Blog Directory CineVerse: The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again

The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the spout again

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

What you get when you mix two mammoth movie stars with director Mike Nichols in the mid-1980s? Acid indigestion doesn’t come to mind but Heartburn does, which is the vehicle that first paired Meryl Streep and Jack Nicholson and tore the sorted lid off the real-life breakup between journalist Carl Bernstein and author/screenwriter Nora Ephron (portrayed, respectively, by Nicholson and Streep). We popped a collective Alka-Seltzer and took a closer look at this film in our CineVerse group discussion last week. Here are the highlights of our conversation. (To hear a recording of that group discussion, click here.)

In what ways was Heartburn surprising, unique, or satisfying?

  • This was the first of two Meryl Streep-Jack Nicholson pairings (the other being Ironweed), which makes for a notable cinematic experience considering their titanic statures and heavyweight cache.
  • Interestingly, one could argue, as Roger Ebert did in his review of this film, that Streep and Nicholson don’t have much chemistry, despite charming scenes like when Mark breaks out into song while chomping on pizza and Rachel expressing several times early in the film how happy she is. But the possible lack of chemistry is kind of the point: these two characters ultimately don’t harmonize, which contributes to the breakup.
  • The movie could be interpreted as more of a rom-com than a relationship drama; in fact, there are more comedic elements in this picture than many would expect, including two hilarious bits where the television seems to be talking to Rachel and commenting on her life and suspicions. Of course, the comedy is in keeping with Nichols’ style and reputation.
  • It’s surprising how Rachel takes Mark back so quickly, and without an apology from him for his philandering, after their first split. We see how needy and vulnerable she is, waiting desperately for Mark to phone her; but it isn’t until the end of the film we observe her true agency, when Rachel decides to humiliate Mark in front of their friends and walk out on him for good.
  • This film plays out as a kind of “scenes from a marriage,” with vignettes, brief set pieces, and fragments of their relationship on display, but not necessarily key moments – except for the births of their two children. In other words, it doesn’t cover every pivotal moment in their courting, marriage, reconciliation, or post-breakup. But it gives us enough snatches and milestone moments to make for a composite experience of their flawed relationship.
  • The roster of actors showcased here is deep, boasting even Kevin Spacey (in his first role) and Mercedes Ruhl in small parts. Consider the other talents on screen: Stockard Channing, Jeff Daniels, Maureen Stapleton, Catherine O’Hara, and even film director Milos Forman.
  • This was also a very personal movie for Streep, as she was pregnant with her second child (in her first trimester) during filming, and her real-life first child played the toddler Annie. In fact, the film casts three generations of the Streep and Gummer family: Mary Streep (mother of Meryl and grandmother to Mamie), Meryl Streep (daughter to Mary and mother to Mamie), and Mamie Gummer (daughter of Meryl and granddaughter to Mary). Plus, Meryl’s brother Dana also plays a tiny unspoken role.

Themes evident in Heartburn

  • Structural flaws that never get fixed. There is plenty of foreshadowing suggesting that Rachel and Mark’s marriage will be in jeopardy, due to his cheating as well as her suspicions and anxiety about Mark’s behavior. This is mirrored in the house they purchase and are continually upgrading – it seems to always have problems, including leaks, remodeling challenges, and unfinished areas. Ebert wrote: “… The joke is that the renovations to the house will last longer than their marriage.”
  • The difficulty in trusting a significant other. This is the second marriage for both Rachel and Mark, and she goes into it with trepidation, as evidenced by her nearly leaving Mark at the altar. Throughout the movie, the audience is reminded that the divorce rate is high, marriages involve compromises and often acquiescence, and infidelity is always a possibility.
  • The itsy-bitsy spider climbs up the spout again. Rachel demonstrates – twice – that she won’t tolerate cheating and lies and, despite the repercussions of raising children in divorce, has the will and agency to move on, start over, and reinvent her life.

Other films directed by Mike Nichols

  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  • The Graduate
  • Carnal Knowledge
  • Silkwood
  • Working Girl

  © Blogger template Cumulus by 2008

Back to TOP