What I'm Reading

August 4, 2009

Filed under: Uncategorized — ajdoesdc @ 9:39 pm
August 2, 2009

Full Stomachs, and Full Marriages Too

By BROOKS BARNES

LOS ANGELES

NORA EPHRON is nothing if not direct. Just try to tiptoe around asking this question: Could she have written and directed a movie like “Julie & Julia,” which celebrates marriage as gloriously fulfilling, if she hadn’t managed to, um, find happiness in her personal life after, well, “Heartburn,” which she based on her infamously awful second marriage?

Silence.

“Living alone in misery, would I have made this movie?” Ms. Ephron, 68, said. “Is that what you’re asking? I happen to love my marriage” — she’s been married to the writer Nicholas Pileggi for 22 years — “and you hope that you make movies that feel personal to you. But there is nothing autobiographical here. I could practically footnote every scene.”

Mike Nichols, who directed “Heartburn” and counts Ms. Ephron as a close friend, doesn’t buy it. “Nora is stronger, funnier, sexier than ever,” he said. “You do feel like this movie is plugged into the life she’s living.”

“Julie & Julia,” set for release on Friday, is the story of two lost women who find a professional purpose through food. Julia Child (Meryl Streep) is living in 1940s Paris, trying to figure out what to do with her life while her husband serves as a foreign diplomat. She decides to go to cooking school and write a cookbook.

Flash to the present, where a downtrodden cubicle inmate named Julie Powell (Amy Adams) decides to prepare all 524 of the often daunting recipes in said cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and blog about it. (A chicken fricassee recipe described as “not difficult” has about 30 steps.) Ms. Ephron, a foodie from way back (one of her signature dishes is “spaghetti with sand,” or bread crumbs), adapted the film from “My Life in France,” Child’s posthumously published autobiography, and Ms. Powell’s blogging memoir, “Julie & Julia.”

The film is food porn. (Seriously, don’t come hungry.) And Ms. Streep’s performance as the vowel-elongating chef will probably earn her another bushel of accolades and give Ms. Ephron her first hit movie in more than a decade. But it is the film’s depiction of marriage — particularly the union of Julia and Paul Child — that has sparked chatter among people after screenings. Several aspects of the matrimonial portrait are astonishing, at least for a Hollywood movie. For starters, there’s the sex: the old married folks have it.

The middle-aged Julia and Paul (Stanley Tucci) are depicted, apparently accurately, as acutely libidinous. The strapping (6 foot 2) wife and her (shorter) husband have sex in the afternoon, with a cackling Julia ripping off Paul’s suspenders. In another scene, they photograph themselves naked in a bubble bath and use the picture as a Valentine’s Day card.

“I don’t know why everybody is so surprised,” Ms. Streep said. “I guess people don’t attach sexuality to people who look like their parents.”

She thought for a minute and then laughed. “Oh, fine. I suppose they probably don’t attach sexuality to Julia Child, either.” (Dan Aykroyd famously parodied her lack of femininity in a “Saturday Night Live” skit, parts of which Ms. Ephron includes in her film.)

Hollywood movies about vibrant marriages are rare. There is “The Thin Man” (whose main characters, it should be noted, are Nick and Nora). But most often film unions are dreary and painful, a chore that must be slogged through en route to the real story line: divorce or an affair. Enter “marriage” as a keyword on the Internet Movie Database (imdb.com) and the results are almost uniformly negative: “unhappy-marriage” (150 titles), “forced-marriage” (140 titles), “marriage-as-hell” (37 titles).

But happy, relaxed, rolling-along-together marriage? “It’s like spotting a unicorn,” Ms. Ephron said.

Theories abound as to why. Jeanine D. Basinger, chairwoman of the film studies department at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, noted that male directors, producers and studio chiefs have always called most of the shots in Hollywood. “Men are just not as likely to care about that kind of story,” said Ms. Basinger, who is writing a book about the depiction of marriage on screen.

Scott Rudin (“No Country for Old Men,” “Doubt”), an executive producer of “Julie & Julia,” said the answer wasn’t a mystery. “Conflict is immediately captivating,” he said. “Happy is harder.”

Each husband in “Julie & Julia” takes pleasure in supporting his mate’s commitment and ambition. Paul Child snaps pictures of his wife’s cooking for her book. Julie Powell’s husband, Eric (Chris Messina), encourages the blogging idea, even pushing her to keep going after her obsession with it starts to wear on him.

But the relationships aren’t idyllic, Mr. Rudin noted. “That’s what makes it feel real,” he said. The modern couple struggles with money and fights over Julie’s occasional self-involvement (although there is no mention of an affair she had after the publication of the book). Children are a painful topic to the Childs. In one scene Julia has a moment of despair — briefly — when her sister becomes pregnant.

“I actually see this movie as a how-to manual on marriage,” said Ms. Basinger, who saw an early screening.

Fairly or not, Ms. Ephron is still associated with matrimonial bitterness, something that has bubbled to the surface again with “Julie & Julia” in part because Ms. Streep also starred in “Heartburn.” That 1986 movie, adapted from Ms. Ephron’s novel, was a thinly disguised version of her marriage to the journalist Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame, which ended when she discovered him cheating on her while she was pregnant.

“Heartburn” was her revenge. Mr. Bernstein tried (and failed) to influence how he came across in it. “An undertaste so nasty you could be puckered for a month afterward,” Sheila Benson, the film critic for The Los Angeles Times, wrote of the movie. (One line from the film: “Marriage never works. You know what works? Divorce.” Another: “You want monogamy, marry a swan.”)

Romance, of course, has flowed through her subsequent work — “When Harry Met Sally,” “Sleepless in Seattle” — but those movies were about finding a flame, not learning how to keep one going. What changed?

Ms. Ephron, a former newspaper and magazine reporter, said she was merely working with different facts in “Julie & Julia.” But people around her think the depiction has a lot to do with her own relationship with Mr. Pileggi, who wrote the books on which “Goodfellas” and “Casino” are based. (He wrote the screenplays with Martin Scorsese.)

“I’m always amazed at how excited each of them is to see the other and how they have managed to remain both interesting and interested,” said Laurence Mark, a producer of the movie. “It’s certainly one of the most successful marriages that I’ve ever seen.”

Ms. Ephron’s last hit movie, “You’ve Got Mail,” came more than 10 years ago. In the interim there have been the disappointing “Hanging Up,” which Diane Keaton directed from a screenplay Ms. Ephron wrote with her sister Delia Ephron, and “Bewitched,” which was an unmitigated disaster.

A low budget of about $40 million will help the new film’s chances for financial success. And in many ways the film (which includes an appearance by Amanda Hesser, a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine, and an uncredited appearance as an extra by Frank Bruni, the paper’s departing restaurant critic) is built as the chick flick to end all chick flicks: Ms. Ephron dishing out romance the way her fans like it, Ms. Streep in another bravura performance, mouthwatering food, an uplifting theme, bits of “Sex and the City” Manhattan.

“What more could you want?” asked Amy Pascal, the co-chairwoman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, who sought out Ms. Ephron to direct the film. “Fans are going to see this as the essential Nora Ephron movie.”

Hurdles certainly exist. Food movies are a difficult sell. Despite Ms. Ephron’s best effort to make the husbands fully formed, a lot of men will stick fondue forks in their eyes before they buy a ticket. And the flip-flopping between the story lines may dent critical reviews. A recent New Yorker profile of Ms. Ephron predicted that audiences would “resent” Ms. Adams for taking screen time away from Ms. Streep, something that seemed to rankle the filmmakers. “I don’t believe it,” Ms. Ephron said curtly. Ms. Pascal also dismissed the criticism. “It works perfectly as two stories,” she said.

Ms. Basinger, the film studies professor, is unconvinced. “I’m trying to think of a way to be tactful about that dichotomy,” she said. Instead she switched the subject back to marriage, cooing that it will be why “Julie & Julia” goes down in the cinematic history books. And she was certain that Ms. Ephron’s personal life was the film’s secret ingredient.

“Those relationships just feel so honest,” she said. “I think they could only have been put on-screen by somebody who understands the delights of a really terrific marriage.”

Told of this, Ms. Ephron laughed. “I can’t wait to get off the phone and tell that to Nick,” she said.

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