The Nancy Meyers Method

When considering female writer-directors who have truly left an imprint on Hollywood, Nancy Meyers is among the forerunners on the list, the likes of Mary Herron and Amy Heckerling also joining her there amid the few other names. With her latest, The Intern, Meyers has managed to assure that her place as one of the best is in no danger. Her vast canon of work over the decades, starting in 1980 with Private Benjamin starring Goldie Hawn, has proven time and time again that Meyers has a unique ability to tap into that elusive quality most screenwriting classes refer to as “the human condition.” In the face of innumerable changes in the industry, as well as the average audience being incapable of stomaching long scenes or anything even remotely bordering on the trite, it’s no small feat that Meyers has continued to remain relevant both to critics and to the box office.

As with most successful “products,” there is a distinct formula to Meyers’ films. First and foremost, a strong female lead is essential. And we’re not talking the J. Lo or Meg Ryan types who seem ultimately to succumb to a relationship in the end, in spite of the many ways in which the object of her affection has done her wrong. Starting with Judy Benjamin (Hawn), the prototype for all future Meyers-created protagonists, it was clear from the outset that any woman worthy of being in one of her scripts was not going to need the guy to be with her at the end of the third act. If he was, sure, it was a plus. But, if not, no big deal either. After winning the Writers Guild of America Award for Best Original Screenplay, as well as an Academy Award nomination, for Private Benjamin (which was rejected many times by studios, agents and production companies, making for an especially satisfying win), it was evident Meyers had a singular voice that couldn’t be ignored. Thus, her peerless style persisted in her second feature, 1984’s Irreconcilable Differences, a story that might never have passed the green light with studio execs were it not for the winning streak established by Private Benjamin.

This time, Meyers dared to get even darker with a premise centered around a precocious preadolescent named Casey Brodsky’s (Drew Barrymore) decision to divorce her parents in the wake of their respective self-obsessions and focus on their writing careers in Hollywood (obviously, Meyers had been jaded enough by the business at this juncture). Although Casey’s parents, Albert (Ryan O’Neal) and Lucy (Shelley Long), started out in their marriage madly in love with one another, the relationship quickly deteriorates after Albert fails to give Lucy the credit she deserves for helping to write his first screenplay and his frequent tendency to leave Casey in her care while he jets off to places like Cannes. The final straw occurs when Albert shows interest in an aspiring actress named Blake Chandler (Sharon Stone), prompting Lucy to divorce him. Soon after, the career tides turn in Lucy’s favor–another common theme in Meyers’ films being the woman blossoming after shaking off the man–with her tell-all novel about her marriage to Albert becoming a bestseller. Albert, meanwhile, has morphed into a Hollywood nobody after going over budget on his remake of Gone With the Wind, entitled Atlanta, starring Blake. When the film tanks, Blake leaves him, which suddenly brings him to pay more attention to Casey. While she’s visiting him, he asks, “How’s your mom? She ever talk about me?” Casey curtly replies, “Eh, not too much anymore. I think she still hates you, but she’s been real busy lately. Making her book into a movie, you know.” Indeed, Casey’s calm callousness disturbs Albert, but he can’t argue with Casey’s straightforward manner in pointing out all the things he’s done wrong as a father.

Irreconcilable Differences was arguably Meyers’ most cutting, “no happy ending here” (at least not in the conventional sense) film. The pointed speech in which Casey delivers her case to the court is enough to make one wonder how Barrymore–and the script–wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. But ultimately, the film was too real while also being too out of bounds for most moviegoers unable to identify with screenwriter life and the contention between a couple competing for artistic recognition. As a result, it received mixed reviews, which is what motivated Meyers to go back to her tried and true method of writing a comedy starring a plucky woman unaware of just how powerful she is: Protocol, also released in 1984.

Teaming with Goldie Hawn again, Meyers worked with Charles Shyer and Harvey Miller to create the script, which Hawn turned her nose up at enough to get Buck Henry (who also wrote such hits as The Graduate, The Owl and the Pussycat and What’s Up, Doc?) to do a massive rewrite, leading to legal arbitration that exempt them from being a part of producing or directing the film, which went on to fare much better than Irreconcilable Differences, both critically and commercially.

It was perhaps this more than little snafu that led Meyers to fully take the reins as a producer on her next feature in 1987, Baby Boom, starring Diane Keaton as a management consultant named J.C. Wiatt. Focused solely on the demands of her career, J.C.’s life is turned upside down when she inherits a distant cousin’s toddler. Typical of Meyers’ motifs, the female lead must always deal with the pressures of balancing a career and a family–it is one of the many constants in her screenplays, also explored with gusto in The Intern. While some might see it as maudlin, it is almost always the case that the protagonist chooses the personal over the professional, finding the former to have more meaning. But rather than coming across as a woman’s surrender to her “role,” it is presented in an empowering way, as she is usually able to go on doing the thing that she was passionate about, in J.C.’s case being a businessperson with a product to sell.

The 1990s saw Meyers hitting her stride, starting with 1990’s Father of the Bride, an instant classic that would establish her continued collaborations with Steve Martin, second only to Diane Keaton in frequency of Meyers film appearances. Somewhat unconventional for Meyers, the story placed a greater emphasis on the struggles of the male lead, forced to let go of his daughter to the adult world of marriage and career. Its acclaim would eventually generate the sequel in 1995, but not before Meyers wrote the critical flops Once Upon A Crime (1992) and I Love Trouble (1994). As the decade came to a close, Meyers was finally ready to step up to the director’s chair with her remake of the 1961 film, The Parent Trap. With ingenue Lindsay Lohan cast in the role of both twins, Meyers had her work cut out for her in shooting, but ultimately treated the film as just another, rather than one with then high-tech special effects. Returning to her treatment of the female as the ruler of her kingdom, The Parent Trap’s leads, Annie James and Hallie Parker are arguably more softened versions of Irreconcilable Differences’ Casey Brodsky. Equally as ornery and unwilling to compromise on what they expect from their parents, they are less upfront verbally than Casey, resorting instead to more harebrained schemes to get what they want.

The advent of the 00s showed no signs of Meyers slowing down, initiating the decade with What Women Want starring Mel Gibson (you know, before he was universally loathed) and Helen Hunt. There was quite possibly no better choice to write the screenplay–and direct it–a story about a man who can hear everything women are thinking. Because if anyone knows what women want based on over thirty years of accolades from female moviegoers, it’s Meyers. She again takes a more empathetic stance toward her male co-lead, Nick Marshall (Gibson), imbuing him with characteristics that would lead to audience compassion for his cluelessness–just as she did with Steve Martin’s George Banks in Father of the Bride.

2003 marked a paradigm shift in Meyers’ career, with Something’s Gotta Give setting a new precedent for the rom-com in its casting of over 50 year olds Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson in the lead roles. Once Meyers proved she had it in the bag with “older audiences,” as it were, she became truly untouchable–one of the few and only writer-directors, female or not, to be allowed the kind of artistic freedom a person can only dream about (hence 2006’s lengthy instant classic, The Holiday).

With each passing decade, Meyers matures in her subject matters and approach in dealing with them, though some may argue she has been out of touch and off the mark with films like 2009’s It’s Complicated, which could have just as easily been called It’s Complicated (For White People). And yes, it’s true that movies Meyers has made from the period beginning in 2003 with Something’s Gotta Give have been largely focused on a certain class of affluence, the kind that takes sweeping Santa Barbara properties and Hamptons beach houses as par for the course, it has not tainted her ability to strike a chord with her audience. She is, and always will be, the patron saint of the thoughtful rom-com.