The reigning voice of romantic comedies in the '90s, one of Nora Ephron's first films was based on her own romantic drama in real life. Directed by Mike Nichols and starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, Heartburn shows a woman's perspective on the full running course of a relationship, from falling in love with a rakish man to the marriage that seems to change him to the complete breakdown and independence of herself from this coupling. Finding the humor in real life while exposing her true experiences to the world, in Heartburn we see a taste of Ephron's future as a leading talent in cinema.
Lexy: Growing up on a steady diet of Ephron's work as a '90s/early '00s kid, this was the only film of hers I had not seen until recently. As it was based on her own experience, coupled with Mike Nichols' more natural style, this film feels less glossy and more lived in than her later works. What is a striking difference to you between Ephron’s later work and a piece like Heartburn?
Robyn: Heartburn plays like a series of vignettes encompassing all of the ugliness, and occasional beauty, of a dysfunctional marriage. I find that Ephron’s films often have this disjointed quality to them - as if they are made of strong individual scenes, but weaker connective tissue. It came across much more starkly to me in Heartburn due to the lack of glossiness and the directing style. I found myself thinking scene to scene that the story would work well as a play with a two-person cast, with parts working through the rise, plateau, and inevitable breakdown of their marriage. This would make for an interesting acting experiment, but I can’t say that as a viewer I was kept captivated by Heartburn. I think that I may need the gloss of Ephron’s future movies to truly enjoy her work. Heartburn felt too autobiographical, too close to the subject to work as entertainment. Did Heartburn work as a complete movie for you or did you find yourself picking and choosing pieces?
Ephron and Nichols are trying for some kind of levity such as with the robbery scene, but it doesn't strike the humorous chord they were intending -- almost like a modern Oscar Wilde play wiped of its comedic tilt. Streep and Nicholson definitely nail their chemistry and the struggle of an unsuccessful relationship. But if you had more comedic-leaning actors in the leads, they might be able to create a more dynamic overall story within its manneristic restraints. Indulge me a bit here: if you could recast the two leads with people who could draw more satire out of the script, who would you choose and why?
Robyn: I'm awful at this game. There are too many choices! I'm going to cheat and say that the actors (even if older now) will be the same age as the characters in my fantasy casting. With that caveat, I'm going with Bill Murray and Lily Tomlin. They both can play comedy as well as drama, and they have a biting quality that would play well with this material. I agree with you that if the satire and humor had been brought more to the forefront, that I would have had an easier time with Heartburn. But maybe that's the point -- that even with the trappings of humor, the dissolution of a relationship is always difficult. What about you? Do you have a particular cast in mind?
Robyn: I find Rachel to be a likable yet flawed lead. We need to see her as sympathetic, and I think that Heartburn is able to pull that feat off. She's made of sharp edges but is also loving to her friends and devoted to her children. I think my main issue with the film is that Jack Nicholson doesn't work for me. He's a fantastic actor, but I never really understood based on how his character acted in early scenes why Rachel would fall in love with Mark. I don't know if we are meant to see Mark's point of view of their relationship, as this was written by Ephron and is her story. I feel like if we saw from his perspective, it wouldn't be the story that she wanted to tell. I knew going into Heartburn that the film was heading towards the relationship ending, but it never managed to get me on board for why anything started in the first place. Even from what should have been the "honeymoon" stage of their relationship, they barely seemed to tolerate one another. Would you recommend others watch this movie? I am on the fence; on the one hand, viewers get to watch a Nora Ephron and see a good Meryl Streep performance. On the other, there are better of both out there.
Robyn: Thanks for watching with me. I think this is the start of a beautiful writing friendship! Happy 1986 week to all our readers!