Nancy Meyers: Comedy’s pre-eminent Auteur – research essay

How is Nancy Meyers’ authorship evident within her filmography and to what extent has her status as an auteur filmmaker impacted the romantic comedy as a genre?

 The continuum of Nancy Meyers’ filmography in undeniably interlinked, with its trajectory impacting the development of romantic comedies as a sub-genre, as well as the way that industrial studios would come to conceptualise their typically female audiences. Conjecture of auteur theory unpacks early interpretations and misinterpretations of the film ideology which places the director as paramount with indisputable authorship. Contrastingly, the deconstruction of genre theory may be used as a means to correct the exclusive nature of the auteur theory, with a focus on a more inclusive pattern of choices. Although both auteur theory and genre theory can be applied aptly to Meyers’ own filmmaking style and products, it is her status as an auteur that enables the filmmaker to function expertly within the romantic comedy genre. Thus, both genre and auteur theories accommodate Meyers as a filmmaker with expert command over romantic comedies which speak to a predominantly female audience. Furthermore, Meyers’ engagement with and concurrent influence upon the genre houses her status as an auteur with a specific filmmaking approach, command and style, concurrently promoting successes within the genre.

The auteur theory finds its roots within the French New Wave era (Sarris 1962, p. 561), idealising the command of the film’s elemental makeup, with the director revered as a film’s author (Hicks & Petrova 2006, p. 181). Moreover, Astruc’s (1968, p. 17) ideation of the caméra-stylo conceptualises the abstraction of the writer/director’s pen as a camera, further expanding auteur theory whilst linking it inextricably with the art of written language. Thus, this centralised ideation of the director as the ultimate purveyor of a film’s vision works to frame the filmmaker as the fundamental author or auteur of their film.

With regards to the theory’s effectiveness in application to directors and their filmographic works, Sarris stipulates that the theory, in itself is focused on patterns whilst being “in constant flux” (1962, p. 563). The theorist notes filmmakers including Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock as exemplary of the auteur theory, whilst also indicating that the ideology is based upon reputation, resulting in said flux. However, Sarris emphasises the effectiveness of the theory’s ability to broaden a focus from directors’ individual masterpieces to their more expansive bodies of work which may adhere to a distinct continuity (1962, p. 563). Furthermore, the theorist asserts the foundational import of a director’s technical filmmaking abilities, which is considered as finite within the emergence and ceasing of a director’s auteur status (Sarris 1962, p. 562). Continuing Sarris’ discussion of the theory, Caughie (1981, p. 9) comments that the theory’s merits also lie within the tracing of directors’ ideological and artistic expression within their medium, evident in “thematic and/or stylistic” elements. These additional prerequisites demonstrate the auteur theory’s aptitude to create distinction between auteur and non-auteur filmmakers through conjecture into individual filmographies as well as stylistic and artistic practices.

In contrast, Wollen (1999, p. 519) challenges the conditions of auteur theory, suggesting that the sheer broadness of the theory can be easily misinterpreted into unnecessarily limiting judgements of filmmakers and their individual films. The author asserts that such misunderstandings are rooted within the theory’s transference into Western film culture, where the idea of a film’s ‘author’ is affixed to the director, ignoring other broader applications of the term (Wollen 1999, p. 520). Furthermore, Grant (2001, p. 113) indicates that such limitations upon authorship also extend to matters of gender, with the selective nature of auteur theory discourse proving counter-productive to the cultivation of female auteurs. She continues in suggesting that due to the theory’s inherent permeation of the filmmaker’s personality or identity, industrial processes of funding and marketing are less attainable by a female author (Grant 2001, p. 114). These limitations imposed by auteur theory and its conceptualisations intercepts non-hegemonic filmmakers to explore their “authorial agency” (Grant 2001, p. 115).

Thus, whilst the auteur theory does seem to bolster up the foundations of film theory with its centralisation of the filmmaker as an author, the inherent broadness of the theory is easily misinterpreted. Reading the theory as a rule of classification rather than a guide to filmographies can lead to the pre-emptive dismissal of filmmakers who may fit the classification.

Nancy Meyers began her film career as a screenwriter, co-writing and producing with her (then) husband who would direct their films, including Private Benjamin (1980), Baby Boom (1987) and Father of the Bride Part II (1995). Glitre (2011, p. 17) argues that Meyers would become the most commercially successful female filmmaker in Hollywood’s history, whilst maintaining consistent thematic elements and cinematic style. Moreover, Glitre (2011, p. 17) suggests that that despite Meyers’ continual box office successes, she is frequently overlooked in critical and academic spheres, likely due to her representations of feminist and post-feminist ideologies. However, Meyers’ thematic continuity within her filmography fit elegantly within the peripheries of auteur theory, especially with regards to the author central to the creation of the film (Caughie 1981, p. 9), with Meyers emerging as a writer-director-producer. Meyers’ directorial debut which she also co-wrote was The Parent Trap (1998), a remake told from the perspective of twin girls who meet and plot to reunite their divorced parents. Although this film is marketed as a children’s movie, it does not speak down to its audience, whilst navigating the complexities of adult relationships, parenting and separation. These particular themes would persist as touchstones throughout her filmography, as well as a meticulous visual flair which surround her characters with comfortable excess, especially within the home. Meyers would famously separate from her producing and writing partner Charles Shyer on the set of her first film, shaping her female protagonists in her later films including Something’s Gotta Give (2003) and It’s Complicated (2009) as reflective of her personal experiences.

Sims’ (2014, p. 194) discussion of Something’s Gotta Give (2003) explores Meyers’ propensity to write versions of herself into her films, amalgamating herself into protagonist Erica, an older, long-divorced playwright who falls for two very different men. Of course, we not only see Erica through Meyers’ lens, but also dual-protagonist Harry’s, who judges her as “asexual, neurotic and uptight” (Sims 2014, p. 197). Never-married, ageing Harry’s biases against ‘women over thirty’ operate only to illuminate patriarchal society’s erasure of divorced women over a certain age – a fact spoken verbatim by Erica’s sister Zoe, a women’s studies professor (Sims 2014, p. 195). So, as much as the film functions as an acknowledgement of women like Erica, it is also a means of admonishing the misogynistic attitudes of the men who surround and judge them.

Although Meyers does not always position her female characters as protagonists, they all share commonalities of career success as well as social popularity and a caring family. She portrays her women as ‘having it all’, with love as something that is not needed, rather wanted (at least to begin with). Additionally these women, especially in It’s Complicated and Something’s Gotta Give grapple with the women that they have become in spite of previous failed relationships, and spend time labouring over the unknown of a new relationship following being independent (Glitre 2011, p. 18). Further, this labour only works to intensify the stakes of her decisions, chiefly due to the fact that Meyers paints her female characters with a brush so broad that we understand both who she was and who she is.

A subsequent element which supports Meyers’ status as an auteur is her distinct visual language which work to represent her characters. Centralising the outward perfection of her female protagonists’ lives, their homes appear entirely idyllic – designed to a level of sublimity by Meyers herself. This detail-oriented component is demonstrated consistently through to Meyers’ most recent film, The Intern (2015) which uses a perfect Brooklyn brownstone to represent working mother Jules’ struggle to address her marital issues, concealed to perfection within the house (Jermyn 2018, p. 178). Such visual representations work in tandem with her themes of hard working, successful women who seem to have it all, but are hindered by unaddressed, underlying inner conflict.

In contrast to auteur theory, genre theory categorises film with a sense of inclusivity which is lacking in an auteurist approach (Altman 1984, p. 7). Rather than excluding filmmakers and their filmographies based upon the perceived, subjective quality of individual films (Sarris 1962, p. 562), genre theory attempts to analyse and categorise films by their elemental makeup. Altman describes applications of genre theory as an “interpretive” (1984, p. 7), allowing for expansive discussion and resulting in focused conjecture. Furthermore, Gledhill (2000 p. 44) asserts that genre theory expands to intersect with audiences through the industrial substructure of filmmaking. This negotiation between audiences and industrial forces may serve as a sort of index for consumers, providing a “taxonomy” (Keith Grant 2007, p. 2) for the categorisation of film through genre. Thus, the holistic nature of genre theory outruns auteur practices through the perceived refusal to overlook even the most mainstream films as genuine pieces of art (Watson 2012, p. 190).

Watson describes the coding of film texts as a process of revealing a set of “distinct characteristics” (2012, p. 193) which may draw specific audiences. Exemplary within the romantic comedy genre is a “well defined” (McDonald 2007, p. 7) taxonomy both in terms of its construction and audience, provoking expectations through the provision of generic traits. The genre itself is commonly described as relatively transparent, following the development of a romantic relationship with comedic and sometimes mystical, transformative elements and ultimately, sentimentality and pathos (McDonald 2007, p. 8). The theoretical categorisation of romantic comedies as a genre assumes a certain sense of formulaicness in terms of their industrial construction, which may include “visual iconography, narrative patterns, and ideology” (Grindon 2010, p. 83). Furthermore, the majority of these films centralise female characters in their quests to find love, directing their appeal to female audiences. This aspect of romantic comedies may illuminate one of the pitfalls of genre theory as biases can be created, linking the quality of a generic film to the demographic of its core audience. Altman (1998, p. 8, p. 15) supports this targeted appeal, establishing that many genre films are produced to reflect the experiences or desires of a specific demographic. Thus, the dominant dismissal of romantic comedies as a frivolous genre can be linked to the primarily female audience for which they are made. Additionally, the conspicuous formula of romantic comedies, solidified within earlier entries into the genre can be observed as predictable, stagnating the genre somewhat as duplicates.

Nancy Meyers has made an undeniable impression on the romantic comedy genre as an auteur filmmaker. Her successes in the 1990s and 2000s helped to create the formula for success in the genre, with studios attempting (with varied success) to emulate her style. Marshall (2009, p. 10) argues that Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give harkens back to the relationship conflicts which support the classical screwball comedy, an ancestor of the modern romantic comedy. This kind of awareness of the genre in which Meyers operates demonstrates her aptitude in utilising historic elements of Hollywood cinema whilst simultaneously creating something contemporary, specifically through her themes of divorce and ageism. However, Meyers challenges the screwball comedy as well as broader romantic comedies through the positioning of older romantic leads, breaking with traditional choices of younger, more typical central characters (Marshall 2009, p. 14). Furthermore, Marshall (2009, p. 14) assesses that Meyers’ adept handling of the genre challenges reductive assumptions that all romantic comedies lack depth in characterisation and contain “fixed iconography, and repetitive narrative structures” (Marshall 2009, p. 14).

All of Meyers’ romantic comedies are mobilised with a keen sense of social commentary and a desire to engage with women’s issues (Sims 2014, p. 202), reflecting her own feminist lilt (Radner 2010, p. 103). Much of the genre’s ‘formulae’ was solidified within Meyers’ early work, notably What Women Want and Something’s Gotta Give, with their remarkable box office successes demonstrating the power of a non-male audience. However, Meyers’ undeniably auteurist approach would set her entries into the romantic comedy genre apart from many others, namely due to her approach as a writer in conjunction to her meticulous visual aesthetic. Furthermore, whilst much of that era’s romantic comedies have disappeared from the cultural consensus, Meyers’ films persist as relevant to contemporary societal conjecture.

Nancy Meyers’ authorial approach positions her as central to her filmography, setting her apart within the romantic comedy genre through her centralisation of atypical female characters who reflect her own experiences. Additionally, her visual aesthetic which function as a ways of communicating the external/internal states of her characters further her claim as an auteur filmmaker as stipulated by Sarris (1962). However, the limitations of auteur theory specify a continuum of subjective quality (Wollen 1999) which may intersect and be interrupted by the genre in which Meyers functions. Therefore, in combination with genre theory as described by Altman (1984), Meyers’ distinct auteur approach to the romantic comedy genre has allowed her to purvey a degree of influence and challenge. This has allowed Meyers to challenge preordained assumptions and judgements regarding the overall calibre of the genre itself as well as her predominantly female audience through the success of her films.

References

Altman, R 1984, ‘A semantic/syntactic approach to film genre’, Cinema Journal, vol. 23, no. 3, pp. 6-18.

Astruc, A 1968, ‘The birth of a new avant-garde: La caméra-stylo’, The New Wave, pp. 17-23.

Caughie, J 1981, ‘Theories of authorship’, Routlege, London.

Gledhill C 2000, ‘Rethinking genre’, in L Williams & C Gledhill (eds), Reinventing Film Studies, Bloomsbury USA Academic, New York City, pp. 42-88.

Glitre, K 2011, ‘Nancy Meyers and “popular feminism”’, in M Waters (ed.), Women on screen: Feminism and femininity in visual culture, Palgrave Macmillan, London, pp. 17-30.

Grant, Catherine 2001, ‘Secret agents: Feminist theories of women’s film authorship’, Feminist Theory, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 113-130.

Grindon, L 2010 ‘The secret life of romantic comedy/romantic comedy: Boy meets girl meets genre’, Film Quarterly, vol. 63, no. 4, pp. 82-83.

Hicks, A & Petrova, V 2006, ‘Auteur discourse and the cultural consecration of American films’, Poetics, vol. 34, no. 3, pp. 180-203.

Jermyn, D 2018, ‘‘Grey is the new green’? Gauging age(ing) in Hollywood’s upper quadrant of female audience, The Intern (2015) and the discursive construction of Nancy Meyers’, Celebrity Studies, vol. 9, no. 2, pp. 166-185.

Keith Grant, B 2007, Film genre: From iconography to ideology, Wallflower Press, London.

Marshall, K 2009, ‘Something’s Gotta Give and the classical screwball comedy’, Journal of Popular Film and Television, vol. 37, no. 1, pp. 9-15.

McDonald, T J 2007, Romantic comedy: Boy meets girl meets genre, Columbia University Press, New York City.

Radner, H 2010, Neo-feminist cinema: Girly films, chick flicks and consumer culture, Routledge, Oxford.

Sarris, A 1962, ‘Notes on auteur theory’, Film Culture, vol. 27, no. 1-8, pp. 561-564.

Sims, D 2014, ‘Genre, fame and gender: The middle-aged ex-wife heroine of Nancy Meyers’ Something’s Gotta Give’, in A Barlow (ed.), Star Power: The Impact of Branded Celebrity, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, pp. 191-205.

Watson, P 2012, ‘Approaches to film genre’, in J Nelmes (ed.), Introduction to Film Studies, Routledge, London, pp. 188-208.

Wollen, P 1999, ‘The auteur theory’, in Braudy, L, Cohen, M & Wollen, P, Film, theory and criticisms, Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 519-535.

Filmography

Baby Boom 1987 [film], United Artists, USA. Distributed in Australia by United Artists.

Father of the Bride Part II 1996 [film], Touchstone Pictures, USA. Distributed in Australia by Buena Vista Pictures.

It’s Complicated 2009 [film], Relativity Media & Waverly Films, USA. Distributed in Australia by Universal Pictures.

The Intern 2015 [film], RatPac-Dune Entertainment & Waverly Films, USA. Distributed in Australia by Warner Bros. Pictures.

The Parent Trap 1998 [film], Walt Disney Pictures, USA. Distributed in Australia by Buena Vista Pictures.

Private Benjamin 1980 [film], Warner Bros., USA. Distributed in Australia by Warner Bros Pictures.

Something’s Gotta Give 2003 [film], Waverly Films, USA. Distributed in Australia by Warner Bros. Pictures.

What Women Want 2000 [film], Icon Entertainment & Wind Dancer Films, USA. Distributed in Australia by Paramount Pictures.

 

 

Published by Ella Pace

Ella is a film critic currently working and studying in Melbourne, Australia.

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