Writer/director Nancy Meyers is the most successful woman filmmaker of all time in terms of box office grosses. She began as an assistant to one of Hollywood’s most powerful men, graduated to writing screenplays and now directs her own material with an array of the screen’s finest performers and a regular crew for several of the business’ studios. She is unremarked in academia and rarely gives interviews yet her work displays an ingenuity and style that is both classic and contemporary. Over more than thirty years she has expressed dilemmas at the core of modern female existence with a rich humour and knowing panache.
Romantic comedy is perceived to be quite possibly the most popular of film genres and its characteristic narrative is based on the superficially mismatched heterosexual couple, finally reunited in their pursuit of love once a number of obstacles are surmounted. This is the characteristic form in which writer/director Nancy Meyers places her characters in order to reorganise the emotional coordinates of their lives. Those lives are frequently undone – if temporarily – by the introduction of asymmetry in the form of a typically unsuitable third party in the form of a new lover, old husband, errant child or unwanted temporary suitor. Narratives impose order on chaos, solutions to puzzles, answer to questions, closure on the impenetrable. Meyers is forever writing wrongs in a contemporary reality where divorce is rife, families are extended or ‘blended’, lives are cluttered and things are never easy. Her characters never resort to absolutes or extremes, their passions are ultimately contained, although sometimes her casting choices reflect a wish to play with danger. However, her chosen narrative might more accurately be termed ‘relationship dramedy’.
Meyers’ characters invariably live in incredible homes in affluent settings. She says: “I’m influenced by The Philadelphia Story in which people had a certain kind of glamorous lifestyle, because I think I can write about the foibles of these people and the mistakes they make and the trouble they get themselves into.” Her screen work has frequently appeared in the pages of architecture and interiors magazines. “It all seems to work for the audience if the characters are in a bit of a fancy setting. It just becomes more acceptable to laugh at them in comedies.” (Goodridge, 2009: unpaginated) Yet this downplays her interest in the aesthetics of space and the manner in which she establishes characters, their innerscapes and their relationships. Perhaps one of Meyers’ greatest contributions to screen stories is the way she has created roles for older women; firstly, for Diane Keaton and later, for Meryl Streep, in films which appeared to lift her writing skills to a new level. For Meyers, film is feeling. In short, It’s Complicated (2009).
If pathways of desire are those ways we make for ourselves as an expedient by which to reach B from A in the shortest time possible, then the films of Nancy Meyers ensure that there is never a quick exit and the way is never free from obstacles or obligations – personal, social, sexual or cultural. These obstacles can frequently be associated with her protagonists’ occupations. Though structurally and overtly formal and conservative in nature, her characters are complex, contemporary people with messy lives and extensive relationship issues that usually hinge on some form of challenge, be it distance, marriage or the frustrations of love. The rhetoric is founded on well-crafted traditions established in classical Hollywood, a structure to which Meyers returns and pays homage with distinctive simplicity and the knowing wink in the occasional self-deprecating disquisition. She offsets the possibility of tragedy or truly disturbing depth by deftly turning the narrative on its head and twisting it into comedy with dialogue redolent of wickedness and Hollywood smarts. Identification for the audience is cultivated by congratulating it on recognising its own cleverness, or, as Quentin Tarantino pointed out, having the protagonist choose Ralph Bellamy over Cary Grant.
As an independent screenwriter/director and producer, she investigates the plight of the middle-aged and single or divorced working woman, particularly as it is invested in the tropes of filmmaking and cinematic rhetoric itself with an elegance of craft which never calls attention to itself but is recognised by affionados of the genre. Hers is a seamless blend of genre and knowing comment with a throughline of undermining humour. Her work constitutes a humorous adult conversation with her audience who have grown up and grown older with her and who share her worries and her joys as she rearticulates the language of classical Hollywood devices. She speaks to and of the contemporary condition. All her films have the same underlying message – don’t lose heart: live a little. And laugh a lot. (In the nicest home you can possibly afford.)
Meyers is the subject of an author study I’ve written available to purchase on Amazon: