UPDATE: This topic later became the inspiration for Enough Already: The Wonderful, Horrible Reception of Nancy Meyers; an essay I wrote that was published in Cineaction. It is available at Amazon, or you can read a text-only version here. It is worth noting that, after doing more research, the conclusions I arrived at were not entirely the same as those I highlight here.
The other night The Wife wanted to celebrate her birthday by going to the movies. Her pick was Julie & Julia. It seemed a safe bet. Written and directed by Nora Ephron, best known for her work on When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail, this had the promise of being a good relationship story.
When the trailers appeared, I saw something else that looked promising; a new film from Nancy Meyers called It’s Complicated. Some years ago Street Eats creator Tess Loyson told me how much she loved her films, highly recommending two I hadn’t seen yet — Something’s Gotta Give and Baby Boom. At that point I was only familiar with What Women Want and The Parent Trap. The latter I enjoyed immensely. After watching the rest of her films — including the ample amount she’d written, co-written and produced — I knew I had to keep an eye on this woman.
Myers came out with The Holiday in 2006 and, to me, it just confirmed she’s a masterful filmmaker. Rarely had I laughed so heartedly, and been so charmed. My only quibble was with the super-syrupy New Year’s Eve ending. It wasn’t needed — at least not as played, with such overbearing cheer — and she should have had the confidence to know that. Granted, people like Spielberg have made bigger missteps than that.
So now she’s coming out with It’s Complicated, and it’s sure to be worth watching. But it got me wondering. Why couldn’t I remember her name appearing in any of my reference books about great directors? Or Nora Ephron’s. After the movie I went home and checked.
Just as I thought. No listings. Couldn’t find Penny Marshall either. Until Meyers and Ephron came along, Marshall brought in more box office dollars than any woman in Hollywood.
Some of the books in my collection have over 500 directors named, and it’s not just a boy’s club listing. Kathryn Bigelow could be found. Even relative newcomer Sofia Coppola shows up too. Leni Riefenstahl, of course (the final scene of Star Wars was inspired by her Triumph of the Will, after all, but you’re better off checking out Walter Grauman’s 633 Squadron. The Death Star battle is almost shot-for-shot from the climax of that film). Doris Wishman? What’s she doing there? Have any of you seen a Doris Wishman film? Check out the trailer below for Dildo Heaven. It’s a good example of the quality you can expect (NOTE: The content is very PG).
The first assumption for this oversight might be that it’s disdain for popular Hollywood cinema. But that’s nonsense. Much has been written about the mega-hits of Spielberg, Lucas and James Cameron. More recently there is already tons about the Batman movies, the Lord of the Rings trilogy — certainly anything based on a comic book or fantasy tale. All have been releases from major Hollywood studios, just like the films from these ladies.
No, I think the big problem is that most of the so-called experts out there are men. Guys who dream of being in the shoes of the masters they worship. Unless the ladies flash some big breasts, or show a lot of macho action, you’re not likely to get a film geek’s attention. Even if a woman excels in a genre tradition most often associated with the established “greats.”
In the 1930s and 40s, for example, there was a popular film genre called the screwball comedy. Some of the biggest directors of that era took turns with it, including Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and George Cukor. Nowadays, though, the only ones who tend to get praised for the modern-day “screwball” is the Coen Brothers, in films such as Raising Arizona, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty and Burn After Reading. But the films of Nancy Meyers are clearly more direct descendants of this classic form. They have also made more money.
I Love Trouble (which Meyers wrote and produced) is definitely inspired by the classics Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday. Something’s Gotta Give features the slapstick humor and verbal sparring that is often characteristic of the genre. So too is The Parent Trap, with its journey of a divorced couple falling in love again, not much dissimilar from The Awful Truth and The Philadelphia Story. Judging from its trailer, It’s Complicated revisits that premise too. The Holiday directly references the genre often, particularly with Eli Wallach’s explanation of the “meet cute,” plus the one video Kate Winslet is seen watching is His Girl Friday. Cross-dressing men was another popular element in the genre (the most well-known example is Some Like It Hot), and What Women Want took it one step further by having Mel Gibson journey into the minds of women. Not just their clothes.
So it strikes me that Meyers warrants credit along with her fellow, far more respected, great directors. A lot more credit. She knows her film history — certainly it’s most difficult genre, which no one else has mastered as successfully these days — plus she knows how to write, direct and create entertainment people want to see. It’s more than you can say for Doris Wishman.
Here’s some math on worldwide box office, thanks to Box Office Mojo:
The Parent Trap – $92,108,518
What Women Want – $374,111,707
Something’s Gotta Give – $266,728,738
The Holiday – $205,135,324
Total for four Nancy Meyers-directed films (we’ll leave out those she wrote and/or produced): $938,084,287
Now let’s do some math for the Coen Brothers
Since only domestic totals are available for some — and we want to give them a fighting chance
— we’ll add up everything
Blood Simple – $3,851,855 (domestic lifetime)
Raising Arizona – $29,180,280
Miller’s Crossing – $5,080,409 (domestic)
Barton Fink – $6,153,939 (domestic)
The Hudsucker Proxy – $2,816,518 (domestic)
Fargo – $60,611,975
The Big Lebowski – $17,451,873 (domestic)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? – $71,868,327
The Man Who Wasn’t There – $18,916,623
Intolerable Cruelty – $120,217,409
The Ladykillers – $76,747,441
Paris, je t’aime (”Tuileries” segment) – $17,335,978
No Country for Old Men – $162,113,329
Burn After Reading – $161,128,228
Total for fourteen Coen Brothers films: $753,474,184
And, just for the hell of it, let’s look at the numbers for one of today’s most celebrated directors:
Again we’ll add up everything he’s directed to help compensate for the lack of foreign numbers
Reservoir Dogs – $2,832,029 (domestic only)
Pulp Fiction – $213,928,762
Four Rooms (co-director) – $4,257,354 (domestic only)
Jackie Brown – $39,673,162 (domestic only)
Kill Bill, Vol 1 – $180,949,045
Kill Bill, Vol 2 – $152,159,461
Grindhouse (co-director) – $25,422,088
Inglorious Basterds – $245,753,357
Total for eight Quentin Tarantino films: $864,975,258
I’m just saying.
As for our night at the movies, it was definitely fun. The film’s only weakness was that which is typical of true life stories; no neat and tidy story structure, and a less-than-fulfilling conclusion. Tarantino has committed worst crimes.