Nora Ephron: One Step Forward for Women in Hollywood, Two Leaps Back for the Rest of Us

In 1970, Nora Ephron, the creator of the recent dramatic comedy, "Hanging Up," and such multimillion-dollar Hollywood hits as "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail," wrote a tribute to Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown that revealed much about the trajectory of her own career.Wrote Ephron: "[Brown] is demonstrating, rather forcefully, that there are well over a million American women who are willing to spend sixty cents to read not about politics, not about the female liberation movement, not about the war in Vietnam, but merely about how to get a man."Ephron considered Brown to be a modern-day heroine. The magazine editor who wrote the 1962 bestseller, "Sex and the Single Girl," who recommended flat-chested women pad their bras and sexually dissatisfied women fake orgasms, should be applauded, Ephron argued, for honestly addressing female insecurities. "How can you be mad at someone who's got your number?" asked Ephron.Ephron could relate to Brown because she was proving herself just as adept at writing girlie middlebrow. Given the coveted position of penning a column on women for Esquire magazine in the midst of the headiest years of the feminist movement, Ephron chose to write mostly about "frivolous things": "fashion, trashy books, show business, food," as she put it in the introduction to her 1970 essay collection, "Wallflowers at the Orgy."Ephron's powers as a writer soared just above the ground when her subject involved vaginal sprays and makeovers. And she was at her most astute when covering life among elite ladies in Manhattan and the Hamptons: "The Huntresses are three psychoanalysts' wives who drink Bloody Marys and discuss divorce all day," she wrote in "Diary of a Beach Wife"; "The climbers are all married to Wall Street types, wear matching bathing-suit-and-jacket ensembles, and spend the day discussing how they can meet all the celebrities in the area."Ephron's soft, witty articles for Esquire, as well as New York magazine and Good Housekeeping, soon made her a journalist in demand. By the mid-1970s, with the publication of her bestselling collection, "Crazy Salad: Some Things About Women," she had emerged as America's least threatening female observer, a down-market Joan Didion who could apply the I-centered New Journalism to subjects like the annual Pillsbury Bake-Off. Ephron's allegiance to the feminist movement was tenuous at best: "I am a writer and I am a feminist," she wrote, "and the two seem to be constantly in conflict." The problem, she explained, was that "ever since I have become loosely involved with it, it has seemed to me one of the recurring ironies of this movement is that there is no way to tell the truth about it without, in some small way, seeming to hurt it." So hurt it she did, by underscoring its contradictions and weaknesses for the sake of a good joke.Ephron's instinct, of course, was to entertain, not to challenge, something ingrained in her, no doubt, by her Beverly Hills upbringing and her father, Henry Ephron, who wrote the script for "Carousel" and produced such 1950s pleasers as "Desk Set" and "There's No Business Like Show Business."Yet Ephron had flickers of seriousness, brief forays into semi-rigorous analysis, before throwing in the towel to make limp sitcoms for the screen. In 1975, she blasted People magazine, then a year old, for fortifying the "depressing development" of sales-oriented publishing and celebrity journalism. In 1977, she gave up journalism completely -- a move she said was motivated by the fact that "journalists are now celebrities." "This development of celebrity," she explained in the afterword to her "Scribble, Scribble" collection, "has been reinforced by a parallel change in journalism, a swing from highly impersonal 'objective' reporting to highly personal 'subjective' reporting." "I am tired of the first person singular pronoun," announced Nora Ephron.Ephron produced little after her noble announcement. She took care of her son and wrote the teleplay for a 1978 TV comedy-drama called "Perfect Gentlemen" about four women who attempt a $1 million heist. But then misfortune befell her. Her husband, the prominent journalist Carl Bernstein (co-author of "All the President's Men"), had an affair and their marriage fell apart while Ephron was pregnant with their second child.Ephron's first person singular, repressed though well developed, came roaring back with this marital debacle. Inspired, it seems, by revenge -- and knowing she had just the story to entertain emotionally bruised women like herself -- Ephron wrote a thinly fictionalized novel of her breakup with Bernstein, "Heartburn," which crackles with Hear-Me-Roar humor and throbs along with made-for-movie scenes. (Indeed Mike Nichols made an amusing film from the book.) Yet Ephron's narrator is nothing more than a dumbed-down female Woody Allen. Her schticks on love and betrayal cause chuckles for sure, but they are forever mired in ladies' lunch bathos, dependent to a dismal degree on gossipy platitudes."'Omigod,' I said," writes Ephron when her narrator's travails lead to missing the birthday party of an important D.C. socialite. "I looked at Mark. He shook his head; he had forgotten, too. I was off in New York crying my eyes out, and he was in Washington fucking his brains out, and we had forgotten Betty's thirty-ninth birthday party. The only way Betty would forgive me would be for me to tell her why, and if I told her why she'd tell everyone in Washington, and then everyone in town would know something about our marriage that I didn't want them to know. I know all about Meg Roberts' marriage, for example, because Meg confides in her best friend Ann, who confides in Betty, who confides in me."Perfecting the art of emotional shallowness is not, of course, a sin, nor is it the least bit unusual in popular American films and novels. But what is depressing about Nora Ephron is that by creating one-dimensional female characters on the verge of a hissy fit she has become one of Hollywood's most powerful women directors. Today Ephron holds the unique distinction of being a female director with two $100 million box-office hits."Sleepless in Seattle," her first Hollywood score, is remarkable in that it spins the usual impossibly neat love story without any of the psychological flourishes expected of a modern female writer-director. Annie Reed (Meg Ryan) longs for the "magic moment" when she knows the man she faces is "the one." Love here is not complicated by Ephron's characters quirks or proclivities (of which there are few). It is the stuff of Harlequin romances. Annie takes one look at Sam Baldwin (Tom Hanks) and poof! she's a goner, off to Seattle to play wife to her recently widowed prince charming.Ephron had written of People magazine: "The real problem is that when I finish reading People, I always feel that I have just spent four days in Los Angeles. Woman's Wear Daily at least makes me feel dirty; People makes me feel that I haven't read or learned anything at all." The same can be said of "Sleepless in Seattle." It is a drearily predictable film that makes you feel as if your brain had been shot through with stale air.Ephron's second box office bang, "You've Got Mail," tells an equally saccharine story of true love found, but this time the requisite steps are demeaning to her female heroine. Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), the owner of an independent children's bookstore on New York's Upper West Side, engages in an anonymous e-mail romance with Joe Fox (Tom Hanks), who is the cutthroat scion of a monster bookstore chain that is about to put her shop out of business. When Kathleen discovers the identity of her paramour, she is shocked, outraged; her blue eyes bulge and she bangs her white linen pillows. But romance and market trends prevail. She closes her beloved shop, and after a few days of moping around comes across her former enemy and pen pal, and promptly falls in love with him. Ephron's message here is a la Helen Gurley Brown: getting the man -- particularly the rich, powerful man -- is all-important, yet compromises are required.Ephron is rising in Hollywood for the same reasons she slithered up the poles of the New York magazine world: her work is slickly packaged, fuzzily entertaining and soft on gender politics. During her writing career she said she wanted to be a nouveau Dorothy Parker, but Ephron's wit never stings like Parker's did. Unlike Parker's characters, who revealed what it was like to be an independent single woman in the 1940s and '50s (strangled by a conformist culture, made wise or sad by loneliness), Ephron's essays from the '70s and film characters from the '90s skim over the complexities of contemporary womanhood. Although her movie gals are often outspoken and strong, their most defining traits tend to be wealth and slightly demented perkiness. And they tackle their problems as if they were being cued from a self-help manual.Nowhere is this more true than in Ephron's most recent film, "Hanging Up," which is based on her sister Delia's novel about watching their father grow old and die. Ephron did not direct "Hanging Up" because she felt too close to the material. So she handed the job over to Hollywood's other soft-hitting female director, Diane Keaton, who pieced together a series of Hallmark moments and Elle DŽcor-inspired sets and peopled them with three high-strung sisters who are hard to like. Eve (Meg Ryan), Georgia (Diane Keaton) and Maddy (Lisa Kudrow) are all career girls with busy schedules and constantly squalling cell phones. This makes it difficult for them to take care of their dying father (Walter Matthau), and presents the vexing question on which this miserable chic flick turns: who will take care of Daddy?I suppose Nora Ephron should be credited with not making another film about finding Mr. Right. And that her sister, Delia, should be congratulated for addressing the widespread problem of parental caregiving. But "Hanging Up" is so enfeebled by its own overamped cutesiness it is impossible to take any of the themes of death, loss or sibling rivalry seriously. The sisters are parodies of modern career girls: stressed multi-taskers who squawk incessantly about their various professional responsibilities. They make women's liberation look bad. If American women's success in the workplace has resulted in a generation of Eves and Georgias and Maddys, perhaps it would have been better that they stay at home and calmly take care of their families.Georgia, a high-powered magazine editor, is the most egregious career girl among this tittering troika. And it just so happens that she is the fictionalized Nora. In the end, what is most illuminating about this movie is what can be drawn from Delia Ephron's hyperbolized depiction of her famous sister. She is an egomaniac. She is a shameless self-promoter. And she makes a pretty penny off of exploiting women's insecurities about their fading looks and strivings for professional power.Yet women in the film love Georgia, just as women in real life, based on box office sales, seem to love Nora Ephron. She is the Helen Gurley Brown of present-day movie-making, proof that women can make a dent in the boy's club of Hollywood. Unfortunately that dent is compromised by Ephron's unenlightened subject matter.This year, 40 percent of the feature films shown at the Sundance Film Festival were made by female directors. One can only hope that some of these women will rise to Ephron's stature, not by dishing out pseudo-feminist fluff, but by creating stories that make one feel that modern American womanhood has, at the very least, not become a bad joke.

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