Wretched Excess

Kurt Andersen and Nora Ephron

Wretched Excess

Kurt Andersen and Nora Ephron

Wretched Excess
An email conversation about the news of the day.
Sept. 13 1999 4:46 PM

Kurt Andersen and Nora Ephron

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Guess what! Light Years is the one I meant.

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Here's what I wonder about the Peter Unger thing (you do mean Peter Unger, don't you?): Is it true? I mean, is it true that if I buy a blouse I'm not saving a child? Isn't it possible that if we all stop buying things all sorts of people who currently aren't starving to death will suddenly be out of work and will soon be starving to death? Just asking. It's questions like that that help me deal with the guilt.

The Tierney piece this morning was a disappointment to me, because although I can never read enough about the Duff-Perelman divorce, I didn't find Peter Unger particularly interesting on the subject. It's a fascinating case, though: She's Undine Spragg all over again, a true Wharton creation. I've been fascinated by her for years--when she was married to Mike Medavoy, in Hollywood, she suffered greatly and neurasthenically, having to make do on his pathetic $2 million a year salary; no welfare mother had as hard a time, I can assure you. They built a grand house with a budget that mushroomed beyond their means, and when it was finally finished, alas, there was no money to furnish it. The stress from it all caused her to contract Epstein-Barr, a disease I had believed in up until that point. This experience--life in a furnitureless home, which reminds me somehow of the famous Julie Christie-alone-on-the-balcony scene in Darling--explains, to me at least, why Duff is asking for so much money to decorate the apartment she wants Perelman to buy her--although I was interested to read an interview in the New York Post with several decorators who said her budget was, if anything, low.

Anyway, I don't think there's the remotest chance that liberalism, the liberalism I grew up with, welfare-state stuff, etc., is on the verge of a comeback, and there's even less chance that anyone will stop spending money in the flamboyant and careless manner that's become commonplace. One of the things that has always fascinated me is the example of Saul and Gayfryd Steinberg, who spent their money so extravagantly and publicly in New York in the '80s and were practically stoned for it. They'd broken a kind of tacit agreement about behavior among rich people, the people who would never drive anything but a station wagon, and they had to be made to pay. Now, of course, everyone breaks the agreement--not just in Hollywood, but even in Seattle, viz. Bill Gates. When someone like Pat Duff comes along, she provides everyone with a fabulous excuse to feel morally superior. And everyone is right to feel that way, because her arguments are genuinely disgusting, but it's all part of an era of wretched excess that we're all part of and that I can't imagine is going to come to an end any time soon.

Your question about screenwriters reminds me of the first or second time I did a screenplay for a studio, and had to sign the thing they send you called a Certificate of Authorship. I took it to the bank to have it notarized and gaily signed it. The notary at the bank looked at it. Did you read this? he said. Not really, I said. This says, he said, that the studio is the author of your script. I was astonished. In any case, these days, if you write an original screenplay for a studio and they don't make a movie from it, you get it back free after (I think) five years. The Writers Guild won that one about 10 years ago. But, of course, you don't get it back if it was someone else's idea or if they've kept it active by ploughing more money into it, etc.

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Tomorrow can we talk about Hillary?

Kurt Andersen was architecture critic for Time, co-founder of Spy, and editor of New York magazine. He now writes for The New Yorker, and his best-selling first novel, Turn of the Century, was published in May (click here to buy it). Nora Ephron is a screenwriter and director. Her films include Sleepless in Seattle, Michael and, most recently, You’ve Got Mail.