Tell it to the Bees … (since the screenwriters didn’t get the memo …)

Please somebody, anybody, explain to me why one would ruin a perfectly perfect novel? Fiona Shaw’s 2009 novel, Tell it to the Bees, is ostensibly about two women who fall in love in the puritanical 1950’s. The forbidden, controversial affair doesn’t even emerge until around pg 80. All the while, Ms Shaw lyrically, and with enormous skill, builds the characters of her novel meticulously from the bottom up.

Jean is a single woman physician,strong,independently minded, self-sufficient, a bee-keeper, no shrinking violet to say the least!

Lydia is a lower class, Mancunian single mother stuck in an industrial Scottish town supporting her Charlie, since her deadbeat husband recently walked out.

These two, who couldn’t be more opposite, are brought together by young Charlie’s interest in Jean’s bees. He begins to help her out, which is how the two will-be lovers forge a confidence.

The 2018 film version, (directed by Annabel Jankel whose previous credits include episodes from the TV show, Live from Abbey Road, Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth did the screenplay adaptation), mangles this lovely book so badly, that I wonder why Ms. Shaw agreed to let it be produced?

Internal-thought prose, which Shaw handles so magnificently, is difficult to visualize for the screen (or at least Ms. Jankel couldn’t, or wasn’t interested in figuring out how to manage it), and so the plot picks up when the two women meet nearly a quarter way into the story . There is a MOST SLOW, and CAREFUL choreographing of their falling in love in the novel. Lydia runs out of money when her husband leaves her, and faces an eviction notice. Although she has befriended Jean, the town doctor, who lives alone in a massively big house, she is loath to confront her new friend (not yet lovers) with her woes. This is a crucial element of the character development. Lydia is well schooled in the ways of class status in their world, and is much too proud to cross class lines. When they do become intimate, Jean offers Lydia to ostensibly become her “housekeeper”. In this way, Jean sees an answer to all of their problems…they can live together without suspicion. But Lydia rebukes her saying, ‘my kind is always a ‘service class’ for your kind.’ This bone of contention in the novel sculpts a realistic vision of a class fueled 1950s.

The film skips right over this, as if an irrelevant piece of the plot. The women quickly co-habit in the movie, and don’t fall in love until after they are living together. This crucial mangling of the story, takes the guts out of the body of the book, and slices it into unrecognizable pieces.

The next, and most woeful faux pas of the film is the casting. Anna Panquin plays the doctor, and mutilates her into a shriveling, shy, nearly pathologically terrified, retiring woman. One wonders how in the heck she ever made it out of her house, no less got herself to study medicine at a time when women would be seen as bizarre for even such a desire. It also makes one wonder what in the world Lydia would have seen in this woman?! Panquin plays her painfully introverted, scared of her own shadow. In the novel, Jean is an independent, undeniable FORCE! This is a woman I was attacted to as I was reading. The movie makes you want to refer either Panquin or Jean or both to your local therapist.

Lydia, by contrast, is played in the film by the beautiful, gifted Holliday Grainger, who portrays her as carefree, easy going, and in spite of her dwindling circumstances, magnetically positive and attractive. Sadly, there is ZERO chemistry between these two women. Anna Panquin runs the gamut of emotions, (pardon me while I steal a great line from Dorothy Parker) from A to B. Each time she is having a ‘deep’ emotion, it makes the viewer really uncomfortable, as though she is needing to relieve herself,and has been needing to for days. Wrong actress for this role. Wrong interpretation of the role. Wrong. WRONG!

And finally, why in the world would you change a happy, credible ending of a quiet, steady, lyrical drama in favor of science fiction? What in the world were they thinking? Weren’t we all tired of the old lesbian films in which women are locked away by the end, or isolated, desolate, depressed ? Aren’t we tired of how lesbians in those old movies committed suicide, were forever shunned, or came to an otherwise unfortunate end, a just recompense for their twisted, perverted, aberrant behavior?

The ending the screenwriters came up with is so weird, so fantastical as to shoot it out of realm of credibility and into every screenwriter’s nightmare…”Hell, I can’t find an ending! I ‘ll make up something really out there.”

And so the two Ashworth writers have. Are you ready? Young Charlie, who tells all his secrets to the bees, instructs them to gather together in swarms of thousands and attack his father who is inside Jean’s house, beating up on his wife for being lesbian. This, the bees DO! They swarm up in gazillions, find an open bedroom of the house, and attack poor ol’ deadbeat Dad. This ending makes the film’s credibility, already hanging by the thinnest spider thread into a shredded mess of cheap cloth.

The novel by contrast, contains a mellifluous ending in perfect harmony with the rest of the lyricism of Ms. Shaw’s story. (I won’t ruin it for you. Do read this lovely book for yourself. I couldn’t put it down.)

So why on earth would you retreat to the horrid lesbian movie endings of yesteryear by plunging them back where they “deserve” into misery, loneliness, and separation? This will remain a mystery, until we hear Fiona Shaw herself. Why would she let them mangle her book? Why would she let the sell this beautiful novel short?

The love scene is hard to watch. Not because of its detail, but because it looks like Panquin is going to be physically sick all over poor Lydia. In addition, the lack of chemistry between these actresses makes the suspension of disbelief, well, un-believable.

The Ashworth screenwriters have done interesting work in the past, Becoming Jane, Killing Eve. But here is one where they really missed the target. Certainly mangled casting was out of their hands, but why would you change, and thereby ruin, a perfect book?

Do read Fiona Shaw’s beautiful work. It’s not at all like the movie. And this, indeed, is a blessed thing.

Sisters in Patriarchy

Last year I was shunned from a feminist film panel, The Athena Film Festival in NY, about a subject on which I literally wrote the book. Sour grapes would be a good enough reason for even me, as author, to relegate this blog to the trash. But there is a pearl in the story I instinctively recognized; one that has nagged at me in writing about women’s empowerment for the last thirty years; one not very PC to bring up in leftist women’s circles. Women, and a good deal of the time self-proclaimed feminists, co-op the tenants of patriarchy when it affords them the benefits and privileges they would otherwise not share.

The Athena Film Festival, which describes itself as a celebration of women and leadership, announced the partnership of one of its films with The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Although the Academy had nothing to do with either the production or development of the film, Minerva’s director explained to me that, “We…have been trying to create a relationship with the Academy for some time, and this was the area that we all felt would make the most sense. Having the Academy involved will help elevate your wonderful work and contribution to [all] our history.” I wasn’t involved, or even invited to the festival for the film in question, a film in which I also appear, so I couldn’t figure out this might elevate my work? I never felt the need for the approval of a patriarchal organization to do the work I do. Most likely, what the festival’s director meant, though perhaps not consciously acknowledged, is that such an association would do wonders elevating her own career. Minerva’s public relations for the film spotlighted more attention to a best-selling author that would grace its panel (also a member of the Academy), rather than the lesser-known, young women filmmakers who actually made the movie.

Male benefit. Male privilege. This is why women sell out each other, and ourselves. As long as there is patriarchy, women will never be equal. The longer women slumber about our own active participation in a way of life that affords us benefits by keeping us subservient, the longer we will wonder why we keep hitting a glass ceiling.

My two-book series

along with my film,

Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women, hosted by Jodie Foster, highlight the visions of women who pioneered a craft, before that craft was fully co-opted by male capitalism. Why won’t women ever be equal? All one has to do is to observe history under patriarchy. Before film, for instance, became a huge money machine, women and men enjoyed the playing field equally. But by the mid 1920’s, as film transformed into a lucrative enterprise, the women who had shaped the industry were promptly shown the way out.

By the 1940’s, when it became clear that film was not some passing fad, historians recognized it was accruing a history that needed to be recorded. When those first film histories were written down, they inadvertently left out early women who helped pioneer the craft. This blimp was no small omission. Up until that time, women had written more than half the content made into films. That means that the cinematic vision in the collective consciousness stemmed primarily from the brains and sensibilities of women…women not clouded by capitalistic concerns.

Capitalism is structured from the top down. Its very sustenance is competition. It is married to hierarchal order. Hierarchy is foundation of patriarchal thinking. Such thinking puts a damper on the creative, female life in every one of us. Of course, this is not limited to the film industry. It is everywhere we walk.

Gender should not be confused with consciousness. When I lecture at colleges, I often hear: But look how many women are in powerful positions in Hollywood! Isn’t it great? And I always have to stop and point out, If a women who has the power to green-light films has the same consciousness as a Judd Apatow, what’s the difference? Unconscious women in power are even more dangerous than having no women in positions of power at all. When patriarchal thinking has commandeered our consciousness, gender has very little to do with it.

It is no accident that pant-suit Hillary became the first woman to climb to the top of the political heap. She’s a terrific example of inculcated patriarchal thinking planted in the body of a woman. Did it make a difference that she was a woman? Not really. Could anyone actually tell the difference between Hillary and Bill other than the obvious division of their physical gender, (and Bill’s superior beside manner?…we won’t go deeper into that…). Hillary got to where she did in the patriarchal order, in the same way that Katharine Bigelow became the first female Oscar recipient: they proved to be better than the boys at the boys’ own game. Not to say that Bigelow isn’t a terrific filmmaker, (or that Hillary isn’t a brilliant woman and politician…Look, patriarchy became so frightened of her that we chose a moron to run the country instead. Apparently anyone is better than a woman.) Had Bigelow made a different genre of film other than a war film, one needs to wonder if she would have garnered the top prize?

A friend of mine suggested that if patriarchal-thinking women like Hillary get their foot in the door now, perhaps it will make way for women who are not primarily motivated by patriarchal thinking? Hopeful, I told her. But is it realistic to think that patriarchal consciousness will be a stepping-stone to matriarchal? Not likely. I had to remind her again about history; this was the hope that stemmed from of those “second wave” of Reel Women pioneers of the 1980’s and 90’s who were green-lighting movies like crazy. We all assumed that thirty years hence, we’d have a more gender blend, male/female, consciousness emanating equally out of Hollywood.

What went wrong ?

Kudos JILL!

Soloway
Jill Soloway has a thing or two to teach Hollywood! On the new season of her TRANSPARENT she’s recruited transgender people for cast and crew. And where they weren’t skilled, say in writing or directing, she’s taken pains to train them. For Studio Bosses, including those of the female persuasion, with no women directors on their lists…take note! Quit whining that women directors can’t be trusted with action pictures, or that they can’t take the heat, or that they don’t want the work badly enough. All fibs. But if you really believe these excuses, then take a note from Jill…Find them, recruit them, train them. Populate the industry with female blood, and your next picture will be swamped with the qualified female applicants you say don’t exist. Of course they do, It’s just that you and your patriarchal-covered lenses render them invisible.

NY Times on Jill’s New TRANSPARENT season

Directing Well is the Best Revenge

Cartoon by Robert Mankof The New Yorker
Cartoon by Robert Mankof The New Yorker

The ever on-point Manhola Dargis, once again brought her clear-vision focus to the plight of female filmmakers on Dec. 24, 2014 with the second in a series of articles on women filmmakers, In Hollywood, It’s a Men’s, Men’s, Men’s World.

I won’t reiterate the usual arguments about this never-changing (and never will) phenomenon of men in charge. I’d only like to add my experience to the mob delirium of why why why? Why so few women? Why don’t the studios change their behavior toward women? Why don’t women get paid, treated, or respected the same as men?

Here are my own shocking findings:

Since 1984, when I started researching, writing, raising monies, and eventually filming on the topic of pioneering women who transformed the movies, (See reelwomen.com) men were by far my biggest supporters, both financially and emotionally. With some exceptions like the indomitable Peg Yorkin and Gloria Steinem, women proved petty, jealous, and back-biting when confronted with assisting in the realization of Reel Women.

It was a puzzle to me. And of course I often asked myself why? Why wouldn’t industry women want to support a film about their own herstory? The answer I eventually enlightened on has less to do with the mini boy’s club of Hollywood, and more with the BIG boy’s club globally…that is to say, the insidious, invisible, tentacles (I almost wrote testicles!) of patriarchy.

Don’t confuse patriarchy with gender. Many women executives I’ve met in Hollywood are much more patriarchally inclined than their male studio suits. So deep is culture drilled into us that these women are often the last to know. We are all molded by the same big daddy machine. when culture pins underdog against underdog (i.e. women against women) for one or two or ten slots, those underdogs end up clawing at each other, instead of at the real monster at hand.

The many generous men who showed no hesitation, (and most often quite the opposite, genuine enthusiasm, along with an open check book) for Reel Women had no one pitted against them. They never felt threatened that someone else would, or could, snag their privilege. Their conditioning assured them that such a thing would never be possible.

This is my own 5¢ assessment of the pitiful numbers of women in charge…not just in Hollywood, but everywhere, in every industry you look. After thirty years spent looking at this single question from every possible angle, I’m here to tell you the sad news…the pitiful numbers of women directors working for the big studios will never ever get better. Not until we have a global sea-change from Patriarchy to Matriarchy. Depending how you view it, this could actually be good news. You know what the Buddhists say, the true acceptance of what is right in front of us eliminates all pain. So lets stop whining at Women In Film meetings, and start putting our energies where they belong. Let’s stop crying about what Daddy won’t give us, and focus instead on where we can make real transformation, our work. Let’s make the best films we’re capable of making. Let’s make a New Year’s resolution to make the best films we can make as women. Directing well can be our best revenge.

HERSTORY GOOD ENOUGH TO STEAL

Kathryn Bigalow - First women to receive the Oscar in Eight Decades

If you live long enough, and you work long enough in the movie business, you will see your best ideas not borrowed, but blatantly stolen by others. Not only stolen, but these same plagiarists will just as shamelessly pawn the ideas off as their own. Last Tuesday night’s PBS airing of Women in Hollywood from the Makers franchise, gave me the only solace I could garner… that my work of the last 30 years has been good enough for the most important people in our industry to want to pawn off as their own. Like Athena popping out whole cloth from head of Zeus, without any need to nod to those who first unearthed it.

I began envisioning a book and a documentary about the great women pioneers who changed the course of cinema in 1983, when I found an obscure Hollywood magazine article that said, almost in throwaway, There were more women in powerful positions in Hollywood before 1920 than at any other time in motion picture history. That one line was enough to shape the next 25 years of my life. I found the only book on the subject that was out on the subject, Anthony Slide’s
Early Women Directors from 1977. I was so grateful to Mr. Slide for his important historic contribution.

In those early 80’s, the women’s movement was still warm under our feet, but the concept that the public at large would be interested in what was termed women’s history (i.e. “her-story” was not really part of “his,” but something parenthetic, subservient, and much more insignificant.) I remember reading film critic, Andrew Sarris’ comment on the early women pioneers of the film industry. He labeled them, A little more than a ladies’ auxiliary. This was how the world viewed women filmmakers at the time.

I had a contact to Cis Corman, Barbra Streisand’s producer, and in the mid-80’s I sent her a proposal for a film called, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema. I thought that Ms. Streisand would be the perfect spokesperson for such a film. I had already been two deep years into this obscure research, buttressed by only a tiny book published on the subject.

All of the discoveries about female film pioneers (my research took me deeper than just women directors) I was making was first hand sourcing. I spent hours at the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, going one page at a time in un-indexed periodicals like Moving Picture World, and Photoplay. Each page would reveal another unknown story about an early century unknown pioneer… Cleo Madison opening her own studio, or Mabel Normand directing a newcomer in her new flicker, and showing him the ropes of the business. That newcomer was Charlie Chaplin.

After two hard years of research into about 125 biographies and statistical data of early women pioneers, I made the discovery that Barbra Streisand with Yentl in 1983, became the first filmmaker in history, male or female, to direct, produce, co-author, star, and sing in a major motion picture. I remember how excited I was to make such a find! Being an archeologist was fascinating work. This is what such early discoveries felt like. Unearthings. I remember writing this to Streisand and Cis Corman in my proposal to them.

But in the mid-80’s Cis and Barbra had passed. Such a film was clearly before its time. The audience was not yet there. By 1990, Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema, 1896 to the Present, was released by Continuum in NY. (That Streisand ‘discovery’ can be found on page 87 of that original volume…More on this in a moment…)

It was the first comprehensive history of women’s contributions to the film industry in all crafts. Library Journal called it, Groundbreaking. And it was. Without hubris, I worked my tail off on that book, all culled from research done first hand. In 2012 the book was exponentially expanded and updated into two volumes. Volume 1 1896-1950, Volume 2 1960-2010, and includes many present day pioneers who continue to push the boundaries of the medium.

By the new millennium everything was changing. All through the 90’s, (all the while paying my rent as an independent producer and writer for television), I continued to squirrel away stock footage, and do interviews with pioneers for the film version of Reel Women. I felt so lucky to meet, and speak with the most amazing people who had been on the forefront, changing the course of cinema… Lillian Gish, Margaret Booth, Dede Allen, Kate Hepburn, Doug Fairbanks Jr., as well as more contemporary amazements, Margarethe von Trotta, and Euzhan Palcy to name just a few.

I sent my favorite station, and the one I gathered most appropriate for such an idea, TCM, a copy of an updated proposal, again suggesting Streisand as a perfect spokesperson for the film. TCM quickly came back and said they weren’t interested. Quite remarkably, eight months later in 2000, TCM broadcast a show they called Reel Models: The First Women of Film. Coincidentally, Barbra Streisand was its host. In it, a startling observation out of whole cloth, came in this narration:

With Yentl in 1983, Barbra Streisand became the first woman and filmmaker in history to direct, produce, coauthor, star and sing in a major motion picture.

Apparently, plagiarism isn’t only reserved for the unoriginal. The message: If you’re going to steal, STEAL BIG. Be brazen. Be unapologetic. Make it seem like the ideas are entirely your own. Don’t blink. Whatever you do, don’t give credit. If you do, you might get sued. If you’re going to steal, be at the very least, Barbra Streisand.

Sad, I thought. She was someone I looked up to. Here’s a hint for women pioneers, don’t steal from your champions; it will diminish your fan base.

Now I understood precisely the way Streisand herself felt, and had expressed publically many times: underappreciated, and unacknowledged by a film industry that overlooked her accomplishments.

A tough blow, but I moved on. I decided not to wait for anyone else to broadcast or give me permission to do the film I had been harboring for 30 years. In 2014, after a year of editing, the happiest year of my life, I completed, Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women. The luminous Jodie Foster agreed to be the host.

I sent the link of the finished film to several honchos at PBS and TCM. (You think I would have learned the first time…) The film has enough luminaries, I thought, to be of interest now…rare interviews with Dede Allen (1923-2010), Gillian Armstrong, Amma Asante, Margaret Booth (1898-2002), Kevin Brownlow, Martha Coolidge, Donna Deitch, Lauren Shuler-Donner, Nora Ephron (1948-2012), Douglas Fairbanks Jr. (1909-2000), Jodie Foster, Harriet Frank Jr., Greta Gerwig, Lillian Gish (1893-1993), Lee Grant, Molly Haskell, Katharine Hepburn (1907-2003), Pirjo Honkasalo, Fay Kanin (1917-2013), Naomi Kawase, Sherry Lansing, Carol Littleton, Haifa Al Mansour, Rita Moreno, Marcia Nasatir, Euzhan Palcy, Sarah Polley, Mala Powers, Buddy Rogers (1904-1999), Susan Seidelman, Fina Torres, Margarethe von Trotta, Paula Weinstein, and Christina Yao.

Strangely however, I found only hesitancy and silence on the other end. The mystery was solved Tuesday night with the PBS broadcast of Women in Hollywood from the people of ‘Makers’. They already had something in the works. Something, it turns out, very similar to my something. The way Women in Hollywood presented the history (and I don’t mean the raw ‘facts’ of the history itself), is eerily similar in idiosyncratic observation, and in style to my film, Reel Herstory. Similar too, are the historic ‘discoveries’ woven once again from whole cloth, as though the writers of the film made the observations themselves, without a shred of historic precedence.

So is this essay crying about split milk? Maybe. I have given the last three decades of my life to a cause, and the cause was unearthing pioneers and their contributions from the grave of obscurity. Do I want to be thanked? Not really. I did it for passion, and I did it to right an historic wrong. I did it because when I went to film school at Columbia in the mid-80’s not even my women professors knew that they had role models whose shoulders they were standing on. I did it to acknowledge the shoulders of the foremothers we all stand on. You can undercut the contributions such shoulders have made, and pawn their ideas off as your own (as Charlie Chaplin did with Mabel Normand). That might make you well known, and well compensated. It might even make you famous. But it won’t make you original. And it won’t make you a pioneer.

To sleep at night in this business, all you have to believe is what Ezra Pound believed, Great writers don’t borrow, they steal.

If you’re lucky enough to believe this as a creed for a long time, historic amnesia will set in. You will see yourself revising your own history. You will begin to believe that the ideas you stole from others were really of your own making. Male film historians did this when they wrote down the history of film in the 1940s. They forgot the contributions of the women from the last 40 years. They simply wrote them out, as if that were the real (sic: reel) story.

So Reel Herstory: The REAL Story of Reel Women with Jodie Foster will be released some time this year (Vimeo on Demand), with great thanks to my amazing producers Robert Dassanowsky, and Sam Pollard. It’s headed now into film festivals that, because of the Makers PBS broadcast which mirrors many of our film’s observations, and stylistic idiosyncrasies, will no longer make it seem new, fresh, or startlingly original, as original and startling as I found it from my first observations in the early 1980’s. But it will be mine. And I will be able to sleep at night. At least I know, with all of my spilt milk, I have not been unoriginal.

Ally Acker
October 9, 2014, NY

Sad Loss of a Pioneer

Fay Kanin
It is with sadness that I read today of the passing of one of film’s greats, FAY KANIN.

FAY KANIN INTERVIEW – Click Here

I’m a big feminist,” Ms. Kanin always proudly asserted, “I’ve put into my play my feeling that women should never back away from life.”

As Mr. Harmetz recounts in his NYTimes obit, In 1979 Ms. Kanin, who was a playwright as well as a screenwriter, became just the second female president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the advocacy organization that presents the Oscars. The first was Bette Davis, who resigned after two months in 1941…Thirty-four years ago Ms. Kanin was elected president of the Motion Picture Academy by a board that consisted of 34 men and one other woman. Although the gender ratio has changed since then — there are 19 women on the Academy’s current 57-member board of governors — Ms. Kanin was the last woman to serve as president. In her four one-year terms, the maximum allowed, she was widely credited with pushing the Academy to help preserve Hollywood films.

I was honored to interview Fay Kanin for the award winning, Reel Women Archive Film Series: Screenwriters on Screenwriting. The above video was Kanin’s interview excerpts from that documentary.

I also wrote of her extensively in Reel Women:The First Hundred Years

We honor and enjoy her again today.

Thanks Fay, for all that you did for Reel Women and for film. You won’t be forgotten.

Most Exciting New Kid on the Block

StoriesWeTell

Canadian actress turned director Sarah Polley says in a blog about her new film, Stories We Tell on the National Film Board of Canada site(http://blog.nfb.ca/blog/2012/08/29/stories-we-tell-a-post-by-sarah-polley), I realize that I’m not nearly accomplished enough to write this kind of blog without apology. The world is not waiting for my next film!

Frankly, she’s wrong. I am. I can’t wait.

Polley peaked my interest as early as 1997 when she appeared in The Sweet Hereafter playing the character, Nicole Burnell. She has a magnetic understated persona on film. The quieter she is, the more she intrigues you. It’s like going into a kennel and seeing all the dogs jumping and barking for your attention, but the one who pulls you in is the little one sitting by himself quietly, all the way in the back. There’s just something special about him.

That’s Polley. I watched her intently for another decade as she morphed to director. In 2006, when she released her first feature, Away From Her based on an Alice Monroe short story about a couple dealing with the wife’s Alzheimer’s disease. The story appealed to her as her own grandmother had suffered from the affliction. Polley said about her film in 2007, It was the opposite kind of love than we usually celebrate in films, which is new love without knowledge and without hardship. It’s the whole idea of love after life has had its way with you, and after you have kind of failed each other and things have gone off the rails. Yet love still somehow exists between them” Polley was a remarkable 27 when she made the film. A film with more heft in the first five minutes than all of Ben Hur. Now she really had my attention.

Her next feature venture Take This Waltz starring Michelle Williams had a voice all it’s own when dealing with the very common territory of betrayal. The film meandered some trying to find it’s voice. It wasn’t entirely successful. But it made it clear that Polley is an artist to be reckoned with, following no one’s voice but her own.

The new film, Stories We Tell, is neither documentary nor drama, but some down-the-rabbit-hole world in between. In the National Film Board of Canada blog mentioned above which is a must read for anyone who is OWF (obsessed with film…ouch. Sorry), Polley says, Making this film was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It took five years and tormented me. I didn’t want to make it, and I wanted to give up many times along the way… Ostensibly, the film is about Sarah’s mother who died when Polley was 11. But, Polley says, Personal documentaries have always made me a bit squeamish. I’ve seen some brilliant ones, but they often push the boundaries of narcissism and can feel more like a form of therapy than actual filmmaking.. And so the story is personal, but not personal. She heard a story told from a million different angles, and THAT was the fact that took her by the throat. …as the story was told, or perhaps because the story was told – it changed. So I decided to make a film about our need to tell stories, to own our stories, to understand them and to have them heard…I’m not claiming that my film lacks self involvement but what I wanted most was to examine the many versions of this story, how people held onto them, how they agreed and disagreed with each other, and how powerful and necessary creating narrative is for us to make sense of our bewildering lives. I wanted the story told in the words of everyone I could find who could speak about it. Whatever my own feelings are about the events that are outlined, about the many dynamic and complicated players or the stunning, vibrant woman my mother was, they are ephemeral, constantly out of my grasp, they change as the years pass.

This is what grabs one about Sarah Polley and makes her exciting as an artist to watch. She has the rare ability to struggle with the voices inside her head, relentlessly filtering through them, making sure the authentic voice that emerges belongs to no one but herself. That what the best of artist’s do, they take a personal story and see its common mythology, making it the story of us all.

A Loss To Candor and Laughter – Remembering Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron

Nora Ephron (1941-2012)

I called Nora Ephron in 1986, and because I was a producer for the Today Show at the time, she picked up the phone. I told her I was doing a five part series on pioneering contemporary women behind the scenes in Hollywood, and could I interview her? At the time, Ephron had written the Academy Award nominated Silkwood (1983), and the hilarious and heartbreaking, Heartburn (1986) from her best-selling novel. Quite rightly, and refreshingly not full of herself, she turned me down. She said she really didn’t feel she had yet garnered the kind of experience in movies to allow her to wear such a lofty mantle as pioneer. But in the years to come, that would change for Ephron, and all rather quickly.

Let’s face it, most of us are not Nora Ephron. Most of us are mere mortals. Most of us are good at some thing, usually one thing. And then, there are the others. There are the Sherry Lansings of the world who truly, deeply and organically understand what is means to sail graciously through the social stratum of a man’s world and not just survive, but thrive. There are the Sherry Lansings, and there are the Nora Ephrons. These are women who have it all. The whole package. Nora always insisted that she was no anomaly in this regard.

Nobody really has an easy time getting a movie made. And furthermore I can’t stand people complaining. It’s not a conversation that interests me…Those endless women-in-film panels. It’s like, “JUST DO IT. Write something else if this one didn’t get made.” It’s my ongoing argument with a whole part of the women’s movement.

She made it sound so easy. Take nothing personally, move on from your mistakes, don’t wallow too long on your failures, and you too may find heretofore unopened doors suddenly spring wide. It also doesn’t hurt if you are a multi-faceted, facile writer like Ephron, with a distinctive voice that never fails to hit a popular nerve. And when it does fail, she learned from her mistakes, and kept the pen moving.

Nora Ephron died impossibly young and before she was finished. Producer Scott Rudin called her in the hospital two weeks before her death from myeloid leukemia, to go over some notes for a TV pilot she was writing. In typical Ephron fashion she commented, If I could just get a hairdresser in here, we could have a meeting. She also finished a new play, Lucky Guy, about columnist Mike McAlary, who covered cop and crime scandals in the 1980s and ’90s before dying of colon cancer at 41. It was set to open on Broadway with her frequent collborator, Tom Hanks, in the fall of 2012. Let’s hope that will still happen.

There were scores of witticisms, funny lines, truisms that typified no one else in the world. At the 32nd AFI Life Achievement Award Tribute To Meryl Streep in 2004, Nora famously remarked, I highly recommend having Meryl Streep play you…She plays all of us better than we play ourselves. Although it’s a little depressing knowing that if you went to audition to play yourself you would lose out to her. Some days, when I’m having a hard day, I call up Meryl and she’ll come and she’ll step in for me. She’s so good, people don’t really notice. I call her at the end of the day and find out how I did, and inevitably it’s one of the best days I’ve ever had.

As in every life, there were doozy disasters, such as Michael, with John Travolta as a fallen angel who smokes and drinks and hides enormous feathered wings under a trench coat. And Bewitched, called dismal by the Washington Post. The New York Times said that Ephron forgot that a gimmick is no substitute for a screenplay, never mind a real movie.

We hear complaints about women directors who make duds for studios, then don’t get a second chance, unlike their male counterparts. And this is true. But here too, Nora Ephron seemed the exception. Says Ariel Levy in the New Yorker, It is no small thing to get studio backing after you’ve lost money on a movie, especially if you are over a certain age. (In Hollywood, that age is approximately twenty-seven.) It is hard, Ephron said. I think I’ve managed it partly because Amy Pascal, the co-chairman of Sony Pictures, keeps giving me work. It can’t hurt, either, that Pascal’s boss is Howard Stringer; Ephron is Stringer’s son’s godmother.

But a writer-director who comes up with something wonderful always has a chance, especially if, like Nora, you have a long track record of having made money for the company, as Michael Lynton, the chairman and C.E.O. of Sony Pictures, put it. This is the talent that Ephron always relied upon to resuscitate her, whether from the catastrophe, the great fiasco, of my second marriage, or from the loss, domestically, of more than twenty million dollars on Bewitched. If you’re a writer, she said, you can write your way back.

There are great lessons to be learned from such resiliency. That is not to say that sexism isn’t the cancer of the industry, indeed of the world. But such a philosophy: to be in the world, but not of it; to let criticism slough easily down the back, made it possible for Ephron to continue to work with abandon in the medium in which she clearly excelled. I’m very into denial, she told an audience in 2006 on a panel called Advice for Women with her friend, Arianna Huffington, at the 92nd St. Y in New York.

The rap on Ephron from her detractors, says Ariel Levy, has always been that her cinematic vision is too schmaltzy, too eager to soothe and please. A line in Heartburn anticipates such complaints decades before they were made. “What they say about me,” Ephron wrote, “is “I don’t have an original point of view, and I am a sellout. This last accusation always makes me cross, because I would love to be a sellout if only someone would ask.” Her urge to put a happy ending on every story is what her critics dislike and her fans depend upon. And her corresponding refusal to succumb to self-pity is what people envy and resent: it is a quality you don’t often see in women, or, for that matter, men.

The eldest of four daughter of two successful Hollywood screenwriters, Nora grew up thinking, It was so clear there were no women in show business. It was so clearly not a place for a person like me. Unlike the pre-1920s, if there were women in the film business at all, they generally had a husband they collaborated with, like Ephron’s mother, Phoebe. When Nora graduated from Wellesley in 1962, and went to New York City, her fantasies had settled on becoming Dorothy Parker, not Preston Sturges. (And lest we forget, it was Dorothy Parker who said, Of course, calling them “women writers” is their ruin. They begin to think of themselves that way.)

In our family, we were expected to be writers, said Nora’s sister, Delia, one of her frequent collaborators. Phoebe Ephron got her wish. All four girls became writers. Ariel Levy describes Ephron’s upbringing as “madcap and bouncy…” and, only slightly more unnerving than the version that Henry and Phoebe Ephron presented themselves, in their play Take Her, She’s Mine, which was based on Nora’s letters and visits home during her time in college.

A happy household turned darker in her parent’s later years, when Nora was in late adolescence. Henry Ephron became a frequent visitor to mental hospitals and attempted suicide. Her mother took to alcohol and died of cirrhosis of the liver at age fifty-seven. Everything is copy, Phoebe Ephron told the girls, …which was related to her expectation that all suffering be reconfigured into a funny story before it was brought to her attention. “Take notes,” she directed Nora, from her deathbed.

This is the indelible imprint that her parents left. They, simply had no interest whatsoever in your sorrows, said Nora. It was so ‘Someday this will be a funny story…I’m not interested. I’m having a drink and smoking a cigarette, and what else is new?’ I think if you learn over and over from your parents that you do not get love from wallowing in heartbreak or failure, then you don’t really have much of a habit of doing it. This, in a nutshell, is what made Nora Ephron a pioneer. This, and a writing style bristling with a unique, dryly comic personality.

So in spite the fact that she didn’t envision herself in show biz, Ephron would nonetheless distinguish herself in show biz, and a whole lot of the fields. In the sixties, she distinguished herself as a journalist. She began an eviscerating profile of Dorothy Schiff, the publisher of the New York Post, where she had worked for a time, with the words I feel bad about what I’m going to do here. In the seventies, she wrote a comedic column on the women’s movement for Esquire. (Pretty much everyone admits that she was funny.) That was also the decade she became famous for marrying Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, and claiming for years that she knew the identity of Deep Throat, (although enigmatically, the media didn’t take much notice). Bernstein had an affair when Ephron was seven months pregnant with their second child, fueling the novel, Heartburn, which became a best seller, and later, a film.

Her screenplay with Alice Arlen of Silkwood, was Ephron’s foray into movies, and won and Academy Award nomination and still more fame. Her screenplay for Cookie (1989), was directed by Susan Seidelman who recalled in an obit letter to the editor of The New York Times,

I learned a few things from Nora:

*That you could be a serious writer (and director) and walk into a creative meeting wearing a fur coat and a little black dress, with perfectly coifed hair and manicured nails, and be taken very seriously.

*That you can age with style and grace and still be respected in an industry that worships youth.

*That you could be a hardworking filmmaker and still have the time and energy to be a devoted wife and mother.

I knew very few women in the film industry who were juggling work with a busy family life, so I paid particular attention to the way Nora did it. I remember script meetings at her apartment at the Apthorp on the Upper West Side at which her young sons wandered in and out of the room casually and even joined in whatever conversation we were having without its being a big deal. This blending of work and family seemed natural and unpretentious.

In the early nineties, Ephron decided, more or less, that she might as well direct her own screenplays. Mike Nichols, who had directed her 1983 screenplay for Silkwood, said he knew early on that Ephron would be able to direct.Not only did she have a complete comprehension of the process of making a movie — she simply soaked that up — but she had all the ancillary skills, the people skills, all the hundreds of things that are useful when you’re making a movie.

Nora herself noted,

Most directors, I have discovered, need to be convinced that the screenplay they’re going to direct has something to do with them, and this is a tricky thing if you write screenplays where women have parts that are equal to or greater that the male part…You look at a list of directors and it’s all boys; it certainly was when I started as a screenwriter. So I thought, I’m just going to become a director and that’ll make it easier.

Her good friend, Lynda Obst produced Ephron’s first directing venture, This is My Life (1992). It also didn’t hurt that she was also now holding a second Academy Award nomination for the wildly successful, When Harry Met Sally (1990), now a classic. If you’re not a successful actress, the next best route into directing is having a pen with a magic touch. And Ephron had that pen in spades. As Fay Kanin once reminded me, No one is going to say, ‘We’re not doing this screenplay because a woman wrote it.’

From there, the nineties became like a decade of greatest screenwriting/directing hits, Sleepless in Seattle (1993), Mixed Nuts (1994), You’ve Got Mail (1998). And in the first decade of the new millennium, Ephron managed the almost impossible feat of becoming an It girl yet again, in her sixties. She published the collection I Feel Bad About My Neck, which became a No. 1 best-seller. Remarkably, she enhanced her own glamour by writing about the distinctly dowdy subject of aging. When we were young . . . the amount of time we spent making ourselves look good bore some correlation to the number of hours we spent having sex (which was, after all, one of the reasons for our spending so much time on grooming). But now that we’re older, whom are we kidding? The book sold more than a million copies.

As Ariel Levy has noted about Ephron’s now cultural classics, When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, You’ve got Mail, and her last film, Julie & Julia, (her fourth collaboration with Meryl Streep, and the latest to bring Streep and Academy Award nomination for her astonishing incarnation of Julia Child), They are deeply comforting comedies, and they have made Ephron, at least by some measures, the most successful female director working in this country…”We don’t think of things that way and I’m not,” she told me firmly, putting her fork down on the table. “I think Nancy Meyers”who directed “Something’s Got to Give” is more successful. But it doesn’t matter. The main thing is that it just seems like a sad thing to be called.”

Until her very last breath at age 71, Nora Ephron showed no signs of slowing down. If we are to learn anything from this pioneer it is this, [The film business is] a very male business. Vast portions of it might as well be the United States Army in 1943. If you want to be successful and you are a woman, you have to understand that there’s all kinds of horrible stuff that comes with it, and you simply cannot do anything about it, but move on.

Goodbye Nora Ephron. Goodbye to your refreshing candor and your wit. We will miss hearing the truth about what everybody is thinking but nobody will say. You were a one-of-a-kind role model that affected, moved and changed all of us. Let’s face it, neck and all, we will miss you.

H&G…OUCH!

width=
Kidman & Owen Shocked at the Horrific Script of Their New Movie

Hemingway & Gelhorn last night. Really HBO? Are you kidding? I trudged through it for an hour. Thank goddess I was rescued by a rerun of “The Closer,” guest starring a drunk Elizabeth Perkins.

The best part of H&G was Nicole Kidman’s makeup, voice, and performance as an elder Gelhorn. As for Clive Owen’s Hemingway, well, let us just reiterate the great Dorothy Parker in saying that his emotions ran the full gamut from A to B.

For a more nuanced rendition of Hemingway, see Corey Stoll’s brilliant, comedic performance in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

Isn’t anyone manning, or better, womaning the ship at HBO? Can no one tell a good script from a bad anymore?

Older Faces on Screen Draw an Overlooked Crow – NOT

MarigoldMaggie

“The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” is one of those rare oddities that shocks the media: a good script that is well directed and well acted. Because of this critics like Brooks Barnes of the New York Times gets all over it, proclaiming that Hollywood has a new discovery in a previously unseen audience: the over 50 crowd!

This happens every so often when suddenly a good movie comes out and people actually patronize their local theatres to go and see it. Mr. Barnes seems to have overlooked a major reason why Hollywood prefers superheros, animation, and alien invasions – MARKETING. It’s not just that younger audiences are willing to sit through sequels and buy more popcorn, it’s simply that Hollywood can make more money selling toys, games, software and a general wad of junk based on characters from these venues vs. higher end fare.

Don’t be fooled for a second that Hollywood has suddenly “discovered” that baby boomers will go to the movies if given half a chance. Heck, everyone would go with the promise of great quality films. But as long as money is the number one goal, don’t bet on things changing too soon in tinseltown. Yes, there will always be room for the occasional exception like Marigolds. The key word here is “exception.” “Marigolds” is fun, well acted, and it’s great that it brought out the crowds. But don’t believe for a second that it’s some kind of a new “trend setter.” My crystal ball says that baby boomers will not start suddenly attending their local cinemas in droves any time soon. Not, at least, until they make a Judi Dench doll as cute and sexy as Cary Fisher’s life-size Princess Leia.