While from different eras, Ernst Lubitsch and Nancy Meyers bear much in common, including their obsession with sets and a focus on metaphors which define character relationships. Nevertheless, their films also reflect their different historical moments, with Lubitsch the classicist to Meyers the post-modernist. Thus, where Lubitsch’s films are theatrical and self-contained, Meyers’ films are cinematic and self-reflexive. As such, their portrayals of female-male relationships sharply differ. Lubitsch accepts the limitations of the erotic and the institution of marriage, and he nce his characters find closure and satisfaction. In contrast, Meyers, a female director in a male culture, remains equivocal as to the role of the erotic and has no faith in social institutions. Her characters remain adrift.

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Beginning in 1980, Meyers co-wrote eight screenplays, oftentimes with her then husband, Charles Shyer, and has since directed five movies: The Parent Trap (1998), What Women Want (2000), Something’s Gotta Give (2003), The Holiday (2006), and It’s Complicated (2009). She co-wrote with Shyer the Parent Trap and was the sole screenwriter on Something’s Gotta Give, The Holiday, and It’s Complicated. For Meyers a movie’s screenplay establishes the essential elements of a movie, and she directs only to protect what she has written. (1) Moreover, each of her movies explores the same theme: the relationship between women and men – the possibility of romance and eroticism in a careerist world. That same theme is also the focus of the classic, Hollywood director Ernst Lubitsch, though he substitutes money for careerism. Beginning his directorial career in Germany, Lubitsch emigrated to Hollywood where he first directed the silent film Rosita (1923) and continued directing through the early sound era, including Trouble in Paradise (1932), The Merry Widow (1934), Ninotchka (1939), and Heaven Can Wait (1943). Lubitsch directed sixteen sound films, and, while not a screenwriter, worked closely throughout his career with the same screenwriters, including Ernest Vajda, Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder and especially Samson Raphaelson. Like Meyers, he viewed screenwriting as the most important aspect of moviemaking. (2) Both also understood the importance of producing to further assure that their movies appeared on the screen as written. Thus, Meyers has produced nearly all of the movies which she has directed, while Lubitsch produced many of his movies and for about one year was production head at Paramount.

Meyers has made explicit her appreciation for and debt to Lubitsch. In Irreconcilable Differences (1984), which Meyers co-wrote with Shyer, Ryan O’Neal plays film professor Albert Brodsky who received his doctorate in film from NYU with a thesis on the “themeological analysis of the sexual overtones of the early films of Ernst Lubitsch.” Hitchhiking a ride with Lucy Van Patten (Shelley Long) on his way to California, where he is to teach at UCLA, he describes as an example of “the Lubitsch touch” a scene from The Merry Widow. The overweight King Achmed (George Barbier) leaves his bed chamber for a cabinet meeting and finds himself struggling to put on a sword belt far too small, thereby realizing that his wife, the queen (Una Merkel), is having an affair with Captain Danilo (Maurice Chevalier). Meyers also later makes express her debt to Lubitsch when in The Holiday Eli Wallach, who plays a celebrated, old-school screenwriter named Arthur Abbott, describes how film characters “meet cute” in classic Hollywood movies. As he describes it, a man and a woman meet and fall in love in a department store where the man wants only the pants and the woman wants only the tops to a pair of pajamas. This “meet cute” scene is the opening scene to Lubitsch’s Bluebeard’s Eight Wife (1938).

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Lubitsch came to Hollywood in 1922 at the request of Mary Pickford, who soon despaired when he ignored her stardom in Rosita. “A director of doors,” she lamented. (3) Focused upon the relationship between his characters, not the stardom of any one, Lubitsch is well known for depicting the doors to his sets as visual metaphors for the developing relationships between his characters. Thus, for example, the growing love interest between and later difficulties encountered by Count Alfred (Maurice Chevalier) and Queen Louise (Jeanette MacDonald) in The Love Parade (1929) is expressed through a series of episodes in which overly large doors metaphorically convey significance. There is the door separating the libertine Count Alfred from Queen Louise’s council room of comically stern ministers, Queen Louise’s boudoir door which separates Louise and Alfred from the prying eyes of her court as well as the commoners of her kingdom, and the door to Alfred’s bedroom which he locks as their relationship deteriorates. Likewise, the failed romance between Gaston (Herbert Marshall) and Mariette (Kay Francis) in Trouble in Paradise turns on our unexpected discovery of a third door to the upstairs area of Mariette’s palatial home. Maintaining the discretion required of a secretary to his wealthy employer, Gaston is careful to lock at night the door to his secretarial room. It is only when Mariette begins to question Gaston’s motives as a lover and thinks of him as simply a jewel thief out to steal from her that Lubitsch reveals a third door leading directly to Gaston’s secretarial bedroom. Mariette chooses to enter that door, no longer maintaining any pretence that she is a lady, and thereby initiates a series of events resulting in Gaston’s deserting her for his fellow thief and lover, Lily (Miriam Hopkins).

For Lubitsch doors define the configuration of his sets and hence the privacy (or the lack of privacy) which his characters enjoy or to which they are condemned. The many doors off the central, public area of the leather goods shop in Shop around the Corner (1940) both isolate and encourage relationships between characters. The door leading to the shop owner’s spacious, nearly empty office isolates its inhabitant, Mr. Matuschek (Frank Morgan), and thereby foreshadows his later separation from his wife who is having an affair with one of his shop employees, Mr. Vadas (Joseph Schildkraut). In contrast, another door leads to the storeroom which is overstocked with boxes of luggage and other leather goods and where the principal characters, Klara Novak (Margarat Sullavan) and Alfred Kralik (James Stewart), can banter with one another, each unaware of the other’s secret life. That common storeroom foreshadows their later falling in love with one another upon learning of the secret lives which they unknowingly share. Likewise, the opening of the many interior doors to the royal suite in Ninotchka results in a vast, interior space, which makes plain that Leon (Melvyn Douglas) and Ninotchka (Greta Garbo) have become liberated from the limitations of their political leanings as royalist and communist, culminating in Ninotchka’s speech to the masses in this most capitalistic of open spaces: “Comrades!…The revolution is on the march. I know. Bombs will fall, civilization will crumble. But not yet, please. Wait. What’s the hurry? Give us our moment. Let’s be happy.”

Sets are equally important for Meyers. They differ entirely, however, in their particulars. Lubitsch frequently placed his stories in either mythical places like Marshovia (The Merry Widow) and Flaussenenthurm (The Smiling Lieutenant) or European cities, such as Warsaw (To Be or Not to Be) and Budapest (Shop Around the Corner). In contrast, Meyers, who was born in the United States, places her characters in the vineyards of Napa Valley (The Parent Trap), the offices of Madison Avenue (What Women Want), the country homes of East Hampton (Something’s Gotta Give), and the palatial estates of Hollywood (The Holiday). For a narrative frequently focused upon the ornate style of European royalty, she substitutes the Architectural Digest look of the American nouveau riche. She, like Lubitsch, places her characters in stylized sets so that our focus is on character relationships, not the particulars of the backdrop or the economics of the back-story, howsoever important a role economics may, in fact, implicitly play.

For Meyers food functions as the central metaphor for her narratives and their characters. Something’s Gotta Give opens with a series of shots of strikingly beautiful women in their 20s about whom Harry Sanborn (Jack Nicholson) rhapsodizes that they represent the “sweet, uncomplicated satisfaction of the younger woman” – “it’s magic time”. Harry is a serial-dater of women under the age of 30, and he is then dating and about to sleep with Marin (Amanda Peet), the daughter of the famous playwright Erica Barry (Diane Keaton). These women, who “can render a man absolutely helpless,” resemble fashion models whose appearance is the result of food deprivation, that is, anorexia. Meyers soon makes plain her view that Harry’s attraction to these women is unnatural. Her “meet cute” scene between Harry and Erica occurs at the refrigerator in Erica’s East Hampton home. Harry is looking for a snack dressed only in his underwear and an unbuttoned shirt and must defend himself against Erica’s claim that he is a burglar, an indirect, if ironic, reference to Harry’s cradle-snatching affairs with younger women, such as Erica’s daughter. Tellingly, as they banter back and forth, Harry comes to acknowledge that Erica’s reaction in confronting him at the refrigerator with a knife evidences how she is “very strong”, “very macho”, a term which Harry would never apply to the younger women whom he dates. For Meyers the highest compliment a man can give to a woman is that she is a man’s equivalent.

Moreover, food and sexual desire are inextricably, intimately intertwined for Meyers. Thus, the growing attraction between Erica and Harry, both highly successful careerists, is conveyed by Harry’s encounter of Erica naked while he is trying to find the kitchen in her palatial East Hampton home. Never having seen a woman his own age naked, Harry is literally startled at encountering his own aging in the form of a naked woman. Likewise, Erica’s obsessive wearing of turtlenecks to cover her entire body reflects her effort at avoiding an acknowledgement of aging. As Harry confesses to Erica following that encounter and during their first walk together: “Truth is that it goes fast”, like the “blink of an eye”. The most poignant, confessional scene between Erica and Harry soon follows, taking place in Erica’s East Hampton kitchen. Both yearn for a midnight snack of pancakes. Harry observes that Erica is a “tower of strength”, “formidable”, and that with her defenses down she has that “killer combo”; Erica, in turn, confesses that Harry is the only person who has understood her. In contrast to the stereotypical scene of a romantic seduction followed by sex, theirs consists of sex followed by a candlelight dinner. Their romantic attachment to one another as soulmates culminates in Paris where their commitment is sealed with a dinner of roast chicken.

The metaphoric significance of food is equally important in Meyers’ It’s Complicated, whose main character, Jane Adler (Meryl Streep), owns a bakery-restaurant. The developing sexual affair between her and her ex-husband, Jake Adler (Alec Baldwin), is paralleled by the ever-growing demands he places upon her to feed him his favourite meals. Their extra-marital affair begins at a NYC hotel bar, where they drink and eat too much, ending up in bed together. They continue to pursue their affair when Jake shows up at Jane’s house where she is in the midst of planning with her architect, Adam Schaffer (Steve Martin), the new kitchen for the house she purchased when she divorced Jake. Symbolically their affair fails when Jane prepares Jake’s favorite meal of roast chicken, mashed potatoes, string beans and chocolate cake, and Jake does not show up as a result of the demands of his new, much younger wife, Agness (Lake Bell). In contrast to Jane, Agness, also a driven careerist, is not only unable to cook but, in fact, breaks things in the kitchen and allows her five year old son Pedro (Emjay Anthony) to dictate the family’s eating habits.

Moreover, Meyers simultaneously conveys in It’s Complicated what follows when that appetite for food – and the eroticism which it represents – is missing. As Jane’s affair with Jake deteriorates, her relationship with Adam advances, evidenced by an evening during which they savour together chocolate cake and chocolate croissants. There is, however, clearly an absence of eroticism to this relationship. Like Harry Sanborn in Something’s Gotta Give, Adam “gets to be the girl” in the relationship, evidenced by his admission at his having cried for hours when he learned that his wife had left him for his ex-best friend. Adam, however, wholly lacks Jake’s appetite. While Adam inquires at film’s end whether Jane has any more of those “amazing chocolate croissants”, Adam lacks the corpulence of Jake, whose insatiable – frequently egotistical – hunger for food drives him to experience the sensual delight of bedding Jane and vice versa. In contrast, Adam is the reasonable and sexually neuter adult. “So this is how adults talk to one another?” Jane comments when Adam suggests that they defer seeing one another until Jane has resolved her relationship with Jake. That adulthood evinces a lack of a genuinely erotic appetite. Nevertheless, Jane chooses Adam, because she wishes neither to upset the expectations of her grown children, who are horrified at the prospect of their parents re-uniting after so many years, nor to leave permanently her comfort zone, notwithstanding her persuasive effort at convincing her psychiatrist of her need to do so. As Jake grows ever more passionate and in love, Jane looks at herself in the mirror and sadly asks, “Is that what I look like?” The dissatisfying ending of It’s Complicated results from the triumph of the rational adult (Adam, who prefers fine food) over the child (Jake, who savors the taste of an “insane amount” of leftovers). Sadly, the last shot of Jane and Jake shows them together as two children on a swing.

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The films of Lubitsch and Meyers rely upon the same narrative tension. In particular, both directors place their characters in the dilemma of choosing between the uncertainty of excitement and the comfort of stasis. Just as Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise is about the temptation of Gaston to leave the excitement of thievery offered by his beloved Lily for the security as gigolo to Mariette, Meyer’s The Holiday is about whether Amanda Woods (Cameron Diaz) is prepared to put aside the excitement of running her own Hollywood business for the trans-Atlantic love affair and marriage with Graham (Jude Law). Lubitsch and Meyers also both acknowledge the infirmities of their characters who choose between these options. While opting in Heaven Can Wait for the child-like imagination of the philandering Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) over his staid cousin Albert Van Cleve (Allyn Joslyn), Lubitsch leaves no doubt as to Henry’s occasional infidelities and infantileness. Likewise, while Meyers’ What Women Want mocks the sexist escapades and criticizes the competitive thievery of Nick Marshall (Mel Gibson), Meyers also does not fully endorse the imaginative, if competitive, drive of Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt). Darcy’s successful Nike slogan for women – “no games, just sports” – implies a neutering of the relationship between men and women. The advertising image for this slogan consists of a woman running alone, underscoring that running is a solitary sport.

Lubitsch and Meyers differ, however, in the resolution of their narratives. Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise and Heaven Can Wait provide a sense of closure. Gaston and Lily are last seen together in a two-shot in a cab, and Henry is last seen going “up” to join his wife in heaven. In contrast, The Holiday and What Women Want end ambiguously. The joyous New Year’s Eve party which ends The Holiday leaves unresolved the geographic conflict between Amanda’s career in Hollywood and the family offered by Graham in England. While Darcy’s initial instinct following Nick’s admission that he has stolen all of her ideas is “I think you’re fired”, her acceptance of Nick’s betrayal – what kind of “rescuing knight” would she be if she let him walk out? – is more a tacked on “happy ending” than a resolution of the romantic and sexual tension between the two. Darcy’s final embrace of Nick, who is no longer empowered to know “what women want,” conveys more of a resignation to her situation than a triumph of equals romantically, let alone erotically, in love.

This difference in narrative resolution is surely attributable to the respective backgrounds of Lubitsch and Meyers. Born a German Jew in 1892, Lubitsch rebelled against his lower middle class upbringing by becoming a theatrical actor at the age of 19 under the direction of Max Reinhardt. Lubitsch, as a film director of German silents, quickly gravitated towards theatrical spectacles, such as Madam DuBarry (1919) and Anna Boleyn (1920), which focused on the sexual intrigue between characters. His sound films maintained that theatrical conceit in which his characters are players with timed entrances and exits, making manifest how “all the world’s a stage” and each of us players destined to pass away.

Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be (1942) is the most literal enactment of that viewpoint. It consists of a series of theatrical, Pirandellian performances in which events are continually replayed, thereby conveying the limitations of each performance. For example, a minor actor named Bronski (Tom Dugan) portrays Adolf Hitler on a theatrical set which reproduces the streets of Warsaw prior to the Nazi invasion; later he reenacts that same role and thereby saves the acting troupe from the “real” Nazis then occupying Warsaw. Likewise, Colonel Ehrhardt (Sig Ruman) plays the “real” “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” to Joseph Tura (Jack Benny), the lead actor of the Polish acting troupe; later Tura re-plays the role of “Concentration Camp Ehrhardt” to the Polish patriot but, in fact, Nazi spy, Professor Siletsky (Stanley Ridges), with Siletsky unmasking Tura by mocking the feigned infidelity of Tura’s actress wife, Maria Tura (Carole Lombard). That Professor Siletsky is soon thereafter killed on a theatrical stage – his death melodramatically underscored by the rise of a stage curtain – highlights how for Lubitsch theatre and life are equivalent insofar as the former acts as a metaphor for the latter.

Lubitsch acknowledges through his theatrical conceits the limitations of life, and his characters accept these limitations as the prerequisite for a satisfied life. Captain Danilo in Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow is the favourite to all of the women of Marshovia and Maxim’s. Nevertheless and notwithstanding his unbridled eroticism, he comes to choose Sonia, “the merry widow”, an oxymoronic term connoting the connection between sex and death. That the erotic attraction between these two characters is renewed each time the Merry Widow Waltz is played is placed in context by the visuals which convey limitation. The swirl of the dancing couples at the Marshovian ball, with their effortless movement and their visual evocation of phallic ejaculation, is belied by the mirrors which contain these couples as they move downward through the screen shot. While achieving a romantic satisfaction, Lubitsch’s characters also encounter a closure in the film’s final shot. Sonia and Captain Danilo’s marriage ceremony is performed in a prison cell. Danilo undoubtedly speaks for Lubitsch, who divorced in the early 1930s as a result of an affair between his wife and a friend (who was also Lubitsch’s screenwriter), when he twice utters the line that “any man who could waltz through life with hundreds of women and is willing to walk through life with one should be –“ and comes to substitute at film’s end the word “married” for “hanged”. There is both an unease and acceptance at this inevitable connection between the erotic and death. There is a dark humour to the moment in The Love Parade when Queen Louise, whom everyone wants to see married, comments in response to one of her ladies in waiting telling her that she has dreamed that Queen Louise has married, “You call that a lovely dream?”

For all of the comedic, lightly musical atmosphere of Lubitsch’s films, there is an underlying darkness to them. The satisfaction of his happy endings is achieved only by his characters’ acceptance of limitations. The conflict between “cash” and jewelry in Trouble in Paradise – Mariette’s hundreds of thousands of francs, which Lily and Gaston intend to rob, and Mariette’s seed pearl necklace, for which Lily yearns – represents the divide between the demands of the everyday, on the one hand, and the romantic, aspirational passions of his characters, on the other. That the final shot shows Lily and Gaston alone in a darkened cab with both cash and jewelry underscores how for Lubitsch both are required in order to find satisfaction in life. The final shot of Design for Living (1933) likewise shows Tom Chambers (Fredric March), Gilda Farrell (Miriam Hopkins) and George Curtis (Gary Cooper) enclosed within the confines of a cab, thereby evoking the triumph of an erotic ménage a trois – but at the expense of lives now relegated to a Bohemian lifestyle in which, as George observed, he lives on “nothing”.

Thus, notwithstanding the seeming frivolity of Lubitsch’s films, there is always a sense of continuously diminishing opportunities. Clocks, which evoke the passage of time and its limitation, figure prominently in Lubitsch’s movies. Mariette’s seduction of Gaston in Trouble in Paradise is enacted through a montage of clocks whose sounds mark that seduction over the course of an evening, and Ninotchka and Leon meet on a traffic island with a large clock visually dominating their space. Mariette may tease Gaston by provocatively commenting that “we have months, years,” but the shadows of their bodies simultaneously cast upon a bed belie that egotistical view of life as limitless. Henry Von Cleve of Heaven Can Wait possesses an imagination which knows no bounds. He becomes a book clerk in wooing Martha but could have become a waiter had she walked into a restaurant, a fireman had she walked into a burning building or an elevator operator had she walked into an elevator. Yet for all his imaginative powers and the wealth made over several generations which enables Henry to enjoy his freedom, what is Heaven Can Wait but a reenactment of Henry’s birthdays marking the passage of time and the significant events to Henry’s life, following each of which a family member departs from Henry’s life? (4) At the moment of Henry’s death we hear the playing of the Merry Widow Waltz from behind the closed door to Henry’s bedroom. Henry, among the most erotically charged and romantically in love characters depicted by Lubitsch, is simply the last of the family members to depart from this earth.

Paradoxically, the saving grace for Lubitsch is that life ultimately provides closure and thereby a sense of satisfaction to his inevitably departing characters, including Henry. While occasionally straying by buying a $500 necklace for another woman, Henry remains happily married to Martha for whom he purchases a $10,000 necklace. Dr. Bertier (Maurice Chevalier) in One Hour With You (1932) can declare that “I am married and I like it”, be seduced by Mitzi (Genevieve Tobin) but choose, together with his wife, to remain committed to their marriage, understanding the folly of Mitzi’s husband’s claim that “nobody is responsible for their actions”. While Lubitsch in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) has Niki (Maurice Chevalier) mock the notion of growing old together – “Just imagine the same woman fifteen years younger, twenty pounds lighter, same girl” – years later Lubitsch expresses great sadness in Shop Around the Corner at Mr. Matuschek’s wife’s affair with Mr. Vadas, evidence that she didn’t want to grow old with Mr. Matuschek. Lubitsch makes palpable the eroticism of marriage by the acuteness of the temptation of extra-marital affairs and the conscious commitment to a marriage between two imperfect persons.

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Meyers grew up in an entirely different era than Lubitsch. Born an American Jew in Philadelphia in 1949 and raised by upper middle class parents, Meyers moved shortly following college to Hollywood where she gravitated toward screenwriting. By 1980 she had co-written and co-produced her first film, Private Benjamin, a commercially successful film about a “Jewish American princess” who joins the U.S. Army when her husband dies on their wedding night and who in the film’s final shot walks off, deserting her French lover with no sense of a future direction. In contrast to Lubitsch, Meyers takes for granted the material goods (“cash”) of American culture and is more steeped in the world of film than in the conventions of the stage. Meyers self-referentially refers to the illusions of film, thereby always questioning her characters’ choices. Thus, her narrative resolutions are never satisfying other than in the seeming perfection of the materials goods with which she surrounds her characters. Her women and men are never at peace even at their most romantically satisfied moments. She brackets those moments as cinematic illusions. Having divorced her co-screenwriter husband of many years and now alone in a male, careerist culture, Meyers lacks any faith in the eroticism of marriage and instead creates through her career as screenwriter and director a world of romance without consequence.

The Holiday makes most explicit this bracketing. The film opens on a romantic scene of a young couple kissing and seemingly in love, the swelling music heightening that effect. However, the camera pulls back to reveal that Miles (Jack Black) is laying in the soundtrack to this shot to create its effect. On its surface The Holiday is a movie about two disillusioned women – one woman (Amanda Woods played by Cameron Diaz) who has been unable to cry since she was a teenager when her parents unexpectedly separated and another (Iris Simpkins played by Kate Winslet) who is unable to stop crying because she has been hopelessly in love with a co-worker who has taken advantage of her love for his own benefit – and how both women supposedly find love by leaving their comfort zones. Yet the movie is, in fact, an exploration of the illusions of romance which movies create for us. At a local video store Miles imitates the sound tracks to such movies as Chariots of Fire (1981), Driving Miss Daisy (1989), Gone with the Wind (1939), Jaws (1975), and The Graduate (1967) and thereby demonstrates for Iris how movie sounds evoke feelings in us which are not grounded in a reality other than that created by the movies themselves.  Meyers’ cynically critical view at the effect of such movie sounds upon her audience – and herself – is evident when she shows Dustin Hoffman, the star of The Graduate, listening in on Miles’ conversation in a nearby aisle. Likewise, when Amanda at last cries and hence expresses her love for Iris’ brother Graham (Jude Law), Meyers makes us aware of her own movie trickery. She has the voice for Amanda’s movie trailers announce “welcome back, Amanda Woods” and then accompanies Amanda’s race through the snow in order to rejoin Graham with Chariots of Fire music in the background. Meyers continually places brackets around our feelings. Iris’ house, where Amanda falls in love with Graham, consists of a fairytale-like “Rosehill Cottage” located in the town of Surrey, where we later learn Cary Grant was born. And what are we to think when Graham’s so-cute daughter comments that Amanda “looks like my Barbie”?

Underlying Meyers’ search for an enduring relationship between her women and men is an awareness that her feelings have been formed by the very medium in which she works. Her commercial success as a director depends on her creating the illusion of eternal romance. However, in that act of creation she erases her own feelings formed through the mundane and pain of daily living. Her movie characters reflect that. The love making between Amanda and Graham is physical, without any sense of erotic attraction. The attraction between Iris and Miles is romantic, not a marital commitment to growing old together. Iris acknowledges to Arthur Abbott that she likes “corny”, is “looking for corny” and confesses that “it’s all those movies.” Meyers opts for sentiment over eros.

Something’s Gotta Give seemingly celebrates a sexual relationship between two, mature adults who choose to marry. Yet Something’s Gotta Give is equivocal about that relationship. Death, which for Lubitsch is inextricably intertwined with sex, functions only as a comic plot device for Meyers. Jake suffers a heart attack while making love to Erica’s daughter in order that he and Erica can be together in Erica’s East Hampton home. Their physically exhilarating pleasure of sex in bed eventually gives way to the overly romantic, studio-like shot in Paris with snow lightly falling. Moreover, the movie closes with the too perfect coda of Erica and Harry having dinner together with Erica’s daughter, son-in-law and grandchild. The erotic attraction between these two, mature adults is neutered by the presence of the younger generations and the resulting look of self-satisfied glee on Harry’s face. Meyers’ lead character in Something’s Gotta Give can no more escape the entrapment of her creative self than can the lead character in The Holiday. Amanda Woods, a successful producer of movie trailers, falls for Graham only when she is able to cry, complete with movie trailer voiceover; likewise the playwright Erica Barry only finds her voice by crying from a supposedly broken heart, which then inspires her to write her successful Broadway play based on her affair with Harry entitled A Woman to Love. Everything is material for the creative, cinematic production; there is no sense of privacy, only ego. Lubitsch replays scenes to lend credibility to the underlying truth of his characters’ emotions. Toward the conclusion of Trouble in Paradise the emotional pain experienced by Gaston, Mariette and Lily, as each separately loses a loved one, is conveyed through a series of parallel, confrontational scenes between pairs of characters in which Lubitsch continuously shifts our focus from one character to the another. Meyers, however, evokes circularity in which fiction and life are equivalent in that the former becomes a substitute for the latter. Snow falls on the theatrical stage of Erica’s play then in rehearsal; the falling snow in Paris as Erica and Harry re-affirm their love for one another is no less a romantic conceit.

Where Lubitsch’s characters choose, Meyers’ characters equivocate. In Cluny Brown (1946) Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones) utters, child-like, that plumbing, a metaphor for sexual engagement, is “great fun” and refuses to accept the resulting social disapproval. Adam Belinski (Charles Boyer) responds by offering to build her a home with the most magnificent plumbing. “What’s anyone’s place?” he asks, celebrating the imaginative power to choose, notwithstanding social conventions to the contrary. In contrast, Meyers’ Jane and Jake, who enliven each other’s lives and have “fun”, remain uncertain about the value of such “fun” and eventually separate because of those conventions which define a divorced couple. Jane comments to Jake that they are “not supposed to have fun like that,” and Jake later responds to Jane’s question about whether their affair “felt right” with “it was complicated.” For Meyers that perceived messiness to life forecloses her characters from finding satisfaction.

Meyers provides no alternative to the careerism of her characters and the conventions which entrap them. Because of her self-consciousness, even her “happy endings” leave her characters adrift with ungrounded, romantic illusions. Lizzie (Natasha Richardson) and Nick (Dennis Quaid) in The Parent Trap may assure us that they “expect to live happily ever after,” but the swelling music and the broad smiles on the faces of their twin daughters (Lindsay Lohan) renders that “happy ending” more fairytale than a marriage with a genuinely erotic consummation. In contrast, in Lubitsch’s Design for Living it is the comic character, Max Plunkett (Edward Horton), who reprimands the child-like trio of Gilda, Tommy and George that “immorality may be fun but it isn’t fun enough to take the place of 100% virtue and three square meals a day.” As such, it is plain where Lubitsch’s sympathies lie. Lubitsch rejects adulthood in the form of the chemist Mr. Wilson (Richard Haydn), who intends to remain for the rest of his life in the house annexed to his shop, and Henry Von Cleve’s cousin Albert, who describes himself as a well made jacket. For Lubitsch neither unbridled careerism nor unrestrained imagination alone suffice. As a consequence, his endings find a balance in which the pairings of his characters, frequently in the form of marriage, satisfy.

As a careerist alone in a field dominated by men with the resulting bias against her, Meyers seems condemned to create narratives with dissatisfying endings. Indeed, Meyers is well aware of how Hollywood has limited her options and affected her movies. Lucy Brodsky in Irreconcilable Differences observes that, because she is a woman, she has received no credit for writing with her then husband, Albert Brodsky, the screenplay for the critically and commercially successful movie “American Romance”. Albert responds by attacking her for being a “feminist”, as though that term were a curse. Darcy in What Women Want becomes separated from her ex-husband when she outperforms him at her former advertising agency, underscoring, as she points out, that the price a woman pays for success is that you “don’t get love”. Harry and Erica’s first dinner together in Something’s Gotta Give turns into a discussion about the different social expectations of women and men, particularly as they age. Diane Sawyer remains for Harry “the greatest pair of legs”, while Diane Sawyer is for Erica the consummate professional reporter. Amanda’s careerist drive in The Holiday to grow her own movie trailer company dooms her ability to find satisfaction in her relationships with men. As she tells her then boyfriend Ethan (Ed Burns), she has no time for sex and is glad that they kept separate homes and never married. In the context of a contemporary culture in which work, romance and the erotic are compartmentalized and a woman at best “gets to be the boy,” Meyers’ movie characters are left with only an idealized, romantic love, a sense of surprise at their failed marriages, because this “wasn’t supposed to happen to us”, and a collection of well crafted objects – BMWs, palatial homes, contemporary art. Not surprisingly, Meyers lacks any faith in the significance, let alone permanence, of the erotic and hence any faith in marriage.

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Lubitsch’s movies frequently take place in Paris. The Love Parade opens in Paris; the romantic entanglements in Trouble in Paradise occur in Paris; the Bohemian characters in Design for Living reside in a Parisian atelier; Captain Danilo takes refuge in the Paris of Maxim’s; Ninotchka and Leon fall in love in Paris; and Henry Von Cleve is educated into adulthood by a French maid. Paris for Lubitsch is a place of both romance and mechanical engineering, where the Eiffel Tower, a phallic metaphor, is unique because of its 54 degree angle and its marvels from a “technical standpoint”. Meyers is American by birth, and her movies are located in California, New York and London. Nevertheless, she, too, aspires to the romance of Paris. Meyers, however, perceives Paris as, at best, as a wintery, romantic playground (Something’s Gotta Give) and, at worst, as a playground for male philandering under the guise of a story about a prince charming (Private Benjamin). Jane Adler’s apprenticeship in Paris, where she learned to make croque monsieur, is a thing of the past, like her former marriage with Jake, and she declines to grow old with him, notwithstanding his proposal. Thus, Meyers implicitly criticizes Jake’s comment to Jane that their affair is “very French of us”. Ever the classical director, Lubitsch is satisfied with his place in life, notwithstanding the limitations, both commercial and physical, which life imposes; ever the post-modernist, Meyers remains dissatisfied, notwithstanding the freedom and material goods from which she benefits. In contrast to Meyers’ Darcy Maguire, who wins the women’s Nike account with the slogan “no games, just sports” as a result of a presentation about how the road doesn’t notice how old you are, how you look or who makes more money, Lubitsch would surely conclude that love for one’s beshert, one’s soulmate, is never neutral, always messy, and that the erotic demands “just games, no sports.”

Endnotes

  1. “‘While there is no doubting Meyers’ directing ability, her passion lies in writing. ‘Directing is really a way of protecting the writing,’ she told Sheri Linden of the Hollywood Reporter. ‘The reason I direct movies is so that what I’ve written can get on the screen. I don’t feel driven to direct; I feel driven to write. And then, because I write, I’m driven to direct.’” Encyclopedia of World Biography, Nancy Meyers, http://www.notablebiographies.com/newsmakers2/2006-Le-Ra/Meyers-Nancy.html. Retrieved on December 31, 2011.
  2. Lubitsch’s working habits are described in An Interview with Samson Raphaelson in Weinberg, Herman G., The Lubitsch Touch: A Critical Study (New York, E.P, Dutton & Co., 1968), 204 (“Seventy five percent of his work was done when the script was done.”). Ernst Lubitsch himself boasted on how he changed nothing once film shooting began. Creelman, Irene, August 27, 1937 The New York Sun.
  3. Ibid., 49.
  4. Paul, William, Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy (New York, Columbia University Press, 1983), 291-2.

About The Author

Robert Alpert received his MFA in Film from Columbia University, occasionally teaches college classes on film, and has written for Jump Cut. He is a partner in the New York office of a large, general practice law firm, where he practices in the area of intellectual property law.