwood, still slightly sandy from the beach from which we took the Sunset bus to Westwood at 14, about the relative significance of fidelity to a serious relationship. Even at 14, I was thinking seriously–if abstractly, given I went to an all-girls school and didn’t date or even socialize with boys in high school–about the psychology of relationships.
My view at 14 as at 40 is that there is no absolute formula or definition of marriage and that if many other essentials are in place, and both spouses are on the same page, occasional extracurricular activity is not a deal breaker. My father, very open about sex always, taught me in my teen years to distinguish between sex and love and I heeded his lesson though I was not only a virgin until the night before my flight to New York City en route to New Haven, but hardly dated even in my college years. In Heartburn, the two parties were not on the same page, nor did there exist the kind of mutual respect and attentiveness I considered then and now to be the foundation of a successful union.
Not long after seeing Heartburn, I rented Silkwood. Also directed by Mike Nichols, whom I consider something of a god, it was Ephron’s most dramatic film. It stars Streep and Cher, in to my mind her best dramatic performance along with Mask and Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, as employees in a nuclear power plant. I know an EPA lawyer of nearly three decades who avoids films in the “toxic waste” genre like this or Erin Brockovich , which while good, is not in the same league as Silkwood. It is a whistleblower story. And while I recognize that the moral dichotomy between bad industry and good environmentalists is too facile and naive about the role of money in litigation related thereto, I adored the film and was decimated and almost haunted by it for a day or two.
I saw When Harry Met Sally in Berkeley, California, during the summer after my junior year in high school. Because I have an elephant brain, I remember the name of the girl–a debater at College Prep, whose Boalt Law-educated debate coach was best friends with my coach at Westlake–in whose house I stayed (Abby Fateman). I was the only girl who qualified for Nationals that year.
College Prep was a bigger or at least more focused on national and state tournaments, and sent seven or eight kids to Golden, Colorado. I traveled with King Scholfield and his wife, Terri, and bonded more with those kids (both boys and girls) than I had at Westlake after 10th grade, when many of my friends had graduated. I clicked so well with these debaters socially (fun, cool, good-looking and decidedly not geeky like the LA debaters), I flew to Northern California to spend a week with Abby and her friends. They were all off to college in the fall (Vassar, Swarthmore and other such places) and I remember seeing the film in a nearly packed theater with the audience literally laughing nonstop throughout. I saw the film at least two more times in the theater back in LA and it’s one of about ten films, along with Goodfellas, based upon the book Wiseguys written by Ephron’s third husband, I have essentially memorized scene by scene, line by line.
To this day, the simple but profound question at the heart of When Harry Met Sally–can women and men really just be friends?–continues to be asked in films infinitely less insightful and funny. My take is that men and women can be not just friends, but intimate and even best friends without having sex, but it’s rare. And it can only happen with a man of uncommon maturity and self-restraint.
Billy Crystal’s character, Harry, is quite right on the drive from the University of Chicago to Manhattan. Chomping on grapes and spitting the seeds out the window, which fairly assaults Sally’s OCD sensibilities (which Ryan told James Lipton on Inside the Actor’s Studio she modeled after a “persnickety” friend of hers), he tells Ryan’s character, Sally, donning her preppy outfit with Farrah Faucet Aqua Net 1970s hair, that men don’t just want to sleep with their attractive female friends; they also want to sleep with their unattractive ones. In his memorable formulation: “You pretty much want to nail them too.”
As a woman considered attractive, I can attest that I have very intimate male friends I don’t sleep with and that my appearance presents no problems. But I think this is because I am extremely open with them, talking candidly about sex and everything else just as I would with female friends, so that I become “one of the guys.” Men can talk about sex with me, whether they’re currently having it or more often, wishing they were and nothing embarrasses me. While female friends are, for a girl who knew hardly any boys from 7th to 12th grade, the mainstays of life, I have many times been told that I am a “man’s woman.” I have also been told my attitudes toward sex, relationship and monogamy are far more male than female, both by my own mother and friends of both gender.
Of course I enjoyed Ephron’s other hits like Sleepless in Seattle, though it is my least favorite Ephron film in her canon. I vastly preferred her underrated directorial debut, This is My Life, about a single Jewish mother of two daughters in Queens, working at a department store cosmetics counter, who lives with her beloved aunt. Carly Simon writes great tearjerker ballads and her music for this film is no different.
The 1992 film stars one of my favorite actresses of all time–Julie Kavner–along with Gaby Hoffman and Samantha Mathis as her daughters, long before either one was well-known. Dan Ackroyd plays an agent for stand-up comedians and her eventual love interest and the ensemble is full of talented comedic actors and stand-ups who become the girls’ babysitters when Dottie’s dream of being a standup comedian gradually becomes a reality. Upon her aunt’s abrupt death and Dottie’s discovery that the house is worth quite a lot more than she realized (a spectacular scene in which Kavner is told by her aunt’s lawyer the estate is worth a “little bit more” than expected and she says in her inimitable way, something like, “How much more? A little bit more could mean a lot of things!”), Dottie moves the girls to Manhattan.
I’m a sucker for film or TV portrayals of perfect mother/daughter relationships and like the one between Lorelai and Rory Gilmore in Gilmore Girls, one of the most significant TV shows in my entire life, this one comes pretty close. Tensions arise as Dottie’s career takes off and she is on the road more and more. The teen daughter, played by Mathis, is just beginning to discover the world of boys and finally finds one she likes, the smart, sweet though geeky son of two endocrinologists in the city. Her mother’s absence comes at an inconvenient time. Hoffman, the little girl, handles Dottie’s absence better but soon grows weary of her absence. But to my mind, this is all pretty minor stuff and it wasn’t as if Dottie was a stay-at-home mom back in Queens, likely earning minimum wage selling cosmetics.
The great serious point of the film, emerges after Dottie and Ackroyd’s character (who eats paper napkins at comedy clubs) become a real couple and Mathis performs for her little sister and comedian babysitter, a vicious, parodic impersonation of her mother, unaware Dottie has come home early is behind her the whole time. Mathis shows her dramatic chops here, even as a teenager, and when both girls run to their rooms and slam their doors, Kavner says to Ackroyd, “People say your kids are happy when you’re happy, but it’s not true. Kids are happy when you’re there. You give a kids a choice between mom suicidal in the next room and blissfully happy on the beach in Hawaii, they’ll take suicidal in the next room!”
As I wrote yesterday on my Facebook Victorian Chick, I happen strongly to disagree with this premise. I made a mutual decision at 14.5 years old, the summer between eighth and ninth grade, not to live on weekends with my parents on their gorgeous CT 54 ketch in Marina Del Rey because beginning in about the seventh grade, my father became increasingly challenging, shall we say. I also didn’t like being in the Marina with no decent mass transit, isolated from all my friends in Brentwood, Westwood, Pacific Palisades and Santa Monica, particularly when Dad was so possessive of Mom’s off-work time and not exactly enthusiastic about the prospect of her schlepping me all over the Westside on “his” weekends. I also believe in the notion of “quality time” and was best friends with my mother minus ten years of complete estrangement.
In all that time I was so angry, not once did I begrudge my mother her trailblazing legal career. I didn’t care that I didn’t see her till 7 PM on weekdays, though the year she taught at UCLA Law, and came home at 4Pm when I was 10, was fabulous. I was proud of having a powerhouse lawyer for a mother and simply wanted 50% of her time and energy when she wasn’t working. This is not how the percentage was divided between me and my father and on other deeper and sublter psychological levels it was even more skewed than that.
Thus, I elected, at an age most people (including as it turns out, a family psychoanalyst upon hearing about this some years later) would consider outrageously early for a girl to live alone on weekends in a house of 2500 square feet 20 or so minutes from her parents’ boat and weekend residence, precisely because I preferred to live in a lovely, peaceful environment without a man I loved dearly but who, according to my Yale freshman roommate, “sucked oxygen out of the room.”
However, I was not a normal child. I was never a child really, not after fourth or fifth grade and even then I was quite precocious and more accustomed to the company of adults, lawyers and entertainment industry people at dinner parties or homes I stayed, than I was to children. But my disagreement with what is one of the film’s main contentions is irrelevant and it is Ephron’s rare and profound ability to raise complex and thought-provoking questions about family, friendship and marriage in a warm and comedic context that has made her films (even when they do portray a quite specific demographic, often with a Jewish twist) so accessible and popular over three decades.
I want to keep this personal retrospective of Nora Ephron’s film to 3000 words, my average blog’s word count, so will say, with gratitude and a heavy heart, that Nora Ephron not only touched my life–a life anchored in the movies from a young age, as a Hollywood kid (albeit with lawyer parents); she made my life better.