When it comes to movie consumption, there’s no truer democrat in America than the slightly inebriated airline passenger. You’ve observed it, I’m sure—how at a certain altitude, and after a certain number of Bloody Marys, every prejudice of class and gender begins to be dissolved; how in that strange and hurtling passivity the grandmother in the aisle seat will submit with a kind of rapture to The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, while the tattooed young man by the window gratefully dabs his eyes at the last frames of 27 Dresses.
Back down here, however—back on what John Prescott, a former British deputy prime minister, once referred to as “terra cotta”—the old divisions still obtain. Here the moviegoer sticks sourly and soberly in his or her demographic bracket, and the films of writer-directors Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers are dismissed as “chick flicks.” But would the world be a better place if everyone who queued up this summer to see Inglourious Basterds had been treated instead to a surprise screening of Ephron’s Julie & Julia? After the initial bloodletting, I think it probably would.
Video: James Parker narrates his favorite scenes from When Harry Met Sally and What Women Want
Ephron and Meyers are tag-teaming us this year. As Julie & Julia dwindles from the multiplexes, and the hootings of Meryl Streep’s Julia Child grow faint, Meyers is hitting us with It’s Complicated. Passion reignited is the theme, and common sense perplexed. Jane (also played by Streep) is a successful divorcée and mother who in her radiant maturity begins to dally afresh with the man she split from 10 years earlier. Jake, the man in question, is played by Alec Baldwin. This is fitting: sooner or later, either Meyers or Ephron was going to have to deal with Alec Baldwin, to engage with the principle of preposterous virility that he has come to represent. Sitting at the bar with his ex-wife, his paw round a little glass of something or other, Baldwin-as-Jake is florid, potent, gloatingly and inflatedly masculine, like a genie who came out of a bottle of aftershave. “You look good, Janie,” he growls. “You always do. Your hair’s shorter.” “Longer,” she says. “I like it,” he says with finality.
This Baldwin-ness, this new emanation of late-middle-age manhood, had to be tackled, because Meyers and Ephron are the leading popular interpreters of experience for women of a certain age. Ephron is 68, Meyers is 60. They’ve been through big-F Feminism, witnessed the divorce marathon, the reshuffling of roles. Ephron already had a heap of mordant, anthropologically attuned journalism behind her when she published her 1983 novel, Heartburn, drawing on the failure of her marriage to Carl Bernstein: “The moving man sat there reading the section on vaginal self-examination in my spare copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves while Charlie and I fought about furniture.” Heartburn became a 1986 Mike Nichols film, with a screenplay by Ephron. Meryl Streep starred as the heroine, Rachel Samstat—pale and glossy with stress, exquisitely burdened by pregnancy, dishes of food, betrayal. Three years later, Ephron scripted When Harry Met Sally; four years after that, she wrote and directed Sleepless in Seattle. Deadeye wit, combined with a romanticism that is almost paranoid—someone out there is waiting for you!—has been her signature.
Meyers’s early credits include the screenplays for Private Benjamin and the post-feminist pageant Baby Boom. Her output in the 1990s was a cataract of middlebrow—rewrites and remakes, first of the Father of the Bride movies, and then The Parent Trap (for which she elicited a brilliant, schizogonic performance from the young Lindsay Lohan). What Women Want, in 2000, was a life-giving dive into high-concept lowbrow—Mel Gibson in full-on madness-of-King-Mel mode, mugging and prancing as a man gifted (via electric shock) with the ability to read women’s minds. Helen Hunt was his foil, with much deployment of that tight, defensive smile of hers; not so much a smile as a flexing of the front of her brain.
Who will triumph at the box office this year? Ephron is famouser—a brand, almost—but Meyers has had the bigger hits; 2003’s Something’s Gotta Give (Diane Keaton, disappointed in love, blowing out the scented candles with age-scored lips) was a very healthy earner, and What Women Want was an absolute juggernaut, with a worldwide gross of $374 million: one of the most successful movies ever directed by a woman.
Thematically, though, there’s not much daylight between them. Both women sharpened their mots justes on the complications of life after feminism, the raised consciousness and the lowered anxiety threshold. When Ephron’s Harry (Billy Crystal) meets Sally (Meg Ryan) for the second time, he tells her that he’s about to tie the knot. Sally asks who the lucky lady is. “Helen Hillson,” recites Harry. “She’s a lawyer. She’s keeping her name.” Three little lines, and we know instantly that the nuptials are fraught, modern, and doomed. Then there’s Meyers’s Baby Boom: Diane Keaton as the businesswoman J. C. Wiatt, shoulder-padding through ’80s Manhattan in a cascade of synth-drums. J. C. lives with some kind of insensate banker. “D’you wanna make love?” he says, inclining his pajamaed body toward hers: the bedside clock reads 11:46. In the next shot they’re both putting their glasses back on, and panting a little. It’s 11:50.
Fairytale Hollywood glitters distantly over the movies of both Meyers and Ephron, for whom the secrets of men versus women were engraved upon the heart of Ernst Lubitsch, and the fabulous maidens were not Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty but Ingrid Bergman and Deborah Kerr. Harry and Sally bicker over Casablanca; for the women of Sleepless in Seattle, the emotional touchstone is An Affair to Remember (“Men never get this movie!”). In Meyers’s The Holiday, Kate Winslet gets tips from an authentic Golden Age geezer, a creaky Oscar-toting screenwriter who instructs her in the technicalities of the Lubitschean “meet-cute.” Hanging Up (directed by Keaton, from a script by Ephron and her sister Delia) features bc as the dying father, the crumbling Hollywood lion, his mind dimming behind hospital screens as he rambles about the smallness of John Wayne’s penis.
Ephron’s work in particular is shadowed by a sense that we have degenerated from an era of great verve and classiness into, you know, where we’re at: pallid, secondary, watered down. No lusty screwball chemistry between Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, just a fizzle of technologized yearning—she hears him on the radio in Sleepless in Seattle, she talks to him on the Net in You’ve Got Mail. Almost-stalkings take place: a twitch of the dial, and these would have been rather dark pieces.
Julie & Julia silhouettes the loud and irresistible rise of Julia Child against the fitful overcomings of Julie Powell, a young wife in present-day Queens who is working her way through Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia is outsize, pre-orgasmic in her exclamations, a woman with a knack for bliss: she can be mystically sated by a mouthful of buttered fish. (The entire organism of Meryl Streep is in motion for this performance—her nostrils are like a second set of eyebrows.) Julie, meanwhile, is … blogging about Julia. Tippy-tap, go her fingers on the keys. “You’re the third-most-popular blog on Salon.com!” cries her husband, as audience members roll insensibly under their seats.
Meyers is a looser writer than Ephron, whose scripts advance in such nifty parallelisms, one imagines her plotting them with a pair of calipers. She’s also broader, and more bodily. At moments of stress her lead characters will often ask someone to check if their glands are swollen. In Something’s Gotta Give there is a lot of talk about Viagra, and menopause. We see Jack Nicholson’s ass—jaundiced-looking, glimpsed between the blue-white wings of a hospital gown. Later in the film he makes love wearing a blood-pressure cuff. Mel Gibson in What Women Want has freaky telepathic sex with Marisa Tomei, her overheard thoughts initially distracting him (“Is Britney Spears on Leno tonight?”) until he finds his superstud magic mojo rhythm: “You knew what I wanted and how I wanted it!” she moans in the sweaty aftermath. The Holiday had none of this, offering us instead the charm overdose of Cameron Diaz and Jude Law, and the dismaying sight of Jack Black with his hair brushed.
But even The Holiday, seen in the right condition, in the correct state of sentimental expansion, can move and instruct. The scene in which, for example … The scene where … Okay, maybe not The Holiday. But how about Jack Nicholson’s heart attack in Something’s Gotta Give? Diane Keaton, looming in for the mouth-to-mouth, hissing “You … fucking … guy!!” Can men learn from these movies what women want? Can women learn from these movies what women want? Don’t ask me. But the best of them leave us tickled, tearful, and somehow reacquainted with the essentials—the basics, to which even Tarantino fans must finally submit: cherish your partner. Empathy is good stuff. Men, try harder. And if you’re drinking at 30,000 feet, remember: one in the air is worth two on the ground.