Thursday, March 7, 2019

HEARTBURN and the Rise of Nora Ephron

by Robyn Buckley and Lexy Van Dyke
Robyn and Lexy look at an early work from a major voice.

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?
Lexy: To me, Ephron's strongest quality is working with the actors, and the further delineation through the script, to create drawn out backstories within the usually limited 90 minute time constraint. In this film, it is particularly strong due to the powerful leads and the autobiographical nature of the story. I enjoy the raw nature of its characters here because it feels unique in showing the complete cycle of a relationship. When it comes to romance in movies, we usually see the tension in guessing whether two people will get together and the story ends there. Here, we see the sensibility of falling out love and the toll it takes on its female character. I completely agree that the connective tissue of the film feels like a setup for the downfall of the main two characters. It feels like a filmed play, which can usually be Nichols' strong suit, but falls flat when placed against the pragmatic narrative.

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?
Lexy: Those are both honestly my second choices. Lily Tomlin and Bill Murray never got a chance to flex their dramatic muscles as much until they were a bit older. Diving into these characters' experiences would have allowed them to broaden their portfolios moving forward. I would choose Goldie Hawn and Elliot Gould. Goldie Hawn is my number one of all time, and I think tackling this script may have finally earned her a little gold man. She was overtly typecast as the sexy, funny girl and here she would be able to show her grit. Nicholson is slightly repetitive to me as the charming cad here. I find Elliot Gould to be "personality sexy" where you are drawn in the more you talk to him, and I feel that would work really well while playing a journalist here, although this story does hinge more on the Rachel character and she really has to sell it. Do you see Rachel as a character with a "likability" problem or do you see her as a well-rounded character? Also, would you want to see more of Mark's point of view in relation to their breakup?

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.
Lexy: If you are someone who enjoys watching the psychology of people and relationships, I definitely recommend it. I almost think reading the script would be a better exercise when it comes to gaining knowledge about dialogue and creating realistic banter for the characters. This may be the one I recommend reading over watching -- although I did enjoy the film, I think because it's a film my personal proclivities are prone to. I appreciate you watching it with me and discussing it! Happy 1986 week!

Robyn: Thanks for watching with me. I think this is the start of a beautiful writing friendship! Happy 1986 week to all our readers!

1 comment:

  1. You cannot see why she would fall in love with Mark? C'mon...women have all fallen for the bad guy! The minute she heard he was "famous for being famous...very famous" you could tell that bit of information only attracted her more! I thought Meryl did an excellent job (as always) of showing exactly what she's feeling (or her character is feeling) with nothing more than a look - or even a blank look, which still conveys something. I too like the psycholological study here. If I wanted a full comedy, I would watch something else. But this was never supposed to be just a comedy. It was meant to show a full range of emotions that real life relationships encompass; which it nailed. If I wanted to see an idiot comedy about relationships, I'd seek out George Costanza! This was not that - this was a smart and touching movie with heart.