Nora Ephron died this week. I was devastated when I read the news. She spoke for me. What she wrote rang true. And her style of writing—as if she were speaking to me, right here with me—was what I wanted so much to emulate but never quite captured.
She was funny, witty, and wise, and she was always honest. She was a keen observer of human foibles, her own as well as those of others. She had the courage to bare her own warts and make them funny. By making us laugh, she helped us to accept the things we most worry about but rarely discuss. She was opinionated, and if she didn’t like what she saw, she used her wit as a razor to slice through artifice. She was smart and quick—words never seemed to fail her. Ephron wasn’t afraid to take on the unmentionable. Forty years ago, she wrote in a men’s magazine about the embarrassment her small breasts caused her. “A Few Words About Breasts” became a classic. Nobody before her had written about deeply personal issues.
“I’ll have what she’s having”—it’s one of the best-known lines from any movie—and many of her readers would say that about Ephron’s life and career. She began as a journalist, wrote essays for The New Yorker, op-eds for The Times, screenplays, novels, and plays. She became a successful movie director, a rare feat for a woman. Mike Nichols said that what made her so good was her people skills. She’s a hard act to follow. She raised the bar very high.
Ephron embodied the duality of aging: She could look back and feel good about her many accomplishments, all the while coping with bagging and sagging and all the other affronts and assaults on her aging body. In I Feel Bad About My Neck, she commented, “You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is, but you wouldn’t if it had a neck.” So she kept hers covered. I never saw her without a turtleneck or a scarf. She made no bones about her vanity. Despite loving food and being an excellent cook, she ate very sparingly and maintained her trim figure (below the neck, of course).
She made us laugh at the many small challenges—indignities, really—of aging. And so she wrote I Remember Nothing. But was she laughing with us?
I am living in the Google years, no question of that. And there are advantages to it. When you forget something, you can whip out your iPhone and go to Google. The Senior Moment has become the Google moment, and it has a much nicer, hipper, younger, more contemporary sound, doesn’t it? By handling the obligations of the search mechanism, you almost prove you can keep up. You can delude yourself that no one at the table thinks of you as a geezer. And finding the missing bit is so quick. There’s none of the nightmare of the true Senior Moment— the long search for the answer, the guessing, the self-recrimination, the head-slapping mystification, the frustrated finger-snapping. You just go to Google and retrieve it.
Ephron refused to be a victim, and I’m sure that’s why no one but her family knew she was fatally ill. When she published I Remember Nothing, four years after receiving the diagnosis of leukemia, she had to know that she was dying. Now, in retrospect I admire and respect her even more. She clearly didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. She didn’t.
But I didn’t know she had leukemia, I didn’t know she was sick, so the news of her death was a bombshell.
I did know this: She understood the value of coming to terms with the inevitable. “You do get to a certain point in life where you have to realistically, I think, understand that the days are getting shorter, and you can’t put things off thinking you’ll get to them someday,” she told National Public Radio in November 2010. “If you really want to do them, you better do them. There are simply too many people getting sick, and sooner or later you will. So I’m very much a believer in knowing what it is that you love doing so you can do a great deal of it.”
Good advice at any age.
Follow Diane Vacca at dianevacca.wordpress.com
We wondered how our favorite chef-writer, Ro Howe—chef-owner of Barraud Caterers, Ltd., in New York City—would view this new collection of authentic Mad Men–era recipes. “A true abomination,” she calls the brown sauce in a 1960s White House recipe for Beef Wellington. But to our surprise, she found the book “serious fun.” —Ed.
The cover says it all, with its image of a classic 4- to 5-ounce martini, straight up, with two olives. This is The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook: Inside the Kitchens, Bars, and Restaurants of Mad Men, by Judy Gelman and Peter Zheutlin (BenBella Books, Inc., $11.32). And it turns out to be a delightful evocation of nostalgia-Americana—like the television series itself, which uses food/dining/drinking as cultural props that highlight the ambiance and mores of America in the sixties.
Like a normal cookery book, The Unofficial Mad Men Cookbook is divided into useful sections. First (and foremost!) come drinks. Then come apps, salads, mains, and desserts—recipes gleaned from the bars, restaurants, magazines, and cookbooks of the early sixties era. All of these sources were celebrating the first blush of flush after the relative deprivations of the decade and a half after WW II. Trade, commerce, and their important partner, advertising, were the new battlefields. All of them required entertaining and networking, so corporate America rose to the occasion by having meetings in the natural gathering-places: bars, restaurants, clubs, and private homes.
Mad Men has done a wonderful job of spotlighting the erstwhile hot watering holes and dining establishments (some still extant), and this book presents their recipes: the could-not-be-omitted Oak Bar’s Manhattan; Grand Central Oyster Bar’s Oysters Rockefeller; Keens Caesar Salad. And, cleverly knitting the fictional characters into the skein of the book, it gives us Jerry’s Deviled Eggs; Betty’s Turkey Tetrazzini; Kitty’s Pineapple Upside Down Cake, all adopted from contemporary sources.
It is interesting to note that Americans still eat in the consecutive style epitomized in this era by starting with a salad—the vinegar dressings of which totally annul the grace of wine. Salads still frequently began meals, whereas Europeans eat salad as a palate cleanser after the main course. America came very late to having wine with meals as a matter of course, perhaps because we initiated the cocktail culture. Have you tried having three high-octane cocktails before dinner and then drinking most of a bottle of wine, and following that with a cognac digestif—and did you live to remember it, or not? My point, precisely.
The cocktails are classic and fun. The food recipes are historical hand-me-downs of culinary Americana like Spaghetti and Meatballs with Marinara Sauce and adaptations from classic French and other newfangled “foreign” cuisines: I am sure that Sardi’s Steak Tartare is indeed the restaurant’s genuine recipe, but any serious French bistro would not present the tartare already mixed! French food with un accent Américain! Quelle horreur!! The 1962 gazpacho has the bread served as croutons sprinkled on top, not the authentic mashing of soaked bread with good olive oil to create the emulsion essential to a true gazpacho of any type.
And shall we speak of the industrial boxtop butchers and the food abominators? There are, thankfully, only one or two, like the ubiquitous “add sour cream and stir in packaged dry onion soup mix” that Lipton dubbed California Dip, tasting of chemicals and with enough sodium to pack a heart attack. The recipe for the White House’s Beef Wellington is fine in itself, but the brown sauce accompanying it clearly is a donation from the recipe file of a “chef” who never set foot inside a kitchen and doesn’t have the first clue about constructing the good jus reduction with demi-glace sauce that the original recipes pleads for. A true abomination—thankfully, the only one I found.
The recipes, put together with canned bravado and boxtops, indicate the period’s culinary dearth. However, where recipes from scratch are cited, the ingredients used are fresh and appealing, not manufactured. My favorite drink recipe? The Stork Club Cocktail (above left) with gin, Triple Sec, OJ, lime juice, and Angostura. And food? Definitely Lutèce’s Shrimp in Escargot Butter (above right). They both wear their age well, and are as valid now as they were when Don Draper entertained the Schillings and the Barretts.
I’m left with “How serious is the book?” In culinary terms, not very—but that alone reflects the period accurately. The introductions to each recipe are what make this book for me. The serious fun comes from the research and period detail, as well as detailing the recipes referenced in each episode. That’s fine, because it’s a fun giggle-fad and it’s good for a theme party when you’re spicing up your engagement calendar with your mad men and women friends.
In her last post, Ro Howe, chef-owner of Barraud Caterers, in New York City, looked back at how fashions in food changed dramatically from the recovering postwar fifties to the revolutionary late sixties. She provided a menu of “Mad Men Moderne,” early/mid sixties-style dishes . . . with a bit of updating to suit our 21st-century tastes.
Celery Sticks with Roquefort Mousse and Dried-Cranberry/Walnut Garnish
Yield: Six portions as part of an amuse selection
Measuring spoons and cups
Wire whisk or hand mixer
2 medium bowsl
1 Tbsp. minced dried cranberries
1 tsp finely chopped walnuts
½ tsp sugar
Pinch chili pepper
3 sticks blemish-free celery stems, washed
1 C cream cheese
½ C Roquefort
Combine cranberries, walnuts, sugar, and chili.
Cut celery into 1 ½-inch-long pieces. Shave a thin slice off the bottom curve of the celery to allow them to sit without rolling.
Whip cream cheese and Roquefort until light and mousse-like.
Put into a small Ziploc bag, cut a small hole in one corner, and pipe into the celery.
Garnish with a generous sprinkle of cranberry mixture
Broiled Pineapple With Bacon-Spiced Pork Belly With Roast Pineapple and Lemongrass-Ginger Syrup
Yield: Six portions as part of an amuse selection
Measuring spoons and cups
Ovenproof sauté pan
Small mesh strainer
Half sheet tray
Kitchen propane torch
Chinese or other soupspoons
2 Tbsp. orange zest
2 Tbsp. sugar
1 ½ tsp. ground coriander
1 ½ tsp. ground cardamom seeds
2 tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1# pork belly—whole piece
1 ½ Tbsp. canola oil
4-inch root end piece lemongrass, minced
1 ½ tsp. peeled, minced garlic
1 ½ tsp. minced shallot
1 Tbsp. minced fresh ginger
½ tsp. minced jalapeño
¾ C water
2 Tbsp. fish sauce/nam pla from Asian groceries
1/3 C sugar
1 ½-inch slice peeled, cored pineapple
2 tsp. minced cilantro
For the spice mix, combine the orange zest, sugar, coriander, cardamom, salt, and pepper. Rub liberally all over the pork and store covered in refrigerator over-night.
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees.
Wipe spice rub off the pork with a paper towel.
Heat a small ovenproof sauté pan. Add 1 Tbsp. canola oil. When shimmering, add pork and sear till well caramelized. Turn over and caramelize the other side.
Place pan in oven and cook for eight to ten minutes. Allow to rest.
When cool, slice the pork into small squares.
For the syrup, heat a small saucepan. Add 1 ½ tsp. oil. When shimmering, add lemongrass, garlic, shallot, ginger, and jalapeño and caramelize.
Deglaze pan with water and fish sauce. Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes, making sure evaporation does not occur. If liquid level goes down, add hot water to make up for any loss.
Add sugar and melt.
Strain, return to pan, and reduce to a light syrup.
Cool and reserve.
Place the pineapple on a half sheet tray over a sink and torch until lightly burnt. Turn it over and torch the other side. When cool enough to handle, trim into small pieces.
For service, reheat the pork, place in Chinese soupspoon and drizzle warmed syrup over it. Garnish with a piece of pineapple and a sprinkle of cilantro.
spiced pork belly with roast pineapple – lemongrass-ginger syrup
Chocolate mousse – with spicy caramelized shiitake
Here are recipes suggested by Ro Howe—chef-owner of Barraud Caterers, in New York—as munchables that will give you a meal but still keep you in the living room on Oscar Night. She ends with day-ahead preparation tips. She offered a more extended menu in our previous post.—Ed.
Yield: six portions as part of a grazing cocktail buffet
Measuring cups and spoons
2-inch pastry brush
Cheese grater or Microplane
Medium wire whip
11-inch ovenproof sauté pan
1 small bowl
1 medium bowl
Large, heat-proof rubber spatula
2 large platters
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
1 C chopped onion
2 Tbsp. minced garlic
1⁄4 C extra virgin olive oil
3⁄4 # Cremeni or other mushrooms, brushed clean of soil and chopped
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 tsp. Herbes de Provence, minced
Kosher salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
9 large eggs, beaten
3/4 C grated mixed Gruyère and cheddar
1/4 C chopped flat leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Heat an 11-inch ovenproof sauté pan. Add olive oil. When shimmering, add minced onion. Sauté until the onions are golden—about 3 minutes. Add garlic and sauté another minute. Reserve them in small bowl.
Heat sauté pan again. When shimmering, add chopped mushrooms in two or three batches and sauté over high heat to caramelize them. Return onion, garlic, and mushrooms to the sauté pan and add seasoning, stirring over medium heat.
Whisk eggs well in 10-inch medium bowl. Pour into mushroom pan and stir to disperse evenly.
Sprinkle with cheese.
Cook over medium heat until the bottom is set—about 3 minutes.
Place pan on top shelf of oven. Cook until the eggs are just set—about 10 to 12 minutes. They should have a little jiggle in the middle, which “carry over cooking time” will take care of.
Remove from oven and let sit for five minutes.
Using a heatproof rubber spatula, release the frittata’s edges from the pan. Place a platter upside down on the pan and, using oven mitts, reverse the pan so the plate is on the bottom. Remove the pan. Repeat the procedure with another plate to put the frittata right-side up
Cut into 1 1⁄2-inch squares and sprinkle with parsley.
Serve hot or at room temperature.
Pâté de Campagne, Poached Pear, and Pickle with Dijon-Buttered Toast
This is a simple put-together dish, but be sure to buy good-quality pâté from a good grocery store. I suggest Les Trois Petits Cochons or D’Artagnan
Yield: six portions as part of a grazing cocktail buffet
Measuring cups and spoons
Half sheet tray
1 small bowl
Small rubber spatula
1# good-quality Pâte de Campagne
2 seasonal pears
1 1⁄2 C red wine
1 3-inch cinnamon stick
1 piece star anise
¾ C sugar
11⁄2 cornichon pickles, sliced
1 French baguette, sliced 1⁄2-inch straight across
6 Tbsp. sweet butter at room temperature
2 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
For the pears, place wine, sugar, and spices in a small saucepan. Heat to melt the sugar and infuse the spices.
Peel the pears and dice into half-inch pieces.
Gently cook the pears in the red wine until crisp-tender. They must not fall apart. When done, scoop out the pears onto a cold plate to cool. Reduce the red wine until syrupy. Put in a small bowl drizzled with a Tbsp. of syrup.
For the toasts, pre-heat the oven to 325 degrees.
Combine the room-temperature butter and mustard and spread on the toasts. Place the toasts on a half sheet tray and toast in the oven for about 10 minutes until starting to become golden around the edges and becoming crisp in the middle, remembering that they will crisp up as they cool. Place in a small basket or on a platter.
Cut the pâté into thin slices and arrange on a plate. Cover smoothly with plastic wrap until guests arrive, since the pâté will oxidize. Arrange the pickles, pears, and baguette around the plate of pâté, providing small forks and spoons for guests to help themselves to the various components.
Blue Cheese, Apple, and Berry Port Tortillas
Yield: six portions as part of a grazing cocktail buffet
Measuring cups and spoons
Half sheet tray
One small bowl
Small rubber spatula
3 1⁄2-inch round cookie cutter
1⁄2 C good-quality strawberry or raspberry jam
1 tsp. red port
1⁄4 C apple, peeled and diced 1/3-inches
Pinch red-pepper flakes
1⁄2# blue cheese at room temperature
4 large flour tortillas
1/4C olive oil
Combine the jam, port, diced apple, and red-pepper flakes in a bowl.
Cut tortillas into circles with the cookie cutter and store them under a clean tea towel to prevent drying out.
To fill the tortilla, brush the edge with a little water.
Spread the tortillas in the center with the jam mixture.
Dollop a teaspoon of the cheese on top.
Fold over the tortilla so the edges meet and you can pinch the edges to seal. Store covered until ready to fry.
Heat a large sauté pan. Add a drizzle of olive oil. When shimmering, add a few tortillas at a time. When golden brown, turn onto other side. When both sides are cooked, remove to paper towel-lined platter. Continue till all cooked.
Hummus with Radish and Cucumber
Here’s another “shop-well, put-together” dish. If you’re in lower Manhattan, Hoomoos Asli (spelled as it is supposed to be pronounced), on Kenmare & Cleveland Place, makes a really good one.
Yield: six portions as part of a grazing cocktail buffet
2 quarts good-quality hummus, preferably from a Middle Eastern deli-grocery or restaurant.
2 English cucumbers, washed and sliced 1⁄2-inch
2 bunches radishes with tops (not cello bag), washed, tops and tails trimmed, and quartered
Day-Ahead Preparation Tips
As always, go through your recipes, printing them out if possible and modifying them for the number of guests.
Write a comprehensive shopping list, including those non-food items that you’ll need for your event.
Prep the kitchen ahead, clearing counters, emptying garbage, and having recycle bins ready to receive the detritus from the course of the evening.
Have the munchables ready to set out when your guests arrive, along with glasses, napkins, and plates (if you’re planning to use them).
Have the coffee machine and kettle ready to go if you’re planning to offer coffee and tea at the end of the night. This can be a useful tip to nudge the stragglers off home.
It will be a long evening so check the ice compartment in the fridge and buy extra ice if necessary. Calculate one pound of ice per person if you’re serving mixed drinks—less if you’re offering only wine and beer, so long as you have enough room in the fridge to chill them.
Do as much as possible the day or at least the morning ahead. Your job as a host is to be with your guests, not tied up in the kitchen frying tortillas or stuffing and folding crepes—unless, of course, you’re also giving demonstration cooking lessons on the same night!
For Oscar Night, Ro Howe, chef-owner of Barraud Caterers, in New York, offers a menu of munchables that will keep you fixed on the stars, not continually ducking out to the kitchen.—Ed.
No matter what you might think, the Oscars is a sporting event. How else would you describe a marathon of people, cars, animals, and monsters dashing, jumping, gyrating, and spinning across the screen, accompanied by frenzied music and interrupted by the usual overdose of ads selling gratuitous amounts of car-stuff, jewelry-stuff, house-stuff, and food-stuff?
The two-minute hiatuses, interposed between swift-screenings and thanks-mumblings for the awards (supposedly so lights can be reprogrammed and scenery swiveled into a new configuration), are really scheduled so the network can sell you the experience they think you need so you buy the things they’re selling.
This marathon, like other sporting events, poses a problem. How and what can you eat during the evening? A dining room dinner–sprint is neither feasible nor healthy. Putting a TV on the dining table is as urbane as trailer-camping. So what’s left? Greasy chip nibbles in a bag in your lap?
Believe me, I have some far better options! Happily, all of them can be served at room temperature of heated quickly and placed before your guests. Not quite Wimbledon, darling, but then, what is?
Here are some ideas for munchable finger food to savor as you pay attention to the screen—munchables that will not require sitting at a table but will give you a proper meal, as long as you eat them in balanced proportions. Some of these dishes are easy to put together just before the show; others will take you longer to prepare.
Oscar Night Menu
Middle Eastern lamb “piggies” with fruit mustard
Chipotle-cured shrimp Magdalena muffins
Pâte de Campagne, roasted pear, and pickle with Dijon-buttered toast
Blue cheese, apple, and berry-port tortillas
Hummus with radish and cucumber
Lobster Thermidor in chive crêpes
Gingered carrot tart with cardamom buttermilk-cream-cheese mousse and carrot cake crumble
Next: recipes, and some tips on day-of preparation.
A smart, ambitious, young network producer tries to negotiate the fine line between news and entertainment, while struggling to balance her career and her love life. Sound familiar? It should.
Watching the romantic comedy Morning Glory, I was reminded over and over of one of my favorite films from the 1980s. Unfortunately, most often my thought was that the new movie lacked its predecessor’s sharp writing, genuine ethical dilemmas and multidimensional characters.
It’s hard to believe that Broadcast News was released twenty-three years ago. Despite some ill-advised hairdos on Holly Hunter, the movie still holds up remarkably well. The characters are so unique and interesting, the issues so complex, and nearly every line of the dialogue is not just memorable but iconic.
While Morning Glory is a better-than-average bit of entertainment, it just doesn’t fill those very big shoes.
In Morning Glory, the adorable Rachel McAdams plays Becky Fuller, a driven young producer at regional Good Morning, New Jersey. Right away, we know she takes her work oh so seriously — she’s up at 4 a.m., has earned the slavish loyalty of her Garden State colleagues, and is a complete and utter loser where her love life is concerned. Becky dreams of someday landing a plum position with The Today Show. When she is laid off through no fault of her own, she defies her mother’s advice to give up her dream and instead lands a big city job with the self-defined “worst morning show ever,” Daybreak. Becky’s mission? Revive the dwindling ratings and save the show.
Can she do it? Of course. Because that’s the kind of movie this is.
McAdams throws herself into the part of Becky, and the audience roots for her as she struggles to save the show. Despite the trappings of a typical romantic comedy, we never doubt Becky’s intelligence, talent and instinct. At her first production meeting, she is bombarded with story ideas, questions, and complaints from her disgruntled, dysfunctional cast and crew. She not only takes control but fires the arrogant foot-fetishist co-host, earning a round of applause from her appreciative new team.
However, this act of bravado puts Becky in a difficult situation. She has to find a new co-host, stat. Fortunately, the network has a former evening news anchor under contract and available. Unfortunately, said anchor would rather be anywhere else, doing anything else than co-hosting a “fluffy” morning show. And that pretty much sets up the conflict for the next 90 minutes.
Rachel McAdams is joined by Harrison Ford as legendary newscaster Mike Pomeroy. He is in rare form, with a cragged face and more bristle than a porcupine. With pretty much every line he growls, he insults Becky, the network, the show, the audience and most of all his co-host Colleen Peck, a former Miss Arizona played hilariously by Diane Keaton.
Ford and Keaton share some of the movie’s funnier moments, such as their mutual refusal to make the first move when McAdams’ Becky tries to introduce them, or their over-the-top on-air sniping. Ironically, their bickering begins to draw an audience and Becky soon adds attention-grabbing stunts, such as strapping the hapless meteorologist into the world’s fastest roller coaster, and booking sumo wrestlers and exotic animals.
The ratings improve, much to the surprise of the surly network executive (an underutilized Jeff Goldblum), but not a surprise to the audience. Colleen and Mike learn to work together. Serious news and talk show entertainment can co-exist after all. Becky mends her workaholic ways and lands handsome magazine-show producer Patrick Wilson. The Today Show comes a-courtin’ but Becky realizes that her heart is at Daybreak. And they all, we presume, live happily ever after.
Morning Glory is formulaic fun. The cast is quite good, with McAdams proving once again that she’s leading lady material. Young, pretty and sometimes a bit of a ditz, she nevertheless makes you believe in Becky’s genuine abilities. She’s supported by fine character portrayals by Ford, Keaton, Goldblum, Wilson, and smaller though solid performances by Ty Burrell, Matt Malloy, and John Pankow. Directed by Roger Michell—best known for another offbeat romantic comedy, Notting Hill—the movie was written by Aline Brosh McKenna, who scripted The Devil Wears Prada.
If you want to enjoy a couple of hours, by all means go see Morning Glory. But if you’d rather treat yourself to one of Hollywood’s most intelligent modern classics, rent Broadcast News.
Like Becky Fuller, Holly Hunter’s Jane Craig is a driven young producer. (Although like Mike Pomeroy, she worships at the altar of serious reporting.) She, too, struggles with ratings and content and network expectations. And she also wonders if she can ever satisfy her work ambition and her desire for a romantic life.
But Jane’s character needs more than gumption to succeed. She is torn apart by questions of ethics, both on the job and off. She falls in love with a handsome empty suit (William Hurt) even though she has no respect for him. Meanwhile, she respects a brilliant coworker (Albert Brooks) but is aghast when she learns that he loves her.
Jane doesn’t get a happy ending like Becky’s. She can’t “have it all,” as Brooks’ character Aaron points out after she rejects him.
Six years from now, I’ll be back here with my wife and two kids. And I’ll see you, and one of my kids will say, “Daddy, who is that?” And I’ll say it’s not nice to point at single fat women.
I realize that Morning Glory and Broadcast News, despite their shared settings and themes, represent two different genres of film. Morning Glory squarely lands in the romantic comedy category: cute, scrappy heroine takes on a seemingly impossible task, mayhem ensues, she saves the day and gets the guy. Broadcast News, while dealing with romance is more of a “dramedy:” sometimes bitingly funny, but just as often piercing and poignant.
But Morning Glory would have benefited from a bit more depth of character, and a resolution that wasn’t quite so predictable and pat. What saves the day for Becky and company? A frittata. Nothing can save the day for Jane. Her issues are too complicated; the questions she raises are unanswerable.
It’s interesting to think about how each movie examines the value of hard-edged reporting at a time when audiences are looking for escapist entertainment. In Broadcast News, we agree with Jane’s standards about the integrity of the news and applaud her when she walks away from a romance with someone who doesn’t live up to them. In Morning Glory, on the other hand, we watch Becky nip away at Mike’s rigid definition of news and succeed only when he finally surrenders to the public’s appetite for early morning kibitzing and cooking.
Too often, television news audiences want sound bites and easy answers. We don’t want to turn off the TV and have to think about what we’ve heard. This was somewhat true in the ’80s and much more so today. (I can only imagine what Jane would say about so-called “reality TV.”)
If Morning Glory is any indication, movie audiences seemed to have evolved (or devolved, perhaps) in much the same way. We want a nice, neat package, where all conflict is resolved in 90 minutes. And we really want a happy ending for our heroine. But personally, I’d rather leave the theater thinking as well as smiling.
I saw Broadcast News twenty-three years ago and I remember every scene, every major character, and dozens of lines from the script word-for-word. I saw Morning Glory last week. It was a very enjoyable way to spend the afternoon. But in the long run, I’m afraid it will prove to be forgettable fun.
The nominations have been announced and analyzed, and the awards-night hysteria has yet to shift into overdrive. Which makes this a great moment to salute this year’s over-40 female Oscar contenders.
By now, everyone not living on Neptune knows that there’s a woman—a beautiful, 58-year-old woman—in the race for Best Director. And, in a delicious burst of irony, that she’s squaring off against her ex. It’s a plot line straight out of the classic Oscar playbook—critically acclaimed movie underdog going toe to toe against the high-grossing, critically acclaimed, and in this case technologically groundbreaking front-runner, with the marital back-story amping the frisson. On Oscar night, Kathryn Bigelow might just end up brushing past James Cameron on her way to collect a Best Director award for The Hurt Locker, leaving him to console himself with Avatar’s stratospheric global box-office take.
It could happen. And there are plenty of people—including a number of Academy voters—who hope it does. But let’s get real. In the history of the Oscars, Bigelow is only the fourth woman to earn a Best Director nomination, and her predecessors all went home empty-handed. (The last was Sofia Coppola in 2004 for Lost in Translation.) Still, this year’s doubling of the Best Picture pool from five nominees to ten yielded two films directed by women, both in their 50s—Bigelow’s Hurt Locker and An Education by Danish director Lone Scherfig—an Academy Awards first.
It’s not a bad Oscar year for acting, either. Three of the five Best Actress nominees—Sandra Bullock, Helen Mirren, and Meryl Streep—are 45 or older, and one of them could easily win. The same goes for Mo’Nique, who’s widely thought to have a lock on Best Supporting Actress.
It’s perversely gratifying to realize that there are films by over-40 women that didn’t even make it into the nominations, or not very far: gratifying that it now takes more than one hand to count women directors in the film industry, and perverse because, well, why weren’t their films more widely nominated? To name a few: Jane Campion’s Bright Star (nothing more than Best Costume? C’mon)… Nora Ephron’s Julie & Julia (which may yet win one for Meryl)…Anne Fontaine’s Coco Before Chanel (also shut out beyond Best Costume)…and Nancy Meyers’s It’s Complicated. And then there’s Betty Thomas’s Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel—debatable as Oscar material, perhaps, but it did pull in more than $400 million worldwide, almost twice the figure for the original Alvin movie.
So yes, it was a good year for women over 40 in the film industry. And come Oscar night we’ll be rooting for our favorites along with the rest of the world. But the real celebration will come when a great year for older women in Hollywood isn’t the exception, but simply business as usual.
I have been waiting to see Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin, with all their middle-age glory, in a state of postcoital bliss for months now.
I was not disappointed to see the eternal adolescent Jake, played by Alec Baldwin, seducing his former wife, Jane, played by Meryl Streep.
Days before the unexpected sexual encounter, Jane has had a girl talk with her friends and has been admonished to find a sexual partner before the “vagina just closes up and has to be opened with a vaginoplasty.” Her friends are concerned that she seems to have lost her libido.
Loss of libido has been blamed on menopause by almost every woman I have met who has lost her interest in sex in midlife. Many of these women have either had lifelong low sexual interest or have just given up on romance and sex, and either way are no longer willing to put creative energy into life in the bedroom. Of course there are other important issues that have an impact on change in libido. These include unresolved issues in the relationship, the physical changes that affect sexual function in both men and women that just don’t get addressed, emotional and physical illness of either partner, or lack of a partner.
Streep’s character, Jane, was left by Jake 10 years before the film starts, and after the life-draining 40s had taken its toll on their marriage. This was the decade where Jane had to parent adolescent children, manage a home, and continue to pursue her professional and creative passion. This left little time for Jake, a predictable male character with charming narcissism, who always needed to be number one and taken care of. It’s clear that Jake has never had the capacity to be present, or to contribute to the kind of family life that was important to Jane.
In the film, directed by Nancy Meyers, it is by “moving way out of my comfort zone” — with a brief affair with her former husband, who is now unhappily married to someone in the wrong stage of life — that Jane learns all she needed to know, in order to move with certainty into the glorious person she has become. She learns that she loves hot sex, and that she can be not just the reliable one, but the fun girl she was in her 20s, before demands of life grabbed her by the throat and choked the joy out of her.
In a wonderful denouement, Jane recognizes that Jake was a great man for a certain period of her life. She remembers why she loved him for that time, and finds herself now able to accept him with all his flaws while acknowledging her own part in their failed marriage. But most of all, she understands that for a woman in her life stage, he is just the wrong kind of man. Great sex is still possible, but great sex alone won’t be enough.
The hot sex with her ex-husband is the fuel for Jane’s separation from victimhood, for the recognition that she has grown into a person who no longer wants the kind of life he needed and needs, and for the reaffirmation of her still vibrant libido.
This change in Jane allows her to welcome the interest of a new man in her life: an architect who has translated her personal vision — an addition to her home that she has dreamed about for a decade — into more than she thought possible.
By the time we meet her, Jane has been in therapy for almost a decade to deal with issues of abandonment and anger. If psychotherapy were as nuanced and entertaining as this movie, it would not take a decade for the work to be done in the treatment of life’s ordinary transitions and pain: It isn’t all that complicated, after all.
Every once in a while, there comes along an example of creativity that makes you wish you’d never praised one other thing, since so many of the words you might choose in exaltation have been made less by being applied elsewhere. This is such a moment.
An Education is such a film.
There is nothing new here. A naïve high school girl dreams of a sophisticated life outside of the stifling realities that have been her world. She’s 16, smart enough to dream of Oxford and pretty enough to catch the eye of a grifter. She believes that smoke and mirrors are sophistication and reality. There’s a montage of Paris with dancing and wine and romantic music — even the obligatory nuns in habits — to underline the seduction of the Russian roulette that lovers have been playing since the Bible became a bestseller: sex at the possible price of your soul.
Talk of nuns though is enough to remind us that God is in the details. I want to say nothing more about this movie than if you have ever reacted to a painting because it was so perfectly composed as to make you feel the artist knew precisely why we were given eyes, you will understand why you must see this.
The actors with the most screen time (Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard) could retire with fully realized careers after doing this one film, but so-called supporting roles — the extraordinary portrayal by Alfred Molina and the tiny role that is Emma Thompson’s — would be reason enough not to miss it.
It is so simple a story, really, and so complicated a reality—one every single one of us knows. I guarantee you will think about your own education no matter where it took place and even expect you might weep over the gift of having lived long enough to see the tragedy of the ordinary change into the possibilities that have become the everyday. Yes, this adaptation of the virtuoso Nick Hornby’s novel (the screenplay is Hornby’s also) runs deep, but the surface of it is enough to remind you of being a girl even if you were nothing like this one and, even better, to offer you reasons to be grateful that you are a woman here and now.
In Nora Ephron’s film Julie and Julia, there are many treats for the senses: the beautifully presented meals, the baguettes and cheeses, the sights of Paris, the glimpses of the New York City skyline, lovely music, and the overarching presence of butter.
This is not a review (because that can be summed up in two words: must see). This is a note about what happens when a director in her sixties writes and directs a movie, about a young woman questing after the life once led by an older woman.
The older woman emerges in three dimensions. And when that older woman is played by Meryl Streep, she gains a depth beyond the usual scope of that dimension on film. What is most important for us to realize though is that time and again, it is Julia Child—too-tall, awkward, boisterous and unbridled, a virgin until age 40—who emerges as the sensualist.
The younger woman is so trapped in her insecurities, her quest for notice, her need to revise her history of unfinished dreams that she cannot give in to her husband’s kisses, let the soufflé deflate as temperatures rise or even see past the failed dinner to the failing marriage. She can’t see nor feel much beyond her own skin and taste buds, while Julia Child sees and feels every single sight and taste around her. (To be fair, not much more was expected of Julia than to live her passion, while Julie must labor in a cubicle that echoes with the grief of September 11, 2001.)
This movie feels true. In the end it is a movie about tenderness—not the tenderness of the boeuf, though that is there, but the tenderness of a marriage between a devoted husband and his delicious wife who simply loves to eat. We believe the younger couple might get there too, but what is so interesting is that the older couple started there and never lost it. As David Denby observed in the New Yorker, “The miracle of the Childs’ marriage was that food was never the main course. It was more like a perpetual appetizer.”
This film is a triumph of the very real possibility that an older woman can be sexier than a young one. That mature love can steam the windows more often than one barely past the honeymoon. That being maturely in the moment is tastier than wondering when your time will come.
May all of you who haven’t partaken of this delicacy get there soon. Bon Appetit.