"I’m sitting between the two most different women imaginable here at Temple Emmanuel in Beverly Hills: a matronly lumpish type who is well past her 50s, unmade up with short, graying hair and long triangular earrings — her only testament, of sorts, to fashion; and on the other side of me, a plasticized lady of the same indeterminate age, wearing a black leather miniskirt and crocodile skin yellow boots and an expression on her face — if one can call the pearly botoxed look an expression — of disbelief and shock.
We three strangers are sitting in the way back of the temple, in that second room they open up only for special occasions like the High Holidays or this Writer’s Block event featuring Maureen Dowd, who is being interviewed tonight by Aaron Sorkin, “West Wing” creator and more relevantly, for this evening, Dowd’s ex-boyfriend.
Thousands have turned out on this late November evening to hear the redheaded New York Times columnist talk about her new book, “Are Men Necessary?: When Sexes Collide” (Putnam), which had been recently excerpted in The New York Times Magazine.
About three-quarters of the people in the audience are women — for the most part, women in their late 30s and older; in other words, not the generation of women Dowd is writing about in this book when she says they are turning back the clock on feminism, reverting to traditional gender roles, rejecting all that the women generations before them — probably like the women in this audience — had fought for.
It’s an odd setting for this type of discussion: Hanging over the stage are the two tablets of Moses bearing the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. My eyes rest on Lo Tin’af — Thou Shalt Not Covet (thy neighbor’s wife) — as Dowd and Sorkin, flanked by the Israeli and American flags, talk about matters far from holy.
Well, talk is an exaggeration. Spar is more like it. Sorkin, an expert TV writer (“he’s the guy who put the president we wish we had in the White House,” as he was introduced) is self-admittedly no expert interviewer. But still, he cannot get Dowd to straightforwardly answer many questions about her book. Actually, he can hardly get a word in edgewise.
In person, Dowd is like her columns: a coy, witty one-liner queen.
“That’s why I wrote this book,” she explains. “Because when you cover the White House, you never get to write about sex.”
She says how Bush Sr. didn’t know what a bikini wax was and our current president didn’t realize “Sex and the City” was a TV show. But beyond these witticisms, it’s hard to get at the depth of what Dowd is trying to say.
Each time Sorkin tries to ask her a question — Does she think men aren’t necessary? Is feminism really over? — she, Jewishly, answers a question with a question, and interrupts with a question of her own. Why is Sorkin one of the only men in Hollywood who can write a strong woman character (like C.J. Cregg on “The West Wing”), Dowd wants to know. Why are there never any compelling roles for women on the screen, she asks. Compelling questions, for sure, but not ones we’ve come for tonight. Nor is Sorkin getting what he wants, as he tries to turn the interview back on the subject herself. Yes, we’re in Hollywood — OK, Beverly Hills — but just for once could we not discuss the industry? Can we discuss Karl Rove and Presidents Bush and the topic at hand, “Are Men Necessary?” and its subtext, “Is Feminism Over?”
But Dowd practically won’t let that happen.
Which leads me to question her original theory, that men don’t like smart women, that men only want to marry their secretaries and assistants, that men want to go back to the 1950s. Maybe men don’t like women like her. Women who interrupt. Women who talk over them. Women who have to prove how smart they are in the most succinct way possible. Women who make mean and snarky comments — women who are more than challenging: These are women who need to win. Always.
That’s why the woman next to me — the plastic surgery one, the one who probably looks less like a feminist than the plastic surgeon who recreated her, is shaking her head in frustration. Her manicured nails are tapping her folded arms, a defensive posture as she nods her head, tsk tsk tsk. We don’t speak but we catch eyes, and then I turn to my right and see the short-haired woman with the same expression on her face: We are all united in our antipathy, three women of different generations, economic backgrounds and certainly fashion sense. We thought we’d be united here tonight in a rallying call to revive feminism, to get back in touch with our values, to take back the night, to be empowered, but instead it’s just another celebrity event, interesting but insubstantial, a possible role model — oh how we wish Dowd could be who we hoped her to be — fallen from on high.
Sure, at the end of the Q & A — where many Qs are asked and not many As are given — there will be a line snaking out the door of the temple to sign books and get a smile from the famous columnist. Sure, many women on their way out are glad they got to eavesdrop on such a private public conversation. But right now, in the middle of the event, the three of us are all crossing our arms, tapping various parts of our bodies. That is, until Ms. Beverly Hills stands up, pulls down her leather skirt and excuses herself past us. She’s leaving in the middle, and barely glances at the stage — Dowd, Sorkin, Ten Commandments and all — on her way out."
From the Los Angeles Times:
“The way you look is a factor in everything that people write about you,” Sorkin persisted. “It is, Maureen. You are the only female columnist at the New York Times. You are the only female columnist of note in the entire country, and I think that people expect you to look different and I’m just wondering if you want to talk about that?
“No,” clipped a sweetly smiling Dowd to the thunderous applause.
Next, Sorkin tried out an old joke. “You are the most respected, revered columnist in the country and you have a Pulitizer Prize and you dated me for a while. What was that like?”
"I asked you in the green room not to mention that," replied Dowd, smiling through gritted teeth. "It was fantastic, of course."
She praised Sorkin’s strong, well-written female characters on “West Wing” before asking, "Why, when women are running four of the six major studios, is Hollywood is still making moves portraying women as maids, shopgirls, hookers, ghosts and geishas?"
“Don’t encourage her,” Sorkin warned the wildly applauding audience, before patiently explaining, “Hollywood is about what is successful. The films that appeal to most women are films like 'Bridget Jones’ Diary.' Women like seeing films about how hard it is to get a date, then eating ice cream after a bad date and ultimately having a good date. It’s women who make these films successful.”
Sorkin admitted he often thought of Dowd while writing witty banter for actresses. And he did tell a funny, if slightly embarrassing, shoe fetish tale about Dowd, whom he met during the first season of "The West Wing" when he was shooting scenes in Washington, D.C.
“I wrote an off-screen character who was a powerful, highly feared female columnist for the New York Times. One of the White House staffers had inadvertently made a joke about her shoes and was afraid that the administration was going to suffer if he didn’t apologize.”
To thank Dowd for being “a good sport” about the thinly veiled reference, Sorkin sent her a slew of expensive shoes from Barneys the day the show aired.
“She liked them a lot,” recalled Sorkin. “But she told me that because she sometimes covers Hollywood in her column, to accept the gift was unethical. But she didn’t give back the shoes. What she has done, and this was five or six years ago, is, every once in a while, she will just give me cash. Forty, sixty, one hundred dollars … It’s not clear to me how giving me cash makes the ethical picture less murky, but it was terribly important to Maureen that this be done right and this is her version. She just gives me cash.”
“It’s gonna take me to the year 2030 to pay off those shoes,” confessed Dowd, still smiling, albeit not quite as sweetly.
From the L.A. Daily News:
"You dated me for a while!" a fawning Aaron Sorkin said to Maureen Dowd during a chat about her new book at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills on Monday night. "What was that like?"
The writer/producer kept it up close and personal with the New York Times columnist and author of "Are Men Necessary?" During a $20-a-head evening hosted by the Writers Bloc, Sorkin didn't bother to contest the book's controversial title and premise.
"I'm not going to even attempt to make the case that men are necessary," said Sorkin, calling Dowd "one of the most respected and revered columnists in the country." Then he made another personal admission.
"When I write dialogue for a woman, I often think about you," he said, adding that Dowd's beauty "inspires jealousy in other women."
Despite the maudlin "compliments," Dowd had time to take potshots at Hollywood, Saudi Arabia, chromosomes, parenting, child-rearing, politics and the status of the sexual revolution.
"Remarkably, many women today want to be sex objects again," Dowd proclaimed. "When Gloria Steinem said 'all women are bunnies,' that was supposed to be a call to arms, not a recommendation."
And what perplexes her about Hollywood?
"I'm curious about why, when women are running four of the six major studios, Hollywood is still making movies with heroines who are shop girls, hookers and geishas," Dowd said.
Do men have anything to fear from a book that claims many males are afraid to date smart women?
"It's playful - and intended to cause men and women to talk to each other about how they collide and cuddle in work, at play, in movies and in politics," Dowd said. "And it's practical. Take it to a restaurant, and I guarantee someone will come up to you and start a conversation about it."
Unless it's Aaron Sorkin.
Calendar Live has a report on the discussion between Aaron Sorkin and Maureen Dowd:
"Move over, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn! Make room for that ultra-modern snap-and-wise-cracking couple, Aaron Sorkin and Maureen Dowd.
Emmy-winning "West Wing" creator Sorkin seemed strangely determined to answer the question/title of Dowd's new book, "Are Men Necessary?" with his stammering, fawning cross-examination of the ravishing redhead at her only L.A. book signing for the Writers Bloc, held Monday at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills.
Sorkin, who started off by apologizing, "I'm not a professional interviewer, but I have to think that my being able to question you in a synagogue full of people is a little nightmare for you," initially seemed focused on Dowd's beauty. He repeatedly asked her to address the fact that people talk more about her looks than William Safire's, to the point that he made Dowd blush and ask him to stop because "You're embarrassing me."
Dowd did try to take control, talking about what Shakespeare could have done with Vice President Dick Cheney; the time she was almost jailed in Saudi Arabia for wearing a somewhat sheer burka; the growing popularity of Barbie, breast implants, Botox and Playboy bunnies, while making intriguing, insightful remarks on the decline of feminine consciousness — from women fighting for equal rights in the '60s to girls trying to find their "inner slut" today.
But why, she wanted to know, "when women are running four of the six major studios, is Hollywood still making movies portraying women as maids, shop girls, hookers, ghosts and geishas?"
"Don't encourage her," Sorkin warned the wildly applauding audience before patiently explaining, "Hollywood is about what is successful.
"The films that appeal to most women are films like 'Bridget Jones' Diary.'
"Women like seeing films about how hard it is to get a date, then eating ice cream after a bad date and ultimately having a good date. It's women who make these films successful.""
The same article also had a mention of Emily Procter, aka Ainsley Hayes who " was admiring the red carpet-worthy gowns at the Escada Spring 2006 fashion show fundraiser she hosted for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital last week......When not admiring the designs, Procter talked about her new film, "Big Momma's House 2," opening Jan. 27. Seems the spunky blond had to do a buncha time sittin' around the set with her in-full-out-drag costar Martin Lawrence, who disguises himself as Big Momma again to go undercover in a murder investigation.
"Some days Martin and I would be sitting there together for hours, and I just felt so comfortable with him that I'd talk to him about everything, just like we were really good girlfriends.
"Finally, one day he just looked at me and said, 'Emily, you do realize that I'm not a woman.'
"I said, 'Of course, I do, Martin. But, well, you just look so pretty.' "
From a press release of Writer's Bloc Presents:
"Maureen Dowd's new book, "Are Men Necessary?" will appeal to all who love her column in the New York Times. In her new book, Dowd blends sex with politics, and covers gender issues in the way only she can — without any reservations whatsoever. Aaron Sorkin, creator of "The West Wing," will talk to her about sex, politics and whatever else they come up with."