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Jewish Journal

Meyers Writes Her Own Happy Ending

by Naomi Pfefferman

December 11, 2003 | 7:00 pm

Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson star in Nancy Meyers' "Something's Gotta Give." Photo by Bob Marshak

Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson star in Nancy Meyers' "Something's Gotta Give." Photo by Bob Marshak

A decade ago, filmmaker Nancy Meyers became intrigued by a Hollywood friend who exclusively dated younger women.

"They were always between 25 and 30," said Meyers, 54, who directed the Mel Gibson hit, "What Women Want." "Over the years, he went from his 40s to his 60s, but the women never got any older."

As she advanced through her 40s, Meyers felt increasingly "invisible" around her friend; she wondered, "If I were stranded on a desert island with such a man, would I still be invisible?"

Her musing led to a movie premise about a cradle-robber who falls for his girlfriend's mom.

Because Meyers' screenplays always reflect her life, she wasn't ready to tackle the topic until she divorced around 2000 and found herself 50ish and single.

"Suddenly my premise became a completely different kind of story," she said. "I wanted to write about the realities of a couple falling in love late in life."

Her new romantic comedy, "Something's Gotta Give," tells of Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson), a roguishly charming record company executive whose girlfriends are under 30. When he attempts to consummate his latest relationship at her mother's beach house, he collapses from a heart attack and is left in the care of the mom, Erica Barry (Diane Keaton), a no-nonsense Jewish playwright. As the two are forced into each other's company, sparks unexpectedly fly.

Last week the National Board of Review named Keaton 2003's Best Actress for her performance.

Time magazine called the comedy a "December-December romance"; it's one of an unprecedented new crop of films, including "House of Sand and Fog," that frankly depicts older couples having sex.

Yet some viewers see "Give" as Meyers' romantic fantasy, complete with a cute young doctor suitor for Erica played by Keanu Reeves. While the director admits the Reeves relationship is a stretch ("I've not dated a 36-year-old doctor, unfortunately," she said), she doesn't think the Harry-Erica pairing is far fetched.

"People say, 'You're movie is so optimistic,'" said Meyers, who admits she's had one age-appropriate relationship since her divorce. "Are these people suggesting that if single men had the option, they'd never go with anyone their own age? I don't think that's true. There are a lot of men married to women their age who aren't waiting for their spouses to die or to get a divorce so they can have that trophy wife. And I think that a lot of men, when they do meet someone close to their age, feel they have found something perhaps more solid than when they're dating a woman 25 years younger. I mean, it must be a relief not to have to act 35 in bed when you're 60."

The down-to-earth Meyers has always had a penchant for turning fantasy into reality. The daughter of a Philadelphia voting machine manufacturer, she dreamed up her first movie -- literally -- while under anesthesia at the dentist at 14. "It was a Doris Day-Rock Hudson comedy," she said. "When I awakened, I told the dentist the entire plot."

Yet Meyers initially didn't set her sights on Hollywood, due to the more conventional path outlined for women of her generation. "At my Reform temple, girls weren't even bat mitzvahed," she said. "I was always jealous of the boys, because for girls it just wasn't done." While attending American University, she said she "went with the program and got engaged to a Jewish boy my junior year. But instead of getting married, I canceled weeks before the wedding and moved to California in 1972."

Early on, she sold cheesecakes, based on her Aunt Estelle's recipe, while struggling to support herself as a screenwriter. She met her future husband, TV writer Charles Shyer, while on a date with his best friend, Harvey Miller.

"Charles was this cute guy wearing a B'nai B'rith T-shirt," she said.

In 1979, Meyers, Shyer and Miller collaborated on "Private Benjamin," based on her idea about a naive Jewish woman (Goldie Hawn) who joins the Army after her husband dies on their wedding night. The story reflected Meyers' experience of canceling her wedding and reinventing herself in Hollywood, but observers saw the character in a less flattering light.

"People like to call Judy Benjamin a Jewish princess, but I take great offense at that expression," she said. "It's a racist, sexist caricature: the girl who gets a nose job, who shops and wants to be taken care of. But Judy is actually a woman of her time, with the problems of her time. Because of social conventions, she was following a road that wasn't right for her, and the Army allows her to grow up and to figure out her life."

Meyers shared a 1981 Oscar nomination for "Private Benjamin"; over the years, she became known for films she co-wrote with Shyer, including 1984's "Irreconcilable Differences" and 1991's "Father of the Bride," which he directed.

Along the way the couple had two daughters, but didn't marry until 1995. "I wanted us to be filmmaking partners without having that husband-and-wife-team cliché hanging over us, because in Hollywood, people always assume the wife isn't responsible for the work," she said.

In 1998, Meyers made her directorial debut with "The Parent Trap," a remake of the Disney classic about twins who get their divorced parents back together. Behind the scenes, the opposite was happening for Meyers and Shyer, the film's co-author.

"The relationship had changed to the point where neither one of us thought we could get it back where it was," she said.

They separated that year.

"What Women Want" (2000) her first project without Shyer, reflected those circumstances. The female lead, played by Helen Hunt, is a recently divorced advertising executive who reveals she had collaborated with her husband and is nervous about going it alone.

Despite Meyers' trepidations, the movie became a box office smash and made her one of the most sought-after female directors in Hollywood; it's perhaps one reason Nicholson, who had never worked with a woman director, agreed to read "Something's Gotta Give" around 2001.

"I hadn't worked for two years, I didn't want to work, but this was the kind of script I had never seen," said Nicholson, who is himself perceived as an aging playboy. "One of the biggest misperceptions about me is that I am not a romantic, but I've always been deeply sentimental. And one of the most refreshing things about this picture was getting to do the kinds of things on film that I do in real life."

Meyers, for her part, shares attributes with the fictional Erica: The character is also a successful writer who calls her daughter "Bubbie" and peppers her speech with Yiddishisms.

While it's surprising to hear Keaton, the WASP from "Annie Hall," refer to Diane Sawyer "going into caves in Afghanistan with a shmatte on her head," the actress was comfortable with the role.

"This film is Nancy's celebration of older women, and I'm thrilled she picked me as her representative," Keaton said.

So will viewers enjoy seeing such a celebration on screen? Meyers thinks so.

"Baby Boomers want characters who reflect their lives," she said. "We're not dead yet. Just a bit over 50."

"Something's Gotta Give" opens today in Los Angeles.

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