Screenwriter and journalist Nora Ephron died yesterday.
An interesting tribute to her includes this bit:
Two years ago, I sat next to Nora at dinner and we talked about the difficulty of women making films. I had to pinch myself. I was sitting next to the woman who had defined for me the idea that women who didn’t use beauty or sex to define value, could, in spite of so much evidence to the contrary, be successful. Smart. Funny. Funny trumped it all, because to me, if it wasn’t smart, it wasn’t ever going to be funny. Still, that night she shared some hard truths including the insight that being Queen of the Hill was not all it was cracked up to be. There was a film she’d always wanted to do, she explained, but she could not raise financing. She’d tried for years. Decades. Wrap your head around this: Nora Ephron couldn’t make the movie she longed to make. The excuse she was given over and over again was that women’s projects didn’t sell well internationally to the mostly male audiences who consumed action films. Swathes of young men don’t need to understand English or nuance or cultural tics when the screen is full of warriors battling giant robots, or aliens, or dinosaurs, or rogue waves.
We could question the intelligence of an industry that doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that generations of movie viewers have consumed Casablanca, Philadelphia Story and Annie Hall in every form from the Million Dollar Movie (pulling in its Maxwell House millions in advertising) to VHS cartridges, to CDs, and now as downloads. We could try to discuss with a minimum of chest beating, the ethics of exporting, in large doses and as the largest proportion of the art, the lowest possible quality of material designed only to raise the highest possible level of blood pressure in its audience. We could talk about data that proves that while treated like a fringe minority, the demographic of women over 40 is the largest, richest segment of an affluent, culture-consuming population. But even if we believe in the economics of action films, how does one explain that Wes Anderson (Royal Tannenbaums, Rushmore, Life Aquatic), Spike Jonz (Adaptation, Being John Malkovitch), Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Bridges of Madison County) and a dozen other boy directors get funding to create whatever they want to make, year after year. Can you imagine an audience of young men in Saudi Arabia grasping the nuance of Susan Orleans dealing with Chris Cooper’s toothless orchid grower in Adaptation? Does this make economic sense? Nora Ephron made Sleepless in Seattle, for god’s sake. She wrote When Harry Met Sally. Her movies have, on average, made hundreds of millions of dollars. Hundreds of millions more, in fact, than Adaptation or Royal Tenenbaums, And, like Casablanca, her films will almost certainly continue their return on investment for generations long after we’re gone.
She was frustrated. She didn’t understand it either. And I thought as I sat there, bowled over by her clear, candid talk from the top of the mountain, Well, you’re Nora Ephron. You’ve got connections and power. You’ve got time on your side. I’ll wait. You’ll figure it out. I didn’t know that she didn’t have time.
On the other hand, the Christian Science Monitor argues that she had the rare, crowd-pleasing ability to mix humor and feminism. That headline requires more dissecting than I have time right now because I have to go out and grumpily wave my armpit hair in honor of Ephron.
But she was certainly a very successful screenwriter and the difficulties she faced look to me like an industry in deep trouble when it comes to getting women to watch their movies. Which they don't seem to desire, that much.