0

Meryl Streep: 1986’s Heartburn ‘had guts and laughs’

Meryl Streep spoke to Maclean’s in 1986 about her role in a film that turned the domestic strife of the director ‘into Hollywood legend’


 

Welcome to this week’s free story from The Maclean’s Archives.
Learn more or sign up now for your 30-day free trial.

Gossip. It is a powerful currency in the realm of romance—and of politics. Gossip—confirmed by Deep Throat—helped a pair of Washington reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, to unearth the Watergate scandal which toppled U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974. In the 1976 film of their book, All the President's Men, Hollywood portrayed the two journalists as defenders of public morality. But more recently, gossip has made Bernstein’s personal morality a target: the man who became famous exposing the betrayal of U.S. democracy is now notorious for betraying his wife, journalist Nora Ephron. In 1983 Ephron published Heartburn, a thinly veiled account of her marriage to Bernstein, which included such lines as, “the man is capable of having sex with a Venetian blind.” This week the film version, starring Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson, opens across North America. What is remarkable is that it is based on a screenplay written by Ephron and amended by Bernstein. Rarely have the subjects of gossip participated so fully to turn their domestic strife into Hollywood legend.

Hunger: Heartburn typifies an era in which movies, books and the other media are transforming private lives into public properties at an astounding rate. The heady political curiosity of the Watergate era has given way to a hunger for celebrity gossip, from the assembly line of stars who parade through People Weekly and Vanity Fair magazines to the tabloid television of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Acquiring screen rights to celebrity scandals is a Hollywood growth industry. As Bernstein’s estranged wife sold the screen rights for Heartburn, his ex-partner, Woodward, sold the screen rights for Wired: The Short Life and Fast Times of John Belushi, his book about the 1982 drug death of actor John Belushi. Everyone, it seems, is trying to cash in—even the daughter of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. Patti Davis has said she might star in a TV movie based on Home Front, her autobiographical novel about growing up with two ambitious parents bound for the White House.

Artists have often served up personal experiences as fiction. Last year director Henry Jaglom released Always, in which he retold the story of his painful divorce. Jaglom not only starred in the film but cast his exwife, Patrice Townsend, in the costarring role. Many of Woody Allen’s films play with autobiographical elements. In his 1986 film, Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen cast himself as a neurotic comedy writer, his girlfriend Mia Farrow as his former wife and Farrow’s real-life mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, as the former mother-in-law. And he filmed much of it in the intimacy of Farrow’s own New York apartment.

Those who play a more passive role in having their lives exposed to public scrutiny, including Bernstein, sometimes become philosophical about their notoriety. Bernstein, whom Dustin Hoffman portrayed in All the President's Men, said of his upcoming screen portrait in Heartburn, ‘I'm now the only living Jewish American with two movies based on his life—with the exception of Woody Allen.” Still, Heartburn stands apart from the autobiographical art of Allen and his like. Its drama has becomes inseparable from the layers of media gossip and legal controversy underlying it.

Heartburn's two main characters are Rachel, a New York food writer, and Mark, a Washington columnist. Their resemblance to Ephron and Bernstein is transparent. Just before the birth of her second child, Rachel discovers that Mark is having an affair with Thelma, wife of the undersecretary of state for the Middle East. Author Ephron, just before the birth of her second child, discovered that Bernstein was having an affair with Margaret Jay, wife of the British ambassador to Washington and daughter of former British prime Minister James Callaghan. Ephron, already well-known for her witty slice-of-life articles and columns in Esquire magazine, took an unusual step. She immediately asked her friend Liz Smith, a gossip columnist, to report that the Ephron/Bernstein marriage was over. People Weekly dutifully picked up the story.

Odd: The film version adds a double resonance: it draws on the public’s fascination with two media celebrities—and with their odd parallels to the movie stars portraying them. Nicholson has a reputation as a philanderer that rivals Bernstein’s own (page 35). And Streep, whose Heartburn character wearily struggles through two pregnancies, was uncomfortably pregnant with her third child during the filming. “I was in the early stage of pregnancy and very sick,” Streep told Maclean's. “At the same time, I was toting around this 12-pound prosthetic pregnancy for the movie, so I had the worst of both worlds.” Although Streep says she was creating a character rather than trying to play Ephron, she added, “I stole her posture and her glasses.” Meanwhile Ephron, who was on hand every day during the shooting, arranged to make her former New York apartment available as a location.

Bernstein and the divorce agreement he negotiated before filming began served as the most unorthodox creative influence on Heartburn. Director Mike Nichols told Maclean's: “There were certain ways in which we didn’t want to upset Nora’s ex-husband. That was a specific responsibility—it was part of the agreement she had made.” Bernstein had absorbed the shock of the book’s publication with grace, publicly describing it as “just like Nora—very clever.” However when he learned that she had sold the movie rights, he took the offensive. As he recalled, he told Ephron, “Well, that’s enough. I think now you’re into an area where the kids can really get hurt, and also it’s making a public spectacle of our lives.”

Focus: The issue became the focus of a spirited debate in the media. Last fall Vanity Fair columnist Tristan Vox accused Ephron of violating the privacy of her two children, Jacob, 7, and Max, 6. Bernstein’s infidelity, Vox wrote, “is banal compared with the infidelity of a mother toward her children.” Meanwhile, both Ephron’s movie agreement and her script became fodder for a lengthy legal battle. In addition to awarding joint custody of the couple’s two sons, the Ephron/ Bernstein divorce agreement last year spelled out how both Bernstein and the children should be portrayed in the film. One clause stipulated that the character based on Bernstein “will be portrayed at all times as a caring, loving and conscientious father.” Another clause said that the main characters’ children must be female, to distinguish them from the Ephron/Bernstein boys.

Bernstein also won the right to suggest revisions to the screenplay. And after seeing various versions of it, he took successful court action to implement changes he had requested. As a result, the Bernstein character is portrayed more sympathetically in the film than in the novel. While the film reproduces large sections of the book’s dialogue intact, the “Venetian blind” line is noticeably absent.

Venom: In fact, Hollywood appears to have provided Bernstein with the ultimate forum for improving his image. In Ephron’s book, penned with the fresh venom of betrayal, the husband was a faceless cad. But in the film Nicholson adds wit, charm, vulnerability and tears. The book is a story of romantic treachery punctuated by flashbacks of romance, but the film is a bittersweet romance ending in deception. Bernstein said he liked the film after viewing a rough cut last January. Said Bernstein: “The movie lacks the kind of smarmy, self-serving tone of the book. The sensibility of the book is Joan Rivers/Nora. The sensibility of the movie is Mike Nichols/Jack Nicholson.”

As director, Nichols had artistic motives as well as legal ones for favouring a more even-handed treatment of the characters. “A novel, after all,” he said, “can be told from the viewpoint of one person, and a picture can’t. Jack Nicholson and I both felt that the only way to give the story any kind of life was to present the husband’s side with as much conviction as the wife’s.”

Nichols (The Graduate, Carnal Knowledge) has explored the sexual wars since the 1950s, when he established his reputation in the comic sketches that he performed live with Elaine May. Over the past three decades his films and plays have served as litmus tests of changing mores. He conquered Broadway with productions of light Neil Simon comedies in the early 1960s. Then, in his 1966 screen adaptation of Who ’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, one of the most celebrated divorced couples in Hollywood history, performed mental cruelty on each other with eerie authenticity.

But despite the rancor and controversy that gave birth to Heartburn, Nichols insisted that it reflects an era of sexual reconciliation. “These are more forgiving, less embattled times,” he said. “The anger of the 1960s is perhaps being replaced by something more generous.”

Guts: Nichols became interested in Heartburn in 1983, when he was directing Meryl Streep in Silkwood — a film cowritten by Ephron.

“Nora was a friend,” he said. “I liked her book enormously and thought it was a real accomplishment, and then began to see it as a possible movie with Meryl.”

Streep, who was anxious to do a comedy, eagerly accepted the role. “I had been looking for something that was funny for a long time,” she said, “but I couldn’t find anything that had substance to it. This had guts and laughs.”

Streep, along with Nicholson and Nichols, insisted that the script be treated as pure fiction. But the parallels with the real personalities remain obvious. The film creates comedy out of Mark’s home-improvement schemes, as he and Rachel live amid the dust and debris of a gutted townhouse. And Bernstein is a compulsive renovator, who even remodelled apartments he had temporarily sublet from others.

There are further parallels. Rachel, rifling through her husband’s American Express receipts, discovers incriminating evidence, including huge bills for flowers. Bernstein, too, has courted his lovers with flowers. While pursuing Elizabeth Taylor, he gave her a magnificent floral arrangement for Christmas. According to one story, she replied, “This is all well and fine, Carl, but where’s the jewelry?”

Avid: But what ultimately links art with life in the Heartburn saga is that everyone—fictional and real—seems addicted to gossip. Rachel is an avid participant in Washington’s high-society gossip network. And when Bernstein told his estranged wife about his romance with Taylor, he says that Ephron’s response was, “Carl, would you please leave now so I can get on the telephone and tell all my friends?” While Ephron is still reaping financial rewards from her marriage breakup, her former husband is less fortunate. Bernstein has had trouble meeting the exorbitant costs of his celebrity lifestyle. Unlike Woodward, who has remained steadily prolific since Watergate, Bernstein has seen his productivity decline. After leaving The Washington Post, he took a $150,000-a-year news job at ABC television. But since quitting that position in 1984, he has been without a steady income. Continuing the Ephron/Bernstein tradition of confessional journalism, he is currently writing Progressive People, an intimate memoir of his left-wing parents. He has retrieved more than 2,500 pages of formerly classified documents relating to Alfred and Sylvia Bernstein from the FBI, which had investigated their labor activities.

Meanwhile, Woodward is completing a book about the CIA. Still a close friend of Bernstein’s, he has spoken harshly of Ephron. “It’s more than revenge,” he said. “It’s malice, or at least it has that effect.” Yet despite his spirited defence of the right to privacy, Woodward has come under fire for his own contribution to celebrity gossip, Wired. In fact Nicholson, who was a friend of Belushi’s, has publicly branded Woodward “a ghoul.”

Ephron refuses to engage in public arguments about her work. Reluctant to entrust her story to others, she has consistently refused to do interviews about herself. As she wrote in Heartburn, “If I tell the story, I control the version.” She learned the laws of turning life into art from her parents, writers Phoebe and Henry Ephron. They wrote a 1961 Broadway comedy, Take Her, She’s Mine, which concerned a middle-aged couple and their recalcitrant daughter, Mollie, a character based on Nora.

Plunder: Turning intimate relationships into artistic property demands delicacy—especially with more than one writer involved. In her novel, Ephron discloses a paradoxical sensitivity to the difficulties: Heartburn contains scenes in which the wife berates the husband for plundering their domestic life for literary ideas, “I sometimes felt as if I were living with a cannibal,” Rachel complains. Feeding on human flesh is an appropriate metaphor for gossip. And feeding serves as the central motif in Heartburn. The book even shares the secrets of Ephron’s kitchen and includes recipes ranging from linguine to bread pudding. The movie punctuates almost every stage of the romance with scenes of Streep and Nicholson eating. In bed at four in the morning on their first date, Rachel serves Mark a sensuous spaghetti carbonara. And she places a bittersweet Key lime pie squarely in his face at a dinner party, signalling that the relationship—and the story—has ended.

Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.


 

Sign in to comment.