IT is no mean achievement to write yourself into Hollywood legend, to craft a line that people, frankly, give a damn about, words that make them feel they're not in Kansas any more but somewhere different and special.
So here's looking at you, Nora Ephron, for a seismic line in a certain delicatessen scene in When Harry Met Sally– "I'll have what she's having".
Ephron, who died this week, was a journalist who turned to writing and directing films in which recognisable women did and said understandable things, some funny, some smart, some embarrassing, but always authentic. In doing so, as could be seen from the reaction to her passing this week, she became a Hollywood heroine to many. Ephron didn't take a sledgehammer to Hollywood's glass ceiling, it is true, but she had a heck of a good go at it with her pen.
That she was able to have such an impact in a business where to be female is to be seen as second class from the off was remarkable. Women make up half the customers of the entertainment industry, but women filmmakers get a fraction of the chances, and the money, going around. It is one of the uglier sides to a business that revolves around looks that the prettier the person, the less seriously they are taken.
I know, your nose bleeds for them. What a curse it must be to be a Hollywood actress. To earn obscene amounts of money for playing dress up and make believe. To flit from a mansion in the Hollywood hills to a seven-star hotel, to be given every comfort imaginable as you wend a weary way from one luxury trailer to the other. Why there isn't a dedicated UN ambassador for these poor souls is a mystery.
Yet we live in a screen-dominated, image-driven culture. While one would prefer youngsters to look to science or politics or business for their heroines, chances are the folk who figure largest in their lives, apart from friends and family, are those who inhabit the big and small screens. When it comes to shaping opinions, the entertainment industry has a huge and ever-increasing impact. You don't have to be a Tea Party ranter or a distant heir to Mary Whitehouse to appreciate that what the entertainment industry sells, youngsters buy. And if they punt images of women that are at best flippant and at worst insulting, we should all – fathers, mothers, sisters, cousins, Auntie Tomasina Cobley and all – have a problem with that.
Ephron once said that most of us live our lives devoid of cinematic moments. Her skill lay in making basic human experiences – falling in love, falling out of love – seem at once ordinary and extraordinary. She began her movie career, however, with Silkwood, a true story about a nuclear power plant worker, played by Meryl Streep, who wants to turn whistleblower. One can only imagine how a pitch for that one would go down today. Nuclear power? Cover-ups? Can't we get some pole-dancing scenes in there somewhere?
After Silkwood, Ephron became best known for romantic comedies, a field well ploughed by women writers before and since. Her skill lay in dissecting love in a scalpel-sharp, but attractive, manner. When Harry Met Sally was near-revolutionary in its premise. Men and women can't be friends, Harry told Sally, because the sex part always gets in the way. From that beginning, Ephron spun a tale that was funny, intelligent and bold and hit the spot with many women and men.
Ephron might have written and directed seemingly frothy material but she was no twinkly-eyed ingenue about relationships. She was married three times, once to the investigative reporter Carl Bernstein. The novel that stemmed from the Bernstein years, Heartburn, later turned into a film (again with Streep), is a howl of wifely and motherly anguish punctuated by ace one-liners.
Streep was a favourite of Ephron's because she was that rarity in Hollywood, a strong woman who would brook no nonsense unless she was up for it. You might see La Streep in dungarees in Mamma Mia, but you will never catch her half-dressed and single-brain-celled in any film.
If progress in the entertainment industry didn't happen at such a glacial speed, women like Ephron and Streep would be everywhere in Hollywood by now. Yet it remains a fact that women in power in La-La Land are a tiny minority, at least visibly. There are plenty of women producers working hard behind the scenes, juggling their three Blackberrys and spreadsheets, but front of camera, and where it really matters, women remain as rare as five-star reviews for Adam Sandler comedies.
It took until 2010 – more than eight decades after the talkies began – for a woman to win a best-director Oscar. When Kathryn Bigelow did it with The Hurt Locker, the fuss was such that anyone would have thought a Dover sole had won the Tour de France. Immediately, those tired old questions started: what took the industry so long, why weren't there more women directors? As ever, the answer lay in the numbers. If Bigelow had made Avatar (world-wide gross $2.7 billion) instead of The Hurt Locker ($49 million) there would be more women directors working in Hollywood now than there are preternaturally handsome waiters. Bigelow won the best director Academy Award and the respect; her ex-husband took home the bigger pay cheque.
Odd that women should be so powerless in an industry that has made so much money from strong women, from Katharine Hepburn to Charlize Theron. But until women start to write and direct money-making blockbusters they will be consigned to second-tier roles behind the camera and mostly fluff in front of it.
Besides being a writer, director and producer, Ephron knew the importance of being an insider too, whether it was in Washington or Los Angeles. She understood the politics behind getting a film made. She used her life for material, certainly, but she didn't write miserylit about it, or dreary scripts about being a wronged woman.
She did that most difficult thing, making an audience laugh. Crucially, when it came to her career, she wrote the script herself. She understood that to be a player you had to be in the game, to earn success rather than do it the good girl way by waiting around for someone to hand it to you. Want what she had? Today's female filmmakers should look and learn.
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