Diane Keaton and Jack Nicholson first starred together in 1981 in the political drama Reds, directed by Warren Beatty. Twenty-two years later, the two reunited for a very different kind of film, Something’s Gotta Give, by rom-com virtuoso, writer-director Nancy Meyers.
In Something’s Gotta Give, Harry Sanborn is dating 29-year-old auctioneer Marin (Amanda Peet) and, after two heart attacks render Harry unable to leave the Hamptons for a week, Marin’s mother, Erica Barry, is forced to care for a man who is her complete opposite in every conceivable way. However, much to both of their surprise, Erica finds herself falling in love with her daughter’s boyfriend.
As Harry Sanborn, — wealthy music mogul and undying playboy — is there really any better fit than Jack Nicholson, a man who exudes charisma like no other? Similarly, for Erica Barry — supremely successful playwright, a modern-day Lillian Hellman — Diane Keaton is perfectly cast. Aged 65 and 56 respectively at the time of filming, Nicholson and Keaton were bold choices for a mainstream romantic comedy in a perpetually ageist Hollywood.
A study released in 2016 by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative revealed that out of roughly 4,066 speaking characters in the top 100 US films in 2015, only 11% were 60 or older. Jane Fonda, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Kim Cattrall and Helen Mirren are just a few of the well-known actresses over the years who have spoken out over the ageism issue within the industry and, in 2019, actresses ‘of a certain age’ are still having difficulties getting their films made. Mary Steenburgen said that it was “kind of a miracle” that 2018’s Book Club ever got made as Hollywood wants actresses to just disappear once they hit 40. The fact that, in 2003, Something’s Gotta Give was such a rip-roaring success proves that there is a place in cinema for the older demographic.
In an interview for the film, Keaton perfectly summed up my feelings towards older actors and actresses starring in romantic comedies: “Let’s face it, people my age and Jack’s age are much deeper, much more soulful, because they’ve seen a lot of life. They have a great deal of passion and hope — why shouldn’t they fall in love? Why shouldn’t movies show that?” (Ladies’ Home Journal, January 2004). My thoughts exactly — their knowledge, wit and wisdom is unparalleled so why is Hollywood so desperately afraid of anyone over the age of 35? Thank god for Meyers, who is unafraid to put the older generation at the forefront of her films without ageist stereotypes.
Meyers has created two smart, nuanced and downright hilarious characters, and Erica is the best of them all. She is a woman who thrived after getting divorced; learnt French after her husband left; learnt Italian after a bust-up with Harry; has a beach house in the Hamptons; and maintains a close relationship with her ex-husband (who still directs all of her plays). Harry, on the other hand, is outed by Zoe — Erica’s sister, played wonderfully by Frances McDormand — as a famous bachelor at the first dinner Marin, Harry, Zoe and Erica share. Harry’s previous exploits, sexploits, or sexcapades if you will, have made him (and his lack of commitment) legendary. So much so, that New York Magazine once dedicated an entire article to him called ‘The Escape Artist’. Harry is even introduced through a flurry of beautiful women joining him on various evenings at dinner. On the end credits list, they are credited as “beauties”. His reputation does indeed precede him.
Erica doesn’t hide the fact that she disapproves of her daughter dating a much older man and, after their first meeting, she suddenly notices older men and younger women everywhere, hissing “It’s an epidemic.” Zoe later jokes, “Thank God men die younger than us, it’s the only break we get.” Erica and Harry’s differences are further highlighted when Harry, wandering around the beach house late at night, mistakes Erica’s bedroom for the kitchen and accidentally sees her fully nude. Both are in shock but none more so than Harry, who tells his doctor, Julian Mercer (Keanu Reeves), that he has never seen a woman that age naked before.
As individual characters, Erica and Harry are both intricately fascinating in their own way and Meyers expertly defies stereotype. Erica is a doer, a strong heroine, yet not without vulnerabilities and Keaton almost transcends the role and, dare I say it, it’s a role she was born to play. Nicholson, on the other hand, is almost intrinsically linked to the role of Harry. Any passing knowledge of the star would dispel any doubt about him being right for the role. However, it’s the finer details that make Nicholson’s performance what it is. Every eyebrow raise, every flick of the arm all feels meticulously (and brilliantly) calculated, yet in Nicholson’s hands, entirely effortless. Erica and Harry are two people who have lived, really lived, and that is why the casting of Keaton and Nicholson works so beautifully; it’s entirely believable.
Things get complicated when Erica starts dating doctor/uber-hunk Keanu Reeves — who is just too adorable for words — and feels adoration for the first time in a long time. However, her feelings for Harry are quickly multiplying and their first night together is a roller coaster of emotions. Keaton’s scenes in bed with Nicholson are wonderful; she is overcome and weeping with gratitude as a part of herself she thought was dead, has awoken after all these years. Harry, however, is just happy he didn’t die from having sex a week after a heart attack. Meyers’ camera never lets up from either of their faces, we can see every line and wrinkle, and it is beautiful. She never shies away or tries to hide their age, which makes the film even more impactful.
Keaton and Nicholson are at their best when they are just strolling on the beach talking. Erica finally asks Harry why all the young women to which he replies, “Just like to travel light.” Erica is bemused and laughs but later the same day, they are having a pyjama party and making pancakes. This is the moment they are falling in love but it is cut short by Marin’s arrival. How cruel life can be but thank God Marin noticed something between the two and dumps Harry. Before the night is over, Harry opens his heart and says to Erica, “You are a tower of strength. I think you use your strength to separate yourself from everyone. But it’s thrilling when your defences are down and you’re not isolated. That, I believe, is your winning combo. Killer combo actually.” There you have it folks, the only man to ever really get her.
Meyers has never shied away from giving a voice to the older generation. Robert De Niro re-entered the work force in The Intern; both Father of the Bride and Father of the Bride Part II focused on the parents rather than the children; and It’s Complicated focused on a divorced middle-aged woman who, shock horror, had a lot of sex. This film deserves its place among the best romantic comedies in the last thirty years, not just for the masterful performances of Keaton and Nicholson, but for proving that life doesn’t end at 40. Something’s Gotta Give is a treasure.
by Lorna Codrai
Lorna Codrai is a freelance writer and film journalist in the UK and the UAE. She loves David Fincher, Sleepless in Seattle, cats and Christmas, and her hero is Nora Ephron. Her work has appeared in Cinema Escapist, Cultured Vultures, The Telegraph and The Observer. She is also the co-creator and editor of Vamp Cat Magazine. You can find her tweeting about Paul Newman and 90s films @lornacodrai
Categories: Women Film-makers