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Nicole Holofcener’s Deeply Human Comedies

By Ryan O’Toole

Photo: LA Times - Source

In her New Yorker profile, writer-director Nicole Holofcener shares a story about her cat named Peggy, with one leg that never quite hits the ground, always shooting off sideways. She said ““I found her a couple blocks from here, on the street. I didn’t steal the cat. But the cat was behind a fence. There were paper plates of old cat food all over the front yard, and she was covered in scabs. She was pretty vicious,” Holofcener said, jerking her hand away from Peggy’s head to avoid getting bitten. “And now she’s a little princess.”

Not only is this reminiscent of Emily Mortimer’s character in Lovely and Amazing (2001), always taking in stray dogs until one eventually attacks her, but this is the kind of presence that Holofcener is drawn to in all of her movies. She loves a project, characters who are prickly, deeply flawed, but still have a certain charm to them. She often pulls from her own life and her friends to craft her characters, giving them authenticity and a rough edge not found in many comedies.

Holofcener grew up in New York, surrounded by artists. She grew up with a painter-playwright father and set designer mother, who divorced when she was one. Her mother later married Charles Joffe, the talent manager of many stand-up comedians, including Woody Allen. When Allen moved on to making movies, Joffe and his family moved with him. “I was on a lot of the sets,” says Holofcener, “an extra in Take the Money and Run and Sleeper, too.”

But Holofcener wasn’t immediately sold on the magic of movies. When she left to study at university, she initially wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a fine artist. She quickly found out she wasn’t any good at it and took a few elective film courses, falling in love with indie movies like Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise, full of the realistic dialogue and everyday stories that would populate her movies to come. She started to study to become a director, making a few short films in her time at NYU that she now looks back in embarrassment. “It was one of the worst experiences of my life,” she said. “I used to wish I’d get hit by a car, because I was in so far over my head. I’d be crossing the street, thinking, ‘Come on, hit me!’” Even her stepfather said that she should maybe consider a new line of work.

Nicole Holofcener on the set of Walking and Talking (1996)

Photo: New York Magazine - Source

But Holofcener kept working at it, continuing to write and direct short films and eventually, in her mid-thirties, made her first feature film, Walking and Talking, about the relationship between two friends as one of them is getting married. Holofcener started to write the screenplay not long after her long-time friend Madeleine Moskowitz had become engaged to a writer. “They were two creatures from very disparate backgrounds finding each other,” Holofcener said. “There was something very beautiful and poetic about it. But as her best friend, watching it was just . . . disgusting.” And this is where Holofcener finds her best work, family, friendship, and the intricacies of relationships. She has such a sharp perception that keys her into the insecurities of her characters and the humor at their core.

This would be something that Holofcener would bring to all of her movies, the neuroses and insecurities of her characters: Brenda Blethyn’s mother concerned with her weight in Lovely and Amazing, Frances McDormand’s inability to wash her own hair because it will “just get dirty anyway” in Friends with Money, or Julia-Louis Dreyfus’s nagging nitpicky criticism’s over her newfound relationship in Enough Said. These are real people dealing with real, everyday things, showing a vulnerability and self-doubt that rarely makes its way on to the screen. Holofcener is an expert at writing dialogue to capture these emotions and getting movie stars to act them out without the kind of vanity that could lead to these movies being shallow or surface level. She is also mining her characters for emotional weight and making some of the best human stories ever crafted.

Catherine Keener and Nicole Holofcener on the set of Please Give (2010)

Photo: Wall Street Journal - Source

Holofcener’s long time collaboration with Catherine Keener rivals the very best duos like Scorsese and De Niro or Spielberg and Hanks, which rarely happens with women. In a Variety interview, Holofcener joked that this is because “there are only six of us out there. The world is sexist and racist.” with Keener explaining that “I think you would have to make your own movies to do that. You would have to be an auteur to that. I think because of Nicole, because of her unique position, I think that’s probably why. I don’t know another one like her. Not to say, everybody is alike. Nicole is so unto herself.” This speaks to a larger issue of women rarely getting the chance to be auteur directors and have the careers of men, but Nicole Holofcener and Catherine Keener have managed to carve out their own section of the industry.

Keener has appeared in most of the films Holofcener has directed, from Walking and Talking all the way up until Enough Said. Keener usually plays a stand in for Holofcener, with the two of them having an almost telepathic connection. Holfcener has said that she writes specifically for Keener, that she would “picture how she’d say something. I think she’s absolutely inspired me and is a part of the process for me. She always has been” And Keener has always been so keyed into everything Holofcener writes for her, able to play the vulnerabilities, insecurities, and flaws of every character she’s been given. And it feels like a genuine friendship that could be found in one of Holofcener’s films.

Nicole Holofcener, James Gandolfini, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus on the set of Enough Said

Photo: LA Times - Source

One of Nicole Holfcener’s greatest skills is encapsulating modern dialogue. She is an artist so clearly of her time and place, capturing real conversations often among women of a certain class. This made her extremely suited to handle certain episodes of Sex and the City, Gilmore Girls, and even the Eagleton episodes of Parks and Recreation, but it also allowed her to craft some of the most authentic comedies of her era, perhaps culminating in her masterpiece, Enough Said. A lot of similarities can be found in other great directors’ work, similarly capturing flawed, prickly people, such as Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid or Albert Brooks’s Modern Romance, or even her New York independent contemporaries like Noah Baumbach.

But Holofcener hasn’t quite been able to find the explosive success as Baumbach did with The Squid and the Whale or Marriage Story. Even after her critically acclaimed Enough Said, Holofcener has slowed down her work, directing one other movie, The Land of Steady Habits — her least celebrated film to date. But mostly, Holofcener has veered away from directing movies, directing the pilot of Kathryn Hahn’s Mrs. Fletcher and writing well-received scripts for other directors. She was nominated for an Oscar and won the WGA for her screenplay for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, an excellent script that feels at home in Holofcener’s catalogue, and most recently, collaborating with Ben Affleck and Matt Damon to write Marguerite's section in The Last Duel. The script has seen a lot of critical praise already, with a lot of critics citing Marguerite’s perspective to be a strong point, with multigenerational women talking about very timely issues. There is a lot of Holofcener in Jodie Comer’s Marguerite, and Holofcener could very well be on her way to her second Oscar nomination.

Nicole Holofcener is a one-of-a-kind talent, an undersung artist in her field, and someone who I can’t wait to see what she does next.


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