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The Lovely and Amazing Nicole Holofcener

She's witty and independent and has a killer ear. The director of Please Give opens up

Photograph by Williams + Hirakawa

In Nicole Holofcener’s film Please Give, a buyer and seller of rare and valuable furniture surveys what’s been left behind by a deceased mother whose son just wants to get rid of everything. Along with her partner-husband, the furniture seller, played by Catherine Keener, swoops in on families of the recently departed to buy up sofas, cabinets, and vases that the relatives in their grief are at a loss how to value or what to do with. But in this scene the human ramifications sink in, and she feels pangs at the exploitation—and also a new awareness of the memories vested in the objects of her trade. She’s not unlike the housewife in Holofcener’s 2006 Friends with Money who suddenly discovers the upstairs add-on to her house that’s under construction is something the rest of the neighborhood is miserable about, or the artist in Holofcener’s 2001 Lovely & Amazing who is belatedly cognizant of the demons that torment her much younger, adopted (black) sister. All Holofcener’s movies have this moment when self-involvement bordering on narcissism is disturbed and then broken like the yolk of an egg.

Seventy-two hours off the plane from the Berlin Film Festival, where Please Give was thunderously received, Holofcener is still jet-lagged and under the weather when I find her at an Ocean Park café curled up against the wall, all flannel and long hair. “This is,” she says, juggling a tea bag, “the worst day to talk. I have no voice,” but then it’s Nicole’s tendency, I’ve learned, to warn people right away not to expect much. It’s been 15 months since I’ve seen her. We met six years ago at the Topanga Canyon school our kids attended, back when my son was in the same class as her twins, Gabe and Joe; soon all the boys were coming over to the house, an experience on the order of Erik the Red laying siege to Vineland. Within half an hour furniture was being hurled down the stairs by little hordes, and I was on the phone increasing the umbrella policy. Only amid this ransacking did I become aware that “Nic” was the writer and director of Lovely & Amazing, one of the best pictures of a then-young decade.

Trying to pass through as unobtrusively as possible wherever she’s passing through, Holofcener keeps a low profile, often in a state of mortification about something she’s said or might say or didn’t mean to say, or misstated when she meant something else. A few years ago in another publication she made an offhand comment about the pretentious names given to children by the parents she knew (indicative of her ear for modern sophisticates at their silliest), then felt anguished about her faux pas (indicative of her hair-trigger remorse disproportionate to the transgression), convinced no one would speak to her again (indicative of her outsider’s sensibility). It’s like the bomb maker who starts hearing in every ticking clock a potential explosion. “I look forward—not—to reading my quotes,” she grimaces at the beginning of our interview. In Please Give half a dozen people who don’t know one another well converge for a birthday party, each saying the wrong thing, which is to say the right thing or at least the true thing; and as everyone in a dream is some aspect of the dreamer, so the haplessly blunt voices that Holofcener hears in her head and puts onscreen are her own. They are the voices of rapidly aging coastals in love, in need, in debt, in fear, in guilt, in estrangement, in loneliness, wryly toppling others from the perch between desire and disillusion. Nobody, as someone in Lovely & Amazing puts it, “has the patience for [anyone else’s] insecurities.” In films that aren’t plotted, whose narratives of moral conflict are without beginning or end, the voices take over. “I’ll let one character out of the house,” Holofcener says, “and suddenly she’s talking to another. I usually don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

The awkward truths of Holofcener’s movies are imbued by her personality, which is as self-deprecating as it is gently provocative, as soothing as it is calmly ironic. Keener, the star of all her films, points out the lilt. “I love the way she speaks,” says Keener. “I could hear bad news from Nicole.” 

Holofcener was born in New York City in 1960 and raised on the Upper West Side. “Some of the places,” she says, “are still left. Zabar’s, the lingerie store Plymouth. But the butcher where I got free bologna is gone, and so is the pizza place on my corner that sold a slice for 25 cents.” Her parents, a painter-playwright father and set designer mother, divorced when she was one. When Holofcener was eight her mother married Charles Joffe, a former journalist managing the careers of a number of stand-up comedians, including Woody Allen. Four years later Joffe, now  the producer of Allen’s movies, took the family with him to Hollywood; a Best Picture Oscar for Annie Hall was only six years away. “I was on a lot of the sets,” says Holofcener, “an extra in Take the Money and Run and Sleeper, too.”  

Nonetheless Holofcener was untouched by the wonder that movies instilled in, say, Quentin Tarantino, whom one imagines yapping at the screen at the age of ten while learning the meaning of life from Pam Grier in Coffy. Holofcener remembers the first movies she saw filling her “with fear and sadness. The Nutty Professor with Jerry Lewis scared the shit out of me,” she says, “all that red smoke. So did Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein. Gigot broke my heart.” Returning east to college, she wanted to be a fine artist like her father but “found I wasn’t half as good as the kids in my classes. Then I took some elective film courses.” With a head full of voices she began writing, taking their dictation; it’s no surprise her movies seem more overheard than directed or that for Holofcener the enduring films are those in which the writing holds up, as opposed to a Fellini fantasia that’s dated. (Typically, she begs me not to quote her on this because it would be “disrespectful.” I assure her Fellini’s reputation will somehow survive the onslaught.) Holofcener didn’t know she wanted to direct until she saw Jim Jarmusch’s indie landmark Stranger than Paradise in 1984. “I was riveted,” she says, “and I remember sitting there when the lights came up and staying through a second show. I’d never done that before. I wanted to do something that personal and original, even if I wasn’t sure how, and figured I’d never get the chance anyway.” On seeing a short film she shot at NYU, her stepfather surmised she might consider a new vocation. Discouraged, Holofcener held a job for a while as a clerk in a video store like the one in her 1996 debut, Walking and Talking, made when she was in her mid-thirties. By the time she got to grad school at Columbia University, her work was getting a better response. By the time he died in 2008, her stepfather was a fan.

A committed contemporist, Holofcener is shaped less by Renoir, Lubitsch, and Sturges—all of whom she might claim as forerunners—and more by the films of her own lifetime: Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid, Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance, a handful of Charlie Kaufmans and Coens (A Serious Man was her favorite movie of last year). Her humor shares with them its dark absurdism, most startlingly in Please Give’s first minutes when women’s breasts of every age and shape that Penthouse won’t or can’t imagine are subjected to mammograms. Lovely & Amazing, Holofcener’s second film, remains her most definitive, a map of what’s to come. In its tumult of parents and kids, sisters and sisters, wives and husbands, lovers and lovers, it cuts the widest swath across life’s experiential strata. One woman struggles to sell her art, another to become an actress, another to ready herself for liposuction, another to learn how to swim (in the metaphorical as well as literal senses of the word), and all of them attempt to validate themselves in ways they can actually believe. Then, miraculously—during a catastrophic night when they wind up in jail, in a coma, attacked by a dog, and at McDonald’s—they stumble into a grace that is earned and lucky, permanent and fleeting, destined and capricious.

Please Give is Holofcener’s most philosophically mature and psychologically complex picture. While buying up the dead’s possessions, the furniture sellers lay claim to the apartment next door, once the cranky old woman (Ann Morgan Guilbert) who lives there sees fit to die. The neighbor has two granddaughters, one attentive (Rebecca Hall) and the other begrudging (Amanda Peet). Please Give could play on a double bill with Olivier Assayas’s 2008 Summer Hours, about grown children dealing with the possessions of a passing matriarch and everything that ritual reveals about the sons and daughters and family as a whole; minus a murder here and there, it also bears some similarity to Woody Allen’s 1989 Crimes and Misdemeanors in its autumnal tone and acceptance of life pitched between the mysterious and the meaningless. Where Allen, however, can’t overcome his nihilism (and is most insincere when trying to), and where Assayas is suffused with melancholy, Please Give is more profound and emotionally kaleidoscopic: Lack of connection, lack of esteem, lack of security all become in Please Give the big Lack Of that dares not finish its name and is felt most acutely by women crossing menstrual rubicons toward an end that’s unmistakably closer than the beginning. “Things don’t get better,” says Peet in one scene, “they only get worse,” and while she’s the story’s most shallow character, a Manhattan Barbie whose deepening tan seems at odds with not only the weather and the city but the 21st century itself, the bitter truth of ?what she says is left as undisputed as the beauty of trees in their death throes, turning the color of fire.

Over the course of four features Holofcener has put together a stellar ensemble that includes Frances McDormand, Brenda Blethyn, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Aniston, Liev Schreiber, Emily Mortimer, Joan Cusack, Simon McBurney, Anne Heche, Todd Field, and Greg Germann. But Keener is the gravitational center and, by both the director’s and actress’s admission, Holofcener’s surrogate, cast in Walking and Talking in the role that Holofcener explicitly identified with—a woman for whom love is a room full of Tinkertoys waiting to be knocked over—when she wrote it nearly two decades ago. While they don’t socialize that much between movies, together Holofcener and Keener banter easily like conspirators. They recollect their first meeting as nobodies (“Who were we to ‘take a meeting’?” Holofcener laughs), when the aspiring filmmaker was coming off the Sundance success of a five-minute short called Angry (“It’s about breaking up with my mother,” says Holofcener. “It’s a comedy.”) and Keener had made Johnny Suede and Living in Oblivion with director Tom DiCillo, whose company of actors, which included James LeGros, Dermot Mulroney, and Kevin Corrigan, the women soon raided.

In Holofcener’s movies, Keener’s characters are variations on the same person. “Or,” Keener suggests, “maybe I’m just the same person who grew up in different circumstances in each movie. Rashomon from the inside.” The woman in Please Give, trying to expand the domestic nest horizontally in the vertical city of New York by taking over the neighbor’s apartment, is the one in Friends with Money who tried to expand vertically with the upstairs add-on in the horizontal city of L.A. The director and actress have become such kindred spirits that, as a matter of principle, Holofcener initially determined she wouldn’t cast Keener in Please Give—only to decide, Why not? “She was just the best person for the part,” the director says, “and ultimately I couldn’t ignore my instincts.” De Niro to Holofcener’s Scorsese or Leaud to her Truffaut, or Woody Allen the actor to Holofcener’s Woody Allen the director, most precisely Keener is the Holofcener id to the über-Holofcener. “Sometimes,” the director explains, “Catherine might say about a line in the script, ‘This feels weird to say,’ and she’ll reword it in a way that feels right. Or she’ll ask why she’s saying something, and we’ll discover through my answer, or my lack of one, if it’s necessary.” On the set, director and actress have developed a visual communication in lieu of words, and Keener serves as the go-to reassuring presence for other actors who find that Holofcener has a rather lighter touch than, say, Erich von Stroheim, or Michael Bay, for that matter. “I have one of those faces actors can read,” Holofcener mocks herself, making a stricken expression in reaction to some thespian disaster. “It’s empathy,” Keener assures me. “You know when you’re going to do Nicole the way you know when you’re going to do Chekhov. All the great actresses want to work with her.”

“Well, not all,” Holofcener obliquely counters.

“Who doesn’t?” asks Keener.

“There’s one,” and it seems she’s making a joke, but then suddenly Keener knows exactly whom Holofcener is talking about and they laugh. As well as the navigator of Holofcener’s stories and the crux of their struggles, Keener has become their conscience, too. In Please Give she’s beset by qualms over the fortuitous turns in her life that are dependent on death, while outside the door of her increasingly well-groomed existence is evidence of life’s unfairness in the form of strangers who have less. A routine walk around the block with her contentious teenage daughter (Sarah Steele) is a psychodrama, with Keener’s frantic and extravagant handouts to the homeless a tangible deduction from the $200 jeans that her daughter is as desperate for, and a bid to hold off the ethical torment of her “ambulance chasing,” as another character calls it. This, Holofcener acknowledges, mirrors her own conflicts, even if she doesn’t sell furniture. “Catherine can relate to my contradictions,” Holofcener says. “I’ve been struggling to forgive myself for them my whole life, and though my characters do some unattractive things, I hope we can forgive them.”

Please Give is the Holofcener piece played least for laughs, copping not only to pathos but to grand old-school emotions like angst and sorrow. She sat down at the Polo Lounge with concerned studio executives and went through the script “scene by scene—‘See? This is funny!’?” While Holofcener goes from strength to strength as a filmmaker, each movie is still another rock to be pushed up the mountain, and her experience getting Please Give made says a lot about both the Industry and her. The recipient of consistent accolades for movies that don’t lose money (in terms of budgets, these pictures aren’t Avatar), Holofcener, you would think, has earned a free pass by now. Yet as with the music and book businesses, as with almost anything in American culture these days that involves the most modest investment in the singular and unbranded, every 24-hour cycle in Hollywood is day zero, when something new that doesn’t look like something old is a nearly unfathomable risk. “You know,” she sighs matter-of-factly, “it’s always ‘Great script, no thanks,’?” because the movies are female-centric—“or there’s no one star or it can’t be pitched in a sentence.?” Then Holofcener distills the doubts and affirmations that haunt her: “On the one hand, I do feel a bit arrogant—‘Don’t you trust me by now?’ On the other hand, there’s still that feeling of ‘I can’t believe they’re giving me money to tell my story.’?”

Negotiating “arrogance” and self-doubt proves daunting enough for most filmmakers, but Holofcener has another obstacle. That’s her own integrity, in the face of which compromises are unacceptable that to other people would not only be perfectly sensible but barely compromises. With Please Give, an example was the replacement by Oliver Platt (who plays Keener’s husband) of another more famous actor with several major awards to his name. “I’ll write a character with a certain actor in mind,” Holofcener says, “but then once I start casting I have to forget about who I pictured,” a lesson reinforced by the growing conviction, as she was trying to get Please Give financed, that the original actor was wrong for the role, for reasons that had nothing to do with talent and everything to do with persona and the biases of the audience. “I just had this feeling in my gut it was wrong,” she recalls. “I was petrified”—and then she picked up the phone and called him. “He was very gracious about it. He said, ‘Go make a great movie.’?”

There’s also, you know, the whole gender deal. A single mother, Holofcener is caught in a bind not faced by male filmmakers who trade time with their children for work in a heartbeat, a luxury Holofcener believes she doesn’t have and that her boys don’t, either. “When I hear that a project takes place out of town,” she says, “the material better be terrific, and it has to come at the right time. My kids are getting older, so it’s getting easier, but being a mother—it’s a difficult thing to juggle.” At the same time, in an industry whose employment of women directors is slightly higher than the NFL’s employment of female football players (taking a mere 82 years to present a woman a Best Director Oscar), Holofcener doesn’t have the luxury of sacrificing paychecks. Fortunately episodes she wrote for Sex and the City, back when the show was so new she had to convince people it wasn’t a porn series, are still paying the bills. I’ve never known the feminist plaint to be Nicole’s style, and she considers herself “one of the lucky ones—99 percent of the jobs I’ve had have been fun,” which means she has an awfully low fun threshold or is living a charmed life or is predisposed to view life as more charmed than it is, which might be the biggest revelation about her. “But I’m still shooting on low budgets, though none of my movies has lost money, and I rarely get sent anything that stars a guy or is a thriller or is seriously dramatic. And I would love the opportunity to do those things.”

*****

Holofcener moved out of Topanga 11 months ago. Only after coming to know her did I realize how incongruous it was that she lived there, though not necessarily any more incongruous to me than that I live there. “I definitely feel like a native New Yorker,” she admits. “My personality was formed there. Taking the subway when I was a kid, seeing people chase each other with knives, getting followed by perverts—yikes, what does that say about my personality? Don’t answer. I was so independent in New York. As soon as I became an L.A. kid, I pitched a fit if my mom made me take a bus down Wilshire.” Irrevocably discouraged by the logistics of canyon living, having to “keep a change of clothes in the back of the car” because every excursion to the market is tantamount to planning a NASA launch, she now has a house in Venice with her boys, who are quiet, friendly, and disconcertingly grown-up while on the terrifying cusp of adolescence, like my own son. Maybe our children aren’t trying out for the sequel to A Clockwork Orange after all. I can’t tell how much she’s settled in the new Venice house; thinking back on her Topanga abode, I’m not sure she was settled there, either. I begin to wonder whether the woman in Please Give, moving horizontally, or in Friends with Money, moving vertically, really moves for the space or for the sensation of movement. Everyone in Holofcener’s films is restless in some way.

Because Holofcener is, as Keener maintains, as much an auteur as anyone in American cinema today, there is an autobiographical progression in the filmmaker’s concerns, from romance (Walking and Talking) to family (Lovely & Amazing) to success (Friends with Money) to mortality (Please Give). I don’t bother asking what her next movie is. I know that she won’t answer or that it’s better for her, if not this story, that she doesn’t, or that, if she does, the answer is likely to be irrelevant. As with most writers such details ultimately are beyond too much calculation; you start out telling the story, and if the story means anything, finally it tells you. Holofcener is at a point where the long view pre-sents itself regardless of whether she’s inclined to take it. Autobiography bears witness; the traveler thinks the journey is about her, then realizes it’s about where she’s traveled and those with whom she’s traveled. “Now I see the issues in all my movies mixed up in each other, though it’s not like I’ve solved any of my problems or answered any of my questions. For instance, I didn’t realize I was repeating the theme of helping those who don’t need help—in Lovely & Amazing with Emily Mortimer rescuing dogs that aren’t lost, in Please Give with Catherine trying to give food to someone who’s not homeless. I guess I shouldn’t point these things out, but it’s kind of interesting to me, my unconscious still trying to work out these things. Since it is autobiographical, I’m kind of scared to see what comes next. Arthritis? Gray hair? Empty-nest syndrome? How sexy and exciting. Jesus.” 

The most important scene in Please Give is one of the quietest. Bringing a special gift, Keener revisits the grieving son from earlier in the story, who was getting rid of a dead mother’s effects and trying to dispossess himself of tragedy. The encounter isn’t a fork in anyone’s road; it doesn’t change any of the things with which the characters wrestle. But with this scene the movie might as easily be titled Please Return—as in “to give back” as well as “to go back.” Of course, considering where Holofcener’s films began and where they are inevitably headed, soon they must reach a place from which there is no returning; but maybe that will make for the biggest laugh of all. As her star has said, if we’re going to get bad news, Nicole is the one to hear it from.                

Steve Erickson is the arts critic for Los Angeles magazine.

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