In writing, a splashy first book isn’t what makes or breaks an author’s career. It’s what comes after. For every singular masterpiece that ends up taught in high school English classes for decades to come, there’s another midlist author who churns out respectable numbers in obscurity. So…where do Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers sit in this analogy? I believe it varies. Those who adore their films and know their names and reputations would never call them obscure. However, to much of the world, they’re known by titles—When Harry Met Sally, The Parent Trap—rather than by name. When people think of filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton, or Wes Anderson, there’s an immediate oeuvre or vibe to these names. Is the difference then that Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers are more obscure, or that they’re women?
The case in point comes with their debuts. Silkwood (1983), written by Nora Ephron and Alice Arlen, was nominated for an Academy Award and Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay. (It was also nominated for Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Film Editing at the Academy Awards; nominated for Best Motion Picture – Drama at the Golden Globes). Private Benjamin (1980), produced and written by Nancy Meyers (with Charles Shyer and Harvey Miller), was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay (as well as Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress) and won the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay (Comedy). It has also been included in two of AFI’s 100 Years…lists.
Basically, both women kicked ass on arrival.
Private Benjamin was a film I had vague memories of watching once at my grandma’s (back when sneaking an R-rated film still felt bad). It follows the spoiled, sheltered Judy Benjamin (Goldie Hawn) who, newly married then newly widowed, enlists in the Army to escape her life and has a rude awakening when she discovers the reality of basic training. However, she also finds camaraderie with some of the other women, a source of self-worth and confidence, and, later, faces a decision on whether to return to the “old Judy” or become something entirely new.
Watching this now, I was amazed at how relatable I found Judy’s character. I don’t think she’s meant to be likeable—and that’s okay—but we’re meant to be annoyed or laugh at her lack of self-awareness or inability to care for herself. And yet there’s something in her bumbling journey to realization and actualization that I related to because she finds herself defining her worth by the men she’s around—her father figures, her husbands, her boyfriends. She changes to please them. She’s coerced and ordered around constantly and she follows because it’s how she can achieve the easy lifestyle she wants, initially. Then, after her second husband dies, the Army swoops in and offers her this “extravagant” have-it-all deal and she takes it. I really think this film balances the military propaganda with the predatory tactics they use to get vulnerable populations to enlist. And the film doesn’t really address her grief or pain or if it does it’s layered under humor because, in the end, did Judy love her husband or was he just a means to an end? (Although her sobbing brokenly to the heavens while holding a food processor and saying, “Look what we got!” is fantastic).
So she trades the orders of a husband for the military. And she whines and cries and wants to leave because she was tricked and her whole barracks hates her at first. The writing here is great and follows a lot of typical comedy moves, but it also informs her character so well. She’s pushed to her limits, tested, and—when given the opportunity to give-up—decides to prove everyone wrong. A lot of this is the prototypical Goldie Hawn magic of the 1980s as we saw last month in Protocol, but a little less slapstick. We have some commentary on the difficulties of being a woman in the military: the risk of reassignment as a punishment or sexual harassment. It doesn’t deal with these issues too heavily, but they’re at least present.
The last third of the film diverges a bit, but I saw it as the idea of “temptation.” Judy, whose dream was an easy lifestyle where she was taken care of by a handsome, wealthy husband, still has that idea inside of her. We all, inherently, want to be cared for. However, we can see the friction in who she used to be and who she’s become as she struggles to adjust. She tries to go back to the girl we saw at the beginning of the film but that girl doesn’t exist anymore. She has to make a decision to give up her dream or make a difficult change.
Nora Ephron’s Silkwood also details a difficult decision, but it takes its time getting to that decision. Based on the true story of labor union activist and whistleblower Karen Silkwood, this film doesn’t so much focus on her work with the union (although it touches on it) as it does on building the everyday lives of these people and their environment and how they devolve over the course of the film. It’s an intensely human portrait of middle America at this point in time, right down to the peeling wallpaper and foil wrapped leftovers in the fridge.
Karen, her boyfriend Drew, and friend Dolly all live together and work at Kerr-McGee. Karen (Meryl Streep) makes fuel rods for nuclear reactors; the plant has everyone working long shifts because they’re behind on a contract. Over the next few months, Karen becomes more active in her local union as she notices safety and health regulations slipping across the plant, but the more she becomes aware of the dangers of radiation the more tumultuous her home life becomes.
It’s hard to appropriately summarize this film because it’s a mix of big moments—Karen going to D.C. to talk to the Atomic Energy Commission, every positive radiation reading, the breakroom gossip about what’s gone wrong this week—and small moments. Tender scenes like when Drew (Kurt Russell) kneels between Karen’s legs after an intense detox shower or when Dolly (Cher) and Karen have a heart to heart on the porch swing. Driving down a country road and seeing the sunrise, and later seeing it set. Hearing “Amazing Grace” sung twice for very different tones. Having a conversation about the lesbian roommate over scrambled eggs.
The film takes its time and lingers—perhaps in moments where it doesn’t need to—but it makes this feel like a portrait of time and of people. The actors are mostly lost in these roles; they sound and seem like real people (or as real as we can assume these events being). And when the end comes I appreciate the softness with which it’s filmed. I also think the larger message is appropriately carried throughout and still feels relevant. At one point, Drew says something along the lines of, “Don’t give me a problem I can’t solve.” And, perhaps, that’s the mentality of so many of us when it comes to the big issues like climate change, racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. If Kerr-McGee can stand-in for “the man” or status quo in any situation then we can see that they take advantage of people (workers) and if things go wrong more than just those closest will be harmed. And, like radiation, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not real. Just because it’s something that might cause damage in twenty-thirty years doesn’t mean it isn’t actively harming something or someone now. So, yeah, this film works on multiple levels. Also as a reminder on why we need to think more about nuclear energy.
So, what have I learned about Nora and Nancy from their debuts? First, I don’t need to pressure myself as much: Nora was 42 when Silkwood came out, and Nancy was 31 for Private Benjamin. Even though we may think of success as a prodigy thing or a 20s or nothing type deal, that isn’t actually true; plenty of people find success at any point in life. Their first films did really well and helped push them toward long careers. However, that didn’t necessarily translate to name recognition. Second, both women had decently successful careers prior to their debuts—they worked for this. Nora Ephron was a well-known journalist and writer prior to working on films; Nancy Meyers worked in television and even briefly had a cheesecake business. Before their success—or at least what made them famous for me—these women already had careers. So the lesson here is that it’s perfectly possibly to work and chase a dream at the same time. Eventually, if you’re lucky, passionate, and good at what you do, maybe that other job won’t be necessary.
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 May, we’ll be seeing how motherhood can be conveyed via our favorite filmmakers. Till then!