Custom Screening: Sleepless in Hollywood

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I was looking out the bathroom window of the cheap Hollywood hotel room I had rented for the week. It was 1 o’clock in the morning and I was struggling to sleep. The sticky Los Angeles heat is inescapable when it lingers in the thin pocket of air between your skin and your clothing. The room looked out onto the back on the Kodak — sorry, Dolby — Theatre and its next-door neighbor, the Chinese Theatre. It was as Hollywood as I could find, and having been one of Hollywood’s most loyal customers for 21 years, I was glad to finally be there.

But all was not well in Tinsel Town. Last week witnessed the passing of one of its finest filmmakers, Nora Ephron. I say she was a Hollywood filmmaker because although her films were as distinct as Julia Child’s warble, and Ephron was as about as much of a New Yorker as you can be before donning square glasses and ranting about pseudo-intellectualism, she remained to the end, a filmmaker who operated within the Hollywood system.

The thing about Nora Ephron’s voice, with that heavy, spicy accent that lingered in the air like the smell of Times Square hot dog vendors, was the way it managed to cut through the layers of Hollywood decadence and reach the cinema audience. Films like “When Harry Met Sally,” though not directed by Ephron herself, are still Nora Ephron movies. With outlandish scenes like Meg Ryan’s café orgasm, how could they not be?

Chatting with some aspirational tour guides at the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, I came to understand that preserving one’s voice in Hollywood is no mean feat. Layering on the cynicism as thick as Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon, they described the petty ins and outs of studio production. Every sitcom is performed in front of studio execs the day before taping to determine conflicts with advertisers. Apparently, this is why sitcom characters always eat Chinese food: because no national Chinese chains advertise on television.

What made Ephron’s voice so unique in Hollywood was not a rebellious contempt for the studio system, but the way she seemed uniquely capable of writing good Hollywood stories, like those of the Golden Age — the period in the ‘30s and ‘40s characterized by the screwball comedies of Howard Hawkes and Frank Capra. Hollywood is in the business of dreams. The sharp, witty observations about life that peppered Ephron’s inoculated us against the artifice central to Hollywood filmmaking. She gave us enough realism to allow us to dream.

The premise of “Sleepless in Seattle” is crazy when you think about it. So, too, is “When Harry Met Sally.” But Harry and Sally’s jaded cynicism is enough to endear them to us equally jaded viewers, who even after a century of Hollywood love stories still come back to the theater looking for a license to believe in unlikely romance. So when Harry makes his final entreat to Sally, “I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible,” we allow the filmmaker the right to dream for us. She takes a scenario we’ve always thought about – the dangerous relationship between friendship and love – and we allow her to play it out in front of us.

Ephron’s final film, “Julie and Julia,” based on the lives of Julie Powell and Julia Child was her most daringly realistic film. At the time it was released, the film was praised for its uniquely realistic take on relationships – quite the opposite of her previous work. Here was a film that, at last, portrayed couples who never fell out of love. There were bumps in Julie and Julia’s relationships, sure, but not the usual knives-at-throats kind. It was audaciously comfortable cinema. It proved you didn’t need aggressive, conflict driven writing to make a good film. Ephron hated being placed with the “woman filmmakers” and never saw herself as such, but there’s the careful, feminine touch to “Julie and Julia” that might just undercut Ephron’s argument.

At 2 o’clock, the throngs on Hollywood Boulevard finally decided to go home. In the silence I contemplated the mall built around the Dolby Theatre, where every year the Oscars are handed out to Hollywood’s finest. The grotesque plaster elephants that frame the mall’s view of the Hollywood sign seemed only to memorialize Hollywood’s greatest failures — those moments when filmmakers confused spectacle with imagination. I went back to bed, the mercury was near 90 degrees, and I envied Nora Ephron, for she was a woman who knew how to dream in Hollywood. Now if only I could do the same.