The Year of Nora & Nancy: Voices & Votes

            Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers have, undoubtedly, contributed to women’s history within Hollywood. They’ve been nominated for various awards and won and created their own styles and oeuvres over long careers in a male-dominated field. Nora Ephron, additionally, has a prize at the Tribeca Film Festival for women writers or filmmakers “with a distinctive voice”—as hers was. So it only makes sense this Women’s History Month to look at how, in some small way, two of the movies in their filmographies handle women, feminism, and politics (because isn’t it all?).

            The first film, directed and written by Sarah Kernochan, was marketed in 1998 under three separate titles—All I Wanna Do, The Hairy Bird, and Strike!—which may explain why it hasn’t become a cult classic. Nora Ephron was one of the producers of the film and you can see why, in her mission to support women filmmakers, she’d put her stamp of approval on this one. Set in 1963 at Miss Goddard’s Preparatory School for Girls, we follow a group of “outcasts” as they seek to remain independent and achieve their dreams, especially once they hear their school is at risk of being integrated with the boy’s academy. The main cast of girls is Odie (Gaby Hoffman) who is interested in politics but a bit more interested in losing her virginity to her boyfriend back home; Verena (Kirsten Dunst), the mastermind of the group who doesn’t really care for boys; Tinka (Monica Keefer), another troublemaker who isn’t interested in her parent’s plans for her and wants to be a model; Tweety (Heather Matarazzo) who binges and purges and wants to be a child psychologist; and Momo (Merritt Weaver), a brilliant science nerd. Together and apart, they want to avoid the fate of the “little white gloves.”

            What works here isn’t just that the majority of the cast are women but that, when men do appear, they serve different functions to the women’s stories. It is a film ultimately about friendships and relationships between girls in such a tight-knit place where they live together—without much influence from men—and the potential within that. Often, at least in my viewing experience, movies about girl’s schools or academies often seem to focus on the in-fighting or cliques, but here there’s more of a focus on how girls are allowed to grow, learn, or exist without the influence of boys at this point in their lives and education. Not only that but the girls themselves are aware of this; they know that they’d be expected to spend more time on their looks and appear less intelligent if there were boys around and how that would affect the futures they want as successful women.

            Additionally—and this really builds into the time period but also feels relevant—the film has an ongoing conversation about the difficulty in funding the academy because the alumnae aren’t donating. Boys’ academies, on the other hand, don’t face this hardship as much because of the potential futures seen within those students. Boys will go on to become CEOs, entrepreneurs, maybe even the President. Girls, meanwhile, assume that they might—at best—become a teacher, nurse, or secretary and usually a housewife (at this time). What this shows, to me, is that the alumnus of a school can often shape what is or isn’t important through their endowments and, more often than not, those in power give to what they see will have the best return – sports.

            The film additionally comments on positive versus toxic masculinity in some ways. We can see this in how the boys at St. Ambrose treat the girls versus how the townies, The Flat Critters, do. Honestly, the film has so many subtle touches of feminism throughout that it would be an entire essay to dissect them all. It all comes to a head, however, when the girls of Miss Goddard’s stage that titular strike because they want a voice in the integration. Early on in the film, the audience is introduced to the idea that these girls are largely self-governed because that’s how the school was set-up; they’re independent and are taught to think for themselves. To later see this put into action, though a proto-demonstration and form of democracy, feels like a great form of pay-off. If Nora Ephron wanted to support films “with a distinctive voice” then Kernochan’s film definitely qualifies.

            My second pick this month, then, fell a little short of the previous high. Written by Nancy Meyers, then husband Charles Schyer, and Harvey Miller, 1984’s Protocol does feature a woman in a position of somewhat power in politics, but it’s only as a pawn for higher officials. Sunny Davis (Goldie Hawn) becomes an overnight celebrity when she prevents the assassination of the Emir of a fictional Middle Eastern country, Ohtar. Her bubbly personality and refreshing honesty lands her a job in the protocol department where she learns the ins and outs of government through a series of mishaps, but she constantly feels there may be more at play. After all, how does one go from being a broke cocktail waitress to being the emissary to a foreign country so quickly?

            Goldie Hawn carries this movie. Sunny is a likeable character by virtue of her being the “every woman (but unique)” in early 80s America. She works a job that pays the bills, dates flighty men after her divorce, is incredibly friendly with people of all runs of life, lives with a gay couple, isn’t invested in politics but loves America, and has an unreliable car. She makes the perfect pawn in the state department’s plan to put a strategic military base in Ohtar. And, after saving the Emir and being such a personality, it should all work out. Of course, she’s not that dumb and other plot things happen.

            Unlike All I Wanna Do, which falls into that made in the 90s but set in the 50-60s niche with Now and Then and The Sandlot, Protocol feels dated in a cringe way. It’s mostly for the Middle Eastern stereotypes all over the place (not even the “satire” label can save this), which were even noted in reviews of the time. Some of the humor hits right: the media reports in a vague way about the Middle East until they have some version of a royal wedding to cover or a scandal, or a scene in the cocktail bar that brings together a group of Japanese tourists, bikers, gays, dancers, the contingency from Ohtar (including the Emir), the media, escorts, and eventually the state department. For a moment, that scene worked for me before it descended too far into slapstick. A lot of the humor doesn’t land but the film isn’t serious enough to be a drama so it’s tonally in a weird place.

            Goldie Hawn may carry this film and Gail Strickland plays the head of the protocol department, but, overall, this is still a man’s world and film. At the beginning, Sunny works as a cocktail waitress, a job where she’s propositioned by strangers just for doing her job, and even in the protocol department she’s undervalued. To be fair, she doesn’t have the credentials but they treat her as the ditzy blonde when it’s proven she does have other valuable skillsets. Sunny is used as a pawn and bartering tool and, honestly, if she were a man this probably would be a different kind of film; maybe heavier on the espionage and less on the sex appeal. If anything, the lesson here is how hard it can be—especially in the 80s—to make it as a woman in politics.

            That said, the end moral—especially in 2021—felt relevant. Yes, Sunny gives a speech that touches on something I think many Americans have been feeling in the past decade. America is a democratic republic; we elect officials to represent us and they are supposed to speak for us in turn. However, often, it seems as if our voices are misheard or misrepresented and nothing comes about in ways we hope for. Everyone uses the term “divisive” nowadays. Sunny talks about how, prior to her turn in the state department, she didn’t care about politics because she trusted the government to have her interests at heart. I’m not sure how many of us trust the government today. But, as Sunny says, that’s what voting and being a part of the process—a part of “we the people”—is for. We are meant to exercise our rights as private citizens to have opinions on the government, in whatever way. By not paying attention or not caring, we don’t have a say or a voice.

            Sure, the speech was saccharine but it did make me cry a little.

            The connections and lessons between these two movies were fairly obvious in the end. Even if one film was more women-positive than the other, they both emphasized the importance of using your individual voice to be involved in decision making within institutions. Otherwise changes, big or small, will happen without you. The women in All I Wanna Do and Protocol use different techniques to go about expressing their dissidence with the systems. The girls of Miss Goddard’s strike until they’re heard by the higher-ups; Sunny uses the media and Congress itself to her advantage. Both films have women who later run for office, supported by their friends. Through these films, in different ways, we can see the importance of the democratic process at work on small and large scales, when it works and when it doesn’t. So, in that way, these actually made for a double feature that made sense and felt vaguely inspiring.

            As someone who has cared about politics since a young age and has voted in every major and local election since I was eligible, I’m glad each of these films, though older, emphasized the importance of having a voice and a vote. Hopefully, as America goes on and grows and changes, more people will express themselves in this way. And maybe we’ll get some new throwback films that hit up with the same moral message. It never goes out of style.

            Generally, every month will have at least two films (but often more), so keep an eye on the blog for these updates. If you’re interested in what films I’ll be looking at you can find the whole list for The Year of Nora & Nancy on my Letterboxd. In April, we’ll be visiting first films from each of our filmmakers. Till then!

January: When Harry Met Sally (1989) & Father of the Bride (1991)

February: You’ve Got Mail (1998), Something’s Gotta Give (2003), I Love Trouble (1994), & Sleepless in Seattle (1993)