The Year of Nora & Nancy: Motherhood & Mansions

            For May and Mother’s Day, I wanted to delve into the films of Nora Ephron and Nancy Meyers’ that featured motherhood as one of the major plot points. A woman writing about pregnancy, childbirth, and motherhood is an acceptable practice and kind of an expectation. However, no two women will write or have the same experience and the films of Ephron and Meyers show that. Additionally, our cultural ideas of motherhood and expectations of it have changed over time so seeing how these films have held up or are reflections of their time is part of the experience.

            So it’s interesting that we begin with Nancy Meyers’ and Charles Shyer’s 1995 film Father of the Bride Part II. Between both of our filmmakers this is the only ‘franchise’ and is a loose remake of Father’s Little Dividend, but only in concept because the plot is modernized and differs from about a quarter of the way in (maybe sooner). Again, the film is narrated by George Banks (Steve Martin), who recounts the last nine months of misadventures after learning his beloved daughter Annie (Kimberly Williams) is expecting a baby. Not only does he have a midlife crisis caused by the thought of being a grandfather, but he also tries to sell their house which has been causing one trouble after another. Then, when his wife Nina (Diane Keaton) is concerned about menopause the true cause is yet another unexpected bundle of joy. So, the movie, while told from George’s perspective, follows the ups and downs of two pregnancies in family comedy fashion.

            While the film is told from the male perspective, we have two different points in the female life and pregnancy to contend with when it comes to Annie and Nina. Annie is in her mid-twenties, ready for a family, but also still attached to her career. One of the modern arguments (similar to the homemaker discussion from the first film) is if Annie’s husband will expect things to change once the baby comes and if her work will be less important, especially since she’s given the chance at a promotion. Nina, on the other hand, is completely settled into her life as it was: she was ready to be a grandmother and her son is practically in middle school so way past diapers. She’s aware of her age and, rightfully, sends George off when his dour nature goes too far in pointing out the negatives of being older parents. Nina is the one who has to carry the baby—not George. The differences in the pregnancies themselves are minimal until delivery, but we can continue to see how the theme of age plays out there as well.

            Basically, from the comments of their old house falling apart, to testing their marriage with this new stress, to the different views on older parenthood (this involving a great shot of altering sides of the street), and also playing on our perception of the age of our healthcare providers, Father of the Bride Part II exceeds its predecessor in some ways and remains on par in others. George works as the narrator because he gives us a biased view of these two women who he loves unconditionally but blindly (and often to comedic effect).

            Diane Keaton tackled motherhood with Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer earlier in 1987’s Baby Boom. Here, she plays J.C. Wiatt, a hardworking management consultant who can almost taste that partner job, when a long-lost British cousin dies and leaves his daughter to her. To say she’s absolutely inept at children would be putting it lightly as she basically carries Elizabeth like a pool noodle for the first twenty minutes and barely knows how to hold her. When the chubby-cheeked cherub wins her over and she decides against adoption, J.C. has to balance her career and new motherhood at the same time—but, eventually, something has to give. This will lead to the second half of the film where we get our Hallmark romantic comedy angle, featuring little Elizabeth as the mascot of a gourmet baby food brand, a hunky veterinarian, and a 200-year-old house with continual problems.

            In some ways, I’m amazed at how such dissonant halves of one film can actually feel so cohesive? Some of this is probably carried by the thread of motherhood and Keaton’s performance. The first half really focuses on the idea of “having it all” in a corporate setting as J.C. adjusts to motherhood and tries to stay on top of her work, and the second half shows a different idea of “all” in pastoral Vermont as J.C. keeps trying to get back to New York with her business booming and her relationships improving. However, there’s a transition scene between the two where J.C. and Elizabeth sit in an empty apartment and J.C. is just so mindlessly happy to leave everything behind that it’s almost…horrific? If we could read this as the idea of doing anything for your child or being so consumed by love that nothing else matters then motherhood can certainly be its own kind of monstrous.

            However, its relevance despite the horribly dated score and fun fashion, is in that idea of the career woman mother. Nowadays, it almost isn’t a choice due to the economical need for two incomes (although the price of preschool is insane). The idea of “having it all”, however, is one that I believe we’re still wrestling with. Even J.C.’s male co-workers say they struggle with it, complimenting their wives and lamenting the sacrifice of their families for their careers, but they question her particular devotion as a woman and then as she becomes a single mother. She does everything she should to do both and, yet, somehow it still isn’t enough. Maybe this is a dig on capitalism, which takes from everyone but especially caretakers (women), but it’s a story many women are familiar with in terms of what a career trajectory looks like the moment motherhood happens. Yet, as the film later shows, we create our own work environments, and it is possible to make one that is family-friendly where “having it all” and balancing both isn’t some impossible juggle. Sacrifice, then, becomes a choice rather than a given.

            We see more than a few sacrifices in Nora Ephron’s 1986 Heartburn (directed by Mike Nichols). Based on her autobiographical novel about her marriage to Carl Bernstein, this film makes a few changes but mostly upholds the narrative. We see the beginnings of Rachel (Meryl Streep) and Mark’s (Jack Nicholson) relationship as they get married and buy a fixer-upper in Washington D.C., the birth of their first daughter, and then the erosion of their marriage as Rachel discovers Mark’s infidelity while pregnant with their second child. In many ways, this is a film not so much about the children themselves—although we see plenty of interactions between Rachel and her daughter, and Rachel is pregnant for much of the film—but about how the idea of ‘family’ can hold a marriage together for longer than it, perhaps, should. It’s almost heartbreaking to see the transformation in these characters as we go from loving newlyweds eating pizza in a rundown townhouse and singing any song they can think of with ‘baby’ in the title to the cold and careful distance of trying to move on after the betrayal of an affair and the knowledge that it was in our faces the whole time.

            It is true, perhaps, that the film is biased in its portrayal of events as it hews closely to Rachel and the screenplay is written by Ephron based on Ephron’s book, but I don’t think it villainizes Mark too heavily. Streep and Nicholson’s performances are wonderfully grounded and they play off each other well. The delivery of the second baby, in particular, is a moving moment as you can see two people who do care but have been hurt by each other, and are held together by these children and the good memories. At one point in the film, Mark and Rachel are at dinner with their friends and they all go around the table and take turns defining themselves. Mark puts ‘columnist’ first and Rachel puts ‘pregnant’ at the top of hers. Lower down, they both include father/mother and husband/wife, in different variations of importance. Rachel, for most of the film, puts her comfort aside for Mark. And while he’s present and provides, it’s that continual disrespect from him that, in the end, makes the decision for her.

            One of the notable things about all three films this month is that they all had houses in some state of disrepair. This is a super common metaphor for things not being well “at home.” In Father of the Bride Part II, the leaky roof and need for fumigation are seen as signs that it’s time for something younger and better when, really, a house is often where you build memories with your family. In Baby Boom, J.C. takes the constant repairs on the farmhouse as a sign to move back to New York (and standing in front of a dry well while screaming about missing sex is pretty obvious). Instead, she finds more than just a house as the town and community welcome her and baby Elizabeth. In Heartburn, Rachel and Mark tolerate the ongoing renovations on the townhouse throughout the film (and miscommunications about doors) even though they’re frustrated by them, and it’s definitely not the best environment for children. This could be compared to their marriage on its less than best days. At its most basic, of course, the house is a place where mothers and families and children spend time and, sometimes, things break.

            Between Nancy Meyers and Nora Ephron, we have three different pictures of what motherhood can be. It’s something that can be unexpected—at any age or position in life—but having people to support you definitely seems to help. Whether that is a bumbling husband, a whole town, or friends, no one really is alone in raising their children even if it often feels like it. Birth isn’t always an easy or beautiful thing, houses aren’t always perfect, and relationships don’t always last after children. These films indicate, however, that the bond between a mother and her child is one that is a little more permanent.

            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 June, we’ll be seeing how our filmmakers handle fatherhood and masculinity. See you 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)

March: All I Wanna Do (1998) & Protocol (1984)

April: Private Benjamin (1980) & Silkwood (1983)

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