Nora Ephron – Everything is Copy 2016 Directed by Jacob Bernstein, Nick Hooker. Talented journalist/essayist/screenwriter/director Nora Ephron seems to have charmed the pants off everyone. Though her honesty could verge on cruel, she was disarmingly funny. The writer adhered to her mother’s credo: “If you slip on a banana peel, people laugh at you. When you tell people you slipped on a banana peel, it’s your laugh, so you become the hero rather than the victim of the joke.” We hear from three sisters, two ex-husbands, Mike Nichols, stars of her films, Charlie Rose and Dick Cavett.
Ephron was raised by two screen writers in Beverly Hills. She graduated from Wellesley and started as a mail girl at Newsweek. A sharp parody of The New York Post resulted in a job offer at the paper. Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe remember her as tough and gifted. A column in Esquire about women enhanced her professional reputation. First husband Dan Greenberg recalls she’d go up to celebrities and ask them to dinner with no introduction – and they came. Second husband Carl Bernstein was “dazzled, captivated.”
Her screenplay (with Alice Arlen) for Silkwood was a great success. Bernstein’s infidelity and their life in Washington, D.C. became fodder for the novel and film Heartburn. “She cried for six months, wrote it funny, and won. Betrayed women all over the world cheered,” Nichols notes. She wrote the screenplay for When Harry Met Sally and both wrote the screenplay for and directed Sleepless in Seattle, perhaps the film she is best known for. “She was a great observer of men and women, free with and completely certain of her opinions.”
Countless women have chortled knowingly to collections like “I Hate My Neck.” Third husband Nick Pileggi was a great love and is discretely absent from the film. Hiding illness from all her friends until the last, Ephron died of leukemia in 2012. A terrific portrait. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Raise Hell – The life and Times of Molly Ivins 2019 Directed by Janice Engel. “I’m Texan. I drive a pick-up truck, cuss, drink beer, hunt and I’m a liberal- so what?!” Outspoken journalist/author Molly Ivins rejected a conservative background to identify her state’s legislature a laboratory for bad government. She correctly predicted that George W. Bush’s “anti-intellectualism, public display of belief and machismo would metastasize into national politics.” Ivins nicknamed Jr. “scrub,” saying, “If his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him every day.”
Deftly wielded humor with a blade point of intellect helped her crash through the glass ceiling of journalism despite “bubba language (example- shitkickers), securing jobs as police reporter in Minneapolis (“It helps when you can tower over your editors,” declares the six-foot, big boned journalist), and feature writer in Chicago before earning freedom of copy and wide national syndication based in her home state.
Ivins wrote: “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and armadillos,” and, “We keep pretending the political spectrum runs far right to left; it doesn’t, it runs from top to bottom.” When doctors described the tumor that would kill her as “large with undefined edges,” she named it “Newt.” An excellent (and entertaining film) about someone whose voice we could surely use now. Rent on Amazon Prime.
Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously 2016 Directed by Patrick Meaney. “I want to be remembered as someone who tells good stories.” Gaiman has written comics (the revolutionary Sandman evolved to outsell Batman and Superman), novels, screenplays, TV shows, songs and poetry. Fans camp out in parking lots before an appearance, then gush before him. The film follows the writer on his last grueling signing/reading tour through the U.S. and U.K. He’s warm and focused with fans, goes the extra mile/hour (soaking his hand in ice), and gives hugs where sensitivity is extreme.
As a teenager, Gaiman fronted a punk band. “I was a lad who responded to myth like nothing else, but I didn’t know I’d write until I wrote.” A relentless promoter of his work, he’d hound editors with pitches, lying about prior publication. Gaiman starts each book by hand in order to convince himself it’s trivial, just for fun; writes everywhere – on planes, in cafes, and in corners at parties.
The author never reduces language or standards for children. “Every day children get born with no instruction manual into a world of giants, but somewhere inside, you’re still seven…The function of fantasy is to look at the world at a slightly different angle.” An appealing personality well captured. Free with Amazon Prime.
Gaiman’s Good Omens (written with Terry Prachett) was made into a marvelous, streamable series.
Shirley Jackson – Shirley 2020 Based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell. Directed by Josephine Decker. Young couple Rose and Fred Nemser (Odessa Young and Logan Lerman) arrive at the Bennington, Vermont home of horror/mystery author Shirley Jackson (Elizabeth Moss) and her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman (Michael Stuhlbarg) who teaches at the college. Fred is to be an adjunct professor working for Stanley. The couple were invited to stay a few days until they can find their own residence. Shirley, an agoraphobic, has taken to bed. They’re greeted by the controlling Hyman.
The Nemsers are surprised to learn that Rose is expected to cook, clean, do laundry, and watch over volatile Shirley during what becomes an extended stay. Fred, hoping for a position at the school, pushes Rose into remaining. More and more is demanded of her. Shirley begins to write something based on the unsolved disappearance of a coed. She enlists Rose in unsavory ways, manipulates the girl’s increasing insecurities, and is cruel at meals – as are she and Stanley to each other. His serial infidelity fuels the fire.
Fred stays away long hours. Shirley and Rose develop an insidious bond. The girl starts to think of herself as the missing/dead protagonist of Jackson’s work in progress. There comes a point where it’s difficult to distinguish what’s actually happening from what’s being imagined. The film is creepy in a good way based only on threads of reality. Jackson’s son criticized: “If someone comes to the movie not knowing anything about my parents, they will certainly leave thinking that my mother was a crazy alcoholic and my father was a mean critic.” Rent on Amazon Prime.
Dalton Trumbo Trumbo 2008 Directed by Peter Askin. A documentary not to be confused with the dramatization that follows. Dalton Trumbo was, by all reports, astute, charming, cantankerous, and chronically unable to save money. At the time the HUAC came gunning, he was the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood, so respected, his contracts carried no moral clause. Trumbo was one of “The Hollywood Ten,” a man whose eloquence equaled his principles. He steadfastly refused to name names before the HUAC.
We hear from the writer himself, his children, peers. Clips from films spotlight dialogue epitomizing his own character. Court scenes are shudder-inducing. Actors including Donald Sutherland, Liam Neeson, David Strathairn, and Brian Dennehey read from his letters which contribute illuminating highlights.
When Trumbo’s daughter was horribly bullied for his actions, an outraged missive to her school accused the institution of “murder of the mind, heart and soul of a child.” From prison (for contempt of court), he sent his son “Sex Without Guilt” by Albert Ellis and hysterically funny treaties on masturbation. Opinions on Constitutional liberty are impassioned and incisive.
Trumbo eventually created 12 aliases. Juggling multiple projects, he worked secretly for far less money writing everything from Sci-Fi to Oscar winner The Brave One. “A symbol of national disgrace, this small, worthless statuette is covered with the blood of my friends,” he later remarked. In 1960, producer Kirk Douglas credited the screenwriter with his film, Spartacus. Otto Preminger’s Exodus followed. For Trumbo, the chain was broken. Beautifully produced and moving. Free on Amazon Prime.
Trumbo 2015 based on the biography Dalton Trumbo by Bruce Alexander Cook. Directed by Jay Roach. A dramatization of Trumbo’s survival tactics while being persecuted by the HUAC. With Brian Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, John Goodman, Michael Stuhlbarg. This makes the story personal/relatable, but not so much as the documentary. Buy on Amazon Prime.
August Wilson: The Ground on Which I Stand 2015 Directed by Sam Pollard. August Wilson was a poet/playwright who manifests “the frustration and glory of being black through the lives of ordinary people.” His amazing ten play cycle (written over 20 years) garnered two Pulitzer Prizes and a Tony Award. Though Wilson grew up in a mixed Pittsburgh neighborhood, there was a note on his school desk every day saying “Nigger go home.” When a teacher didn’t believe he’d written a paper, he never went back to school, secretly spending the next five years at the library during academic hours. Before he found his dramatic voice, Wilson wrote poetry.
His second play, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, took its author to The Eugene O’Neill National Playwright’s Conference. “I think the blues is the best literature the blacks have created.” Reaction paved the way to Broadway. Fences was next, then Joe Turner’s Come and Gone whose boarding house derived from a Romare Bearden painting. The work is powerful and despite color, universal.
It’s pointed out that though he championed black theater, at one point even suggesting black actors should only work with black playwrights, all Wilson’s plays opened on The Great White Way. A solid introduction to an accomplished and iconoclastic writer. Free with Amazon Prime.
Arthur Miller: Writer 2018 Written and directed by Rebecca Miller. Arguably one of our iconic playwrights, Arthur Miller would never have given another filmmaker the kind of access he allowed his clearly beloved daughter over 20 years of intermittent recording. Between family films, her chronicling, and news coverage, this is as visually specific as it is candid. We notably hear from director Mike Nichols and playwright Tony Kushner, Miller’s siblings, a son (Rebecca’s stepbrother), and wife, photographer Inge Morath.
There’s film on first marriage to Mary Slattery, second to Marilyn Monroe, “the saddest girl I ever met,” and love letters to both. Excerpts of tracked plays are shown sometimes with recordings of actors. Inspired by an Ohio newspaper article, All My Sons emerged directly after the war. “There were a lot of crooks, selfish people who didn’t care if we won or lost.” Death of a Salesman, initially titled The Inside of His Head, was based on an uncle “who would sweep you away with imaginary situations…I see tragedy as a forward motion.” Miller barely notes father/son parallels to his own life.
Antagonistically facing the HUAC (which left him alone until he married newsworthy Monroe) evoked The Crucible about Salem’s witch trials. “You may not feel guilty of what you’re charged, but you feel guilty about something.” During rehearsals for the sexually charged A View from the Bridge, Miller would pass a billboard of Marilyn Monroe from The Seven Year Itch. Having met the actress five years prior, he now wrote to her. “She seemed utterly honest, without guile or expectation. It disguised repression and insecurity caused by abuse and abandonment…I was always trying to buck her up.”
The difficult Misfits shoot happened while the couple were separating. Though professional failures are mentioned, personal ones are diminished. To Rebecca, her father was upbeat, even “jokey,” supportive/loving. HBO Trial through Amazon Prime or Rent on Amazon Prime.
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