February 20, 2011
Desperately Seeking Sorkin
I had this fantasy about Aaron Sorkin. It’s probably only natural that I should want to know him, because he is, after all, the most intelligent and sharp-witted writer working in Hollywood today. His prestige began with “A Few Good Men” (1992), surged with his creation of the 1999 television drama “The West Wing,” and was cemented with “The Social Network,” a movie that showcases both his superb writing talent (although he’s had a few flops) and his uncanny gift for cultural relevance. I thought, “This brilliant, mysterious man, who has publicly struggled with dark personal demons (a cocaine addiction), is at the crest of his career and will likely win an Oscar for his darn good movie about the invention of our age (Facebook) — and I want to meet him.” And not only that, he’s Jewish.
Here’s how I imagined it: We’d meet, one afternoon at the Beverly Hills Hotel. We’d sit on the patio at the Polo Lounge but order milkshakes from The Fountain Coffee Room downstairs. We’d trade small talk for a time, then I’d dive right in, look into his eyes and ask those deep, penetrating questions I’d lost sleep coming up with — for example, about the ethics of writing about a young, living person who has become known not for who he really is, but according to Sorkin’s version of him. And, because I’m writing for The Jewish Journal — and am a Jewish woman — I’d ask him what the heck was up with some of the movie’s snide, subtle one-liners, in particular, the not-so-veiled references to the general unattractiveness of my cohort. We would talk, and laugh, and sip, and I wouldn’t have to stargaze, because there’d be one right in front of me. And afterward, I’d hand my editors a bang-up interview with Hollywood’s man-of-the-moment.
Because of the Jewish angle, I knew I’d ask him questions no one else was asking, and so, despite the fact that he has been giving a billion interviews, he might even enjoy mine. I mean, 4,000 years of shared history could at least give me that. And as an added benefit, said tribal bond might even make us friends.
I was so wrong.
Here’s how it actually went: On July 21, 2010, I used Sorkin’s personal e-mail, which I’d gotten from a friend, to directly request an interview. (A few years earlier, he had been kind enough to give me a “phoner” about his agent, Ari Emanuel, around the time brother Rahm was elected President Obama’s chief of staff.) This was the reply: “Aaron Sorkin’s e-mail has changed. Messages to this address are being checked, and he will reply to you soon from his new e-mail. Thank you.”
A week later, his publicist’s assistant wrote and asked that I please get back in touch closer to the time of “The Social Network” press junket, which would take place in late September, “so we can set something up.” In early September, I wrote again and was told they were “very sorry,” but Sorkin was leaving on a month-long press tour, and they were “not going to be able to make it happen.” This was a problem, because we had planned a “Social Network” cover around him. I wrote back and told her this was very unfair, as I had been so conciliatory at their request to wait, believing the interview was imminent. She told me that if I could make it to the junket — in New York — I would get 20 minutes with him. But seeing as how I was heading home from Los Angeles to Florida that weekend, I told her I could not make it to the junket, but, I wondered, could he do a phoner from the junket? Yes, he could! At which point I was overcome with such overwhelming elation that if I died after this interview, it would have been OK. (Was it just a tad ironic that our interview was scheduled during the 10 days in which the Book of Life was still open?) My only request, though I was reluctantly willing to compromise on this, was that we avoid scheduling the interview on Shabbat — but, alas, no such luck.
After 20-some additional e-mails, I had finally been “approved” for a 20-minute chat on Sept. 25 at 1 p.m. That Shabbat, I was in Miami because my 19-year-old brother was in the hospital after surgery. So at my brother’s bedside, while he self-administered morphine, I voraciously consumed profiles of Aaron Sorkin. He was everywhere, talking to everyone. That week, you couldn’t pass a newsstand, a TV or any other media outlet without hearing about “The Facebook Movie.”
By 1 p.m., I was waiting back home at my mother’s house, by the phone. Then, I got a call from someone at Sony telling me Sorkin was running late, maybe 15 minutes, maybe 45, and that I should wait. An hour later, they called again and said, “Sorry Danielle, we’ll have to reschedule.” Option 1: Could I fly to New York the following day, and they’d squeeze me in? Um, no. Option 2: Could I e-mail my questions, and they’d try to have him answer them? Yes.
So I e-mailed. But even that came with caveats — how busy he was, that he was leaving the country, etc., etc., — to which I replied, “I know what I’m going to write; just give him these six questions about the film’s references to Jewish women, and I’ll be happy.”
That was the end of all contact.
A month later, out of despair and longing and genuine fascination with the film, I wrote about him anyway. In a column, I addressed my own thoughts on exactly those six questions he chose not to respond to (or, perhaps, never even saw). I suggested that “The Social Network” implies a kind of latent hostility toward Jewish women. The headline (which I did not come up with) was “Who Does Aaron Sorkin Really Hate?”
I probably don’t have to tell you that Mr. Sorkin did not like my column. To which the obvious rejoinder might be, “Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” But, in truth, what I wrote had nothing to do with feeling slighted by him; I honestly would have preferred to contextualize my claims with his insights. The mutual friend Sorkin and I share was also upset by my piece, and, in his defense, wrote a letter to The Journal’s editor, calling my piece “half-baked and bizarre.” Had those words come from someone anonymous to me, I probably wouldn’t have cared, but coming from one of my truly closest friends, it stung.
If there’s anything writing about Hollywood has taught me, though, it’s that perseverance sometimes pays off. So, three months later — this would be the day after Sorkin won his Golden Globe award — I wrote him again:
Dear Mr. Sorkin, I understand you were displeased with my column. I had hoped to bring my thoughts to you directly, but our interview was canceled. However, on the off chance you’re willing to give it another go, there may be an Oscar issue cover with your name on it.
An hour later I got an e-mail from Sorkin himself.
The first thing I saw in his reply — in big block lettering, copied and pasted from The Journal’s Web site — was: “Who does Aaron Sorkin really hate?” I briefly considered packing my things, absconding from Los Angeles, never to be heard from again. But to my surprise and delight, Sorkin followed up with a heartfelt, thoughtful response to my column — an itemized list, actually — of every point he took issue with.
“I don’t hate anyone,” he began, “or at least not anyone you know, and I’m dumbfounded as to how you got the impression I did.”
In response to my point that “The Social Network” suggests the creation of Facebook was, at least in part, motivated by Mark Zuckerberg’s “hot-blooded pursuit of women” — he flatly disagreed.
“While the precursor to Facebook — Facemash — was a revenge stunt against one woman … his building of the site had nothing to do with wanting to hook up and everything to do with wanting to distinguish himself. [Zuckerberg] has a eureka moment when he thinks of the ‘relationship status’ feature for the site but, again, that wasn’t about HIS hot-blooded pursuit of women, it was about heterosexual men’s.
“College guys want to meet girls — news at 11,” Sorkin joked.
My point, of course, had been that the depiction of Zuckerberg as an awkward outsider who is undesirable to women — he is outright flouted by the woman he wants in the opening scene of the film — is yet further impetus to “distinguish himself,” even among, as Sorkin wrote, “a population of people who all got 1,600 on their SATs.”
In the movie, Alpha Epsilon Pi, a Jewish fraternity, is also depicted as an unfortunate place. The Zuckerberg character doesn’t really want to be there, and, frankly, neither do any of the other Jewish guys. Here, Sorkin allowed: “Alpha Epsilon Pi, the Jewish fraternity at Harvard, is not considered a glamorous place the way the exclusive final clubs are. I was writing about a group of guys who see women as either prizes or enemies. These guys are deeply, profoundly angry that the cheerleader still wants to date the quarterback even though it’s the computer geniuses that are running the universe now.”
I don’t know what Sorkin was like growing up Jewish, in New York. On Wikipedia, it says that from an early age he liked the theater. How it felt to be a Jewish male in the high school drama club — we can only imagine. But my guess is, like those AEPi guys, he didn’t feel hot like the quarterback. And now, well, he’s that genius who can have his way.
But actually, the most interesting thing Sorkin wrote in his e-mail was that I shouldn’t extrapolate to all Jewish women my interpretations of “The Social Network’s” Jewish women.
“Danielle, movies, plays, television shows ... these things are different from Benetton ads where we get one from every column. I don’t want to be identified as a typical Jew (as if there is such a thing) … and I’d be surprised to find out that you want to be identified as a typical woman,” he wrote. “And any piece of art in any medium that begins with the mandate that all races, religions, genders and sexual orientations be represented in the best possible light is pretty much doomed unless it’s called Sesame Street.”
On that last point, I agree (and on that note, read The Jewish Journal!). But I would also argue that the images we see in Hollywood movies are representational — and, oftentimes, stereotypical — of people, of attitudes, of ideas about the world. Stereotypes are, by nature, “types,” and do not represent everybody, but Hollywood can’t control the way people perceive those representations, and Hollywood has a tremendous amount of power in influencing the way people think. Take Hollywood depictions of Muslims, or most Israelis, for that matter. Because he’s so good at what he does, Sorkin must know that.
In the last line of his e-mail, he added that he’d be happy to schedule another interview. But sure enough, 11 e-mails and one disingenuous publicist later, it didn’t happen. A week before deadline, I went back to Sorkin one last time.
He wrote: “Look, Danielle, you already wrote a story called ‘Who Does Aaron Sorkin Really Hate?’ in which you suggested that I was a misogynist, a self-loathing Jew and a bad writer — you’ve got to give me a reason why it would be a good idea to participate in another story.”
I figured that by this point, with the Oscars two weeks away, he had probably reached the point of PR ennui. Another, different mutual friend of ours saw him in a CBS interview and said, “He was completely joyless; he seemed tired and bored and mechanical — which isn’t like him at all.”
It’s possible that by that time, Sorkin was simply too exhausted for any more. Maybe he had come down with a horrific case of strep throat and lost his voice. But I don’t really buy that. Oscar nominees know those 11th-hour interviews help amass votes. So why, out of all those interviews he gave over the months, wasn’t I worthy? Was it because he thinks The Jewish Journal isn’t a significant enough publication? Too parochial? Or was I not distinguished enough to talk to?
Or was it that he thought my “hate” piece so off base he didn’t think he could trust me? That I wouldn’t give him a fair shake? On the other hand, maybe what I wrote had tugged at something deep and true, and that had struck a nerve. Instead of being just another reporter who’d drunk the Aaron Sorkin Kool-Aid, maybe he was afraid I might expose his rawness, his realness. I wonder if someone so brilliant and complicated is more comfortable elucidating the complexities of his characters’ interiors than exposing what they might say about him.
Then again, perhaps all this overwrought analysis reveals more about me.
In a final, desperate attempt to inspirit him, I launched a daily campaign of “Reasons to Interview With Me.” I reminded him of something he had said to New York Magazine, months earlier, about Mark Zuckerberg: “I feel like had I met Mark, I would have felt a certain obligation to make the character sound like Mark, walk like Mark, all of those things. And frankly, I probably would have had an affection for him that I wouldn’t have wanted to betray.”
“I already wrote the piece I could write not having met you,” I wrote as my last plug.
In the end, I didn’t get to make the tribal bond I had so ardently hoped for. But, at least in some sense, Sorkin and I bonded over The Tribe.
And if he ever decides he’d like to meet, I’m still waiting.