Everything Is Copy – Nora Ephron: Scripted & Unscripted (2016)

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Journalist Jacob Bernstein’s portrait of his late mother, beloved essayist, humorist, journalist and writer/director Nora Ephron, is a fascinating portrait of a woman whose very private leavetaking mystified her friends, proving that for her, death, at least was not in fact copy ie material to be used as comedy, despite her parents’ advice. The combination of contemporary interviews with home movie footage in Beverly Hills where screenwriters Phoebe and Henry relocated their family of four little girls from NYC in the Forties interlaced with film clips and excerpts from her TV interviews creates a distancing device that makes her art all the greater. When accused of malevolence for cruel descriptions of people like Julie Nixon she accepted the charge. Yet her magnetism was legendary, her dinner parties the place to be. She channeled her enormous betrayal by (second) husband Carl Bernstein into a book (Heartburn) and movie that complicated their divorce and the custody arrangements over their sons. One of them was yet to be born when she found out Bernstein was sleeping with the British Ambassador’s wife, Margaret Jay, whose physical flaws Ephron described in devastating fashion. Interviewed by Jacob, Carl admits to his son that it had enormously damaged him and, he says, what Jacob and Max must have  thought of him and Jacob admits that this is true. Ephron had a cycle of movies that just didn’t work, starting with the Meg Wolitzer adaptation This Is My Life which had resonances about her life with her siblings as children. She fell out with sister Delia when it came to adapting the latter’s novel Hanging Up, which outlined their upbringing and the problems with their alcoholic mom and philandering pop. (The sisters were stunned when they found out about their father’s serial infidelities as they had always believed their mother to be insane and fabricating the stories).  Their tensions were eventually resolved and their relationship is underscored when Delia says, When we died … and realises her error. Meg Ryan, Lena Dunham, Reese Witherspoon, Rita Wilson all read extracts from her work;  Steven Spielberg says getting her to laugh was like winning an Oscar;  so many people sought her approval and so many received her counsel, whether they wanted it or not. She told people what to do. The fact that she didn’t inform any of them that she had leukaemia?  Some appear to interpret it as a kind of betrayal rather than the woman’s own resilience and choice to remain detached and private in an era of oversharing. Since oversharing appeared to be her avocation you can kind of empathise. She had a lot of lunches with a lot of people in the days before she went to hospital and never breathed a word of her terminal illness. (She loved food but never ate dessert).   She made Julie and Julia when she knew she was dying and everyone remarks upon how much kinder she was since marrying writer Nicholas Pileggi, and that the portrayal of Tucci and Streep was as much a reflection of them as it was of Paul and Julia Child. She was saying that it was possible to have a supportive husband and she wasn’t making it up because she was married to such a man. Utterly fascinating and a remarkable work about women in movies from a son whose devotion and puzzlement are equally evident. What is copy is what is lost.

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Julie and Julia (2009)

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What an intriguing idea New Yorker Julie Powell had:  to cook her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking over the course of a year. And what an intriguing idea Nora Ephron had:  to combine Powell’s account of her food blog with Child’s own account of how she came to learn to cook in France immediately after World War 2 . This isn’t just about two cooks and a lot of food memories. It’s also about two very interesting marriages of equals – a trope that carries through the twin strands of this cooking story as the transatlantic tale smoothly whisks us through these women’s lives as they cope with their own private traumas (which have their larger correlative in 9/11 and WW2/Cold War paranoia). Of course Meryl gets the lion’s share of our interest – apart from anything else, how short did everyone else in the cast have to be to persuade us that she could be six-two?! Her joy is infectious. And the story problem:  is a blog writer really as fascinating as Child whose TV appearances are legendary? And does a call centre operator (albeit for 9/11 victims’ families) moving from Brooklyn to Queens really equate to moving to France not speaking a word of the language and giving up your career (Child was in the OSS)?  The narrative imbalance is efficiently handled with other elements – performance not being the least but Adams’s drabness is an occasional irritant when compared with Streep’s effervescence and Stanley Tucci’s suave turn as her husband. Child’s experiences with French ladies who lunch is paralleled with Powell’s, who makes the cover of a magazine labelled a thirtysomething failure by a journalist among her circle of careerist friends. The women’s lives did cross directly, but with mixed results. With the right combination of ingredients,  Ephron shows how to sift through all of the similarities and differences to concoct quite a mouthwatering feast albeit a souffle rather than a boeuf bourgignon. And boy am I hungry right now: do not watch without ready access to sustenance. Bon appetit!

Bewitched (2005)

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Way back when, a friend saw a movie before me and her review was succinct:  “The fireplaces were marvellous.” And, aside from a wonderful cat called Lucinda who greatly resembles my own lovely Frodo, for a while that’s pretty much how I felt about this Nora Ephron outing – exacerbated in no small way by the fact that at the screening I attended there was a soundtrack of contemporary music for the first 10 minutes – the projectionist’s personal choice. So much for postmodernism – for that’s exactly what this is, an interweaving of the old TV show with a modern interpretation of how a reboot is put together by egomaniac freshly divorced and failing film star Jack Wyatt (Will Ferrell) who bumps into the best nose-twitcher in LA, Isabel Bigelow (Nicole Kidman). She’s a newbie to the Valley in an effort to enter the mortal realm and be normal – so she becomes an actress. Only in LA. She falls hard for Jack but his weaselly agent Ritchie (Jason Schwartzmann) rubbishes the idea in her hearing. She wants to put a spell on him and it works, for a while. The scriptwriter (Heather Burns, who also acted for Ephron in You’ve Got Mail) gives her great lines and shows up Jack/Darrin. “Nobody likes Darrin!” he whines when the preview numbers are in and she’s a hit and he’s not. Nora and Delia Ephron wrote this with Adam McKay who’s long been house writer/director of that bromance crew led by Ferrell. Here, warlock dad (Michael Caine) isn’t too impressed with the real world translation of immortal shenanigans but co-star Iris playing Endora (Shirley Maclaine) literally puts a spell on him because she’s got a witchy secret of her own. Halfway through Isabel rewinds her spell on Jack and their story re-starts – right in the middle of his guest interview with James Lipton, which is absolutely appropriate. Steve Carell and Carole Shelley have nice bits as Uncle Arthur and Clara, Ferrell gets to go naked in front of Conan and Nicole has a ball in a light as air souffle, just as Ephron would have served up for one of her carefully constructed meals, with an I Love You scene that perfectly fuses the structural ambitions of this postmodern romcom. Are Isabel and Jack in love with each other? Their characters? The idea? Themselves? That is the question … “I’m about to be killed by a fictional character!” squeaks Jack at one point. Well, duh. And the kitchen is marvellous!

You’ve Got Mail (1998)

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I once asked an extremely famous screenwriter why he thought it might be that I have certain films (including one he wrote) on constant rotation chez moi, even if my head is telling me that some of them (not the ones he wrote) weren’t really for an intelligent woman. He said very simply – Because it makes you feel good. And that’s it, isn’t it, no matter how we might elect to rationalise our film choices. On the face of it, this seems like a film that no sensible female should like much less love. (Such as: Trainwreck, which was loathsome, is the least feminist movie you could imagine even with its foulmouthed female writer/star and if Kate Hudson had made it ten years ago with Owen Wilson/Matthew McConaughey she would have been hung out to dry. A woman who knows zip about sport and gives up her job to make her boyfriend feel better?? Really?! Reader, I wanted to vomit.) Here, Meg Ryan’s fabulous children’s bookstore (oh how I covet it) is ruined by a large book conglomerate which is shutting down independents everywhere (just go to Charing Cross Road in London and see if you recognise it from, oh, twenty years ago. The godless Hitlerites are everywhere). She gets some hope from the romance conjured up online (how clever was Ephron in ways to tell stories? She really uses the internet brilliantly here) and then finds out who her Romeo is … She’s Meg Ryan (Nora Ephron’s avatar – and a brilliant, underrated actress), he’s Tom Hanks. The emails that they communicate through may fall as they will. And of course because it’s an adaptation of the warmly remembered The Shop Around the Corner it’s readymade for criticism. Critic Hannah McGill wrote a superb essay on the issue of Ephron’s contradictory, inconsistent output which goes a way to explain the paradox of her treatment of love/mystifying cliches, in January’s Sight & Sound (a journal becoming bigger and more auteurist by the year!). So – despite everything, I love it. Because it makes me feel good. Sigh.