I’m more upset about Nora Ephron’s death than I thought I’d be. Though several friends of mine had worked with her and still another knew her well, we had only one brief phone conversation 8 years ago about box office grosses. Since I had started the weekly column on the subject at Variety in the eighties, a mutual friend told her I’d be the perfect person to speak to when she wondered what the opening weekend would be on another friend’s new film. She was funny, smart and extremely quick, so much so that when I threw out an outrageously high number of what I thought the film would do opening day, she assumed I meant the number was for the entire weekend and still pooh-poohed it as being too high. Never mind that MY number turned out to be right. Through the sheer verve of her smarts, personality and perhaps reputation, I suddenly found myself going along with her. I mean, she was right about so many things. I didn’t want to look as dumb as she implied my prediction was. I sense this happened a lot.
I regret not speaking my mind and proving her wrong because I also suspect, from what I know from others, that she would have called me up with a new found respect and we might have become friends, acquaintances or perhaps just shared a few recipes. Which is a cool fantasy for me since as a young writer Ephron was one of the top 10 people I actually read and admired.
Yeah, not Shakespeare or Proust, I’m sorry to say. It was her pieces in Esquire and The New York Post and The New Yorker, many of which were in Crazy Salad and Scribble, Scribble, her collections of new journalism that I devoured. Ephron wrote in a funny, sarcastic way that influenced me and that I find I often reference (borrow from?) as I write my blog. No – she wasn’t JD Salinger or William Styron or even Edward Albee or Tennessee Williams – some of my other favorites. In fact, not even close.
But nor should she have been. What she learned early on was the secret to being a good writer – being yourself. Or well, at least a cleaned up, more articulate and fun version of yourself. The idealized version that you wouldn’t be in phone conversations where you find yourself easily intimidated by people more famous or successful than you. Truth is, if my Nora encounter were in one of my screenplays or blogs, or even in one of Nora’s, the story wouldn’t end there. There would be a follow up conversation where I could correct the past and be, if not right, then at least righted. In someone’s eyes. Which is what makes a satisfying story in many circles.
There is certainly a case to be made for lost opportunities too. Though that is not the world Nora trafficked in. Not by a long shot. Her best movies as writer-director — like “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Julie & Julia”– both have happy endings, believable in the worlds she creates for them onscreen despite whether you choose to believe them or not. They’re fantasy – or to put it another way – “pushed reality.” And if you want to dismiss it as pap and claptrap you can. But, uh, take a few months or a year or two and try to do it well – or as well as she did when she was at her best – and then get back to me. I suspect when and if you do, it might be with some newfound respect.
It’s not so easy to render the convincingly happy ending, especially in only slightly exaggerated looks at contemporary life. Costume dramas let you hide behind lots of pomp and grandeur. Fantasy and action stories allow you to use cool weapons and mythical heroes. In romantic comedy life – or The Village of RomCom – it’s just words, actions and the occasional musical montage – the latter being something that is almost an automatic negative for any movie since the cynical turn of the new century. Especially when it’s being played out to a sort of heavy-handed musical soundtrack of our lives, it’s not hip, cool or even commercially pleasing anymore to be too emotional, cheerful or nasty. Or worse, too sentimental about your world or anything you do or try to achieve in it.
Which brings us to Aaron Sorkin and his new HBO show “The Newsroom.” This excellent new series gives us a behind-the-scenes look at an imaginary cable news station and has received a plethora of mixed to negative reviews for, in essence, being imaginary. As if the fictional dramatization of anything does not exist in some pushed version of the reality of what it is. Aaron Sorkin, like Nora Ephron before him, particularly specializes in this.
And Aaron Sorkin, not unlike Nora Ephron, is being skewered for it. His characters are a little too idealistic or exist slightly out of the parameters of a real life newsroom, say some critics (Did they watch “The West Wing?”). Others find them too verbose, preachy or sanctimonious (You mean like some of the actual media critics whose task it is to now review
themselves the characters they complain about?). And a third group doesn’t like the show’s mix of comedy and drama, as if THAT isn’t the tone of real life in almost every household/newsroom across the country.
The NY Times review is as good as any to speak for the entire Fourth estate. In her critique, TV critic Alessandra Stanley was particularly annoyed at the lead female character’s pronouncement when speaking in defense of good journalism rather than the bad kind we’re used to. “Wrong information can lead to calamitous decisions that clobber any attempts at rigorous debate,” said “Newsroom”’s fictional female executive producer, a statement Stanley noted was something akin to a “high school commencement address.” Well, her critique might be true if one ignored the last decade of life in the United States, the entire history of the war in Iraq and the current world and political climate we all live in right now.
I realize this might seem a bit partisan and the NY Times is free to take me to task on it. But unfortunately, we do live in a partisan world where much of the public is misinformed on many issues. Depending on your views, this might have something to do with the corporate ownership of television stations; the passivity of the electorate; or the fact that most Americans are struggling a bit too much and spend more time living out the events of the news than indulging in the luxury of sitting back and arguing/analyzing the nuances of such. Still, no matter what sides of the many sided fence any of us fall on, certainly these are issues worthy of something other than the rating of a valedictory speech at an American high school. Which, by the way, is not always as simplistic as the NY Times would have one believe. Check out this high school graduation speech by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow when she spoke as the smartest kid in her high school graduation class:
So — for enabling me to embed the Maddow video – but mostly for using its wit, intelligence and courage to wear its heart on its sleeve, the Charimeter gives “The Newsroom” it’s highest rating:
Oh – and lest you think I’m one of those crazed Sorkinites who think A.S. can do no wrong – know that although I am a bit of a cable news addict, I was not a rabid “West Wing” fan. It was well written but I enjoyed Sorkin’s “American President” much more. Just as I am certainly not a proponent of all things Nora. I could take or leave “When Harry Met Sally” (and I haven’t even mentioned “Mixed Nuts” and “Michael!”) yet found “Sleepless in Seattle” to be a thoroughly charming film and “Julie and Julia” to be exactly who I wanted Julia Child to really be.
But the fact is, these are no more a depiction of real life than that of the vampires on “True Blood.” All are more what you would want real life to be in idealized worlds where the right lovers who seemed destined to be together inevitably get together; celebrities are as funny and warm in the flesh as their onscreen personas; and vampires live openly (and sometimes even lovingly) among humans in small town America.
Or, in the case of “The Newsroom,” where the people who work in news speak with awe, gravitas, and even a bit of pretentious nobility – really believing they can make a difference with the mere task of telling the rest of their fellow humans the truth about what’s going on inside the world we all travel in.
On a random day, where the big news stories are the breakup of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes’ marriage and who will replace Ann Curry on NBC’s “Today” (that’s the same Ann Curry who’s been criticized for being an overly sincere reporter rather than enough of a plucky, cynical TV personality), striving for something closer to our ideals doesn’t seem so wrong-headed to me. It simply seems necessary.